If we are reading a novel for pleasure, we want the plot to unfold, and we very much resent having the surprise undone by being told in advance what is going to happen. But when teaching complex works of literature, we must use spoilers. We must give the game away right from the start.
Knowledge of a Shakespeare play, like any other knowledge, must build on the foundations of what was previously learned. If we jump in and start reading through the play, our pupils will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Unless one has a good idea what one is reading about beforehand, one will struggle to make sense of what one is reading. This problem is particularly acute with Shakespeare, where there are so many other challenges in terms of language, densely packed imagery and allusion.
Therefore, it is essential to begin with an overview. Before studying a play in depth, I require pupils to memorise a summary of the main events. This provides the framework, the map, so pupils do not become lost and unable to make sense of their surroundings. Having memorised this overview, we can repeatedly return to it. I can pause when dealing with an important passage in the play, and draw pupils’ attention to where we are.
For example, if we are looking in detail at the scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, I can say to the class, “We’re in Act Three. What are the main events?” At this point, I will fire questions at pupils, ‘cold calling’ them to give them the opportunity to recall and retain this key information. We’ll go through the murder of Banquo, the ghost at the banquet, and the news that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England. Then I’ll ask what these events have in common – and we’ll remind ourselves that at this middle point in the play, Macbeth is consolidating power, but also that his downfall is beginning, and will continue through Acts Four and Five. Then we can return to the banquet scene with a fresh sense of its significance as a key moment in which Macbeth begins to lose the support of the Scottish nobility, who will desert him in ever greater numbers as the play moves towards its tragic conclusion.
All this discussion depends upon beginning with an overview. It depends upon frontloading explicit knowledge of key facts, before going into detail, and requiring the memorising of those facts to the point of fluency.
With this map in hand, pupils can begin to explore the complex territory of a play by Shakespeare. Without it, they are liable to get lost in the undergrowth very quickly.