So much about the nature of education has changed in the last generation. Technology is more prevalent than ever. The focus on STEM has reoriented our approach to knowledge. Even elementary school math is different.
Still, the presence of William Shakespeare on the curricula of high school English classes remains constant.
Most Americans have a passing familiarity with the Bard. For many years in Alabama it was Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream in eleventh. Hamlet was reserved for senior year, which was appropriate enough for kids moving into young adulthood.
It was said by teachers at the time, but perhaps Shakepeare’s greatest legacy is the wisdom embedded in his work.
Like a lot of things that are told to teenagers, this sailed right past most students, present company included. It has only been the slow approach of adulthood that has revealed Shakespeare’s wisdom in a new light.
When reading through Macbeth, you find that Shakespeare had a lot to say about not only personal ambition and the lust for power, but also about the nature of leadership itself. He explores the qualities of a good leader and, in anticipation of modern democratic politics, the virtues the governed should seek in leaders and which vices which should be rejected.
The plot of Macbeth is well known.
Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman who is the center of a prophecy delivered by three witches. Telling him that he will one day be king, Macbeth and his wife successfully conspire to kill the king. Once Macbeth is crowned king, Scotland is engulfed in turmoil. Meanwhile, Malcolm, the king’s son and rightful heir to the throne has fled to England, hoping to bring a force to liberate Scotland from Macbeth. While there, he is confronted by MacDuff who tries to convince Malcom to claim the throne for himself.
The exchange between Malcolm and Macduff is jarring in its relevance to the current state of America’s political system.
Malcolm correctly senses that Macduff is desperate to remove Macbeth from the throne. Knowing that Macduff’s desperation makes him prone to abandoning his reason, Malcolm tests him. Malcolm describes himself as one with too many vices to be king; he is prideful, arrogant, greedy, and lustful. Macduff is not exactly cheered by this news, but he initially makes his peace with it. Malcolm ups the ante when he suggests that Macduff does not understand the depth of his depravity. Broken by this news, Macduff cries in despair, “O Scotland! Scotland!”
Malcolm then reveals his act; he tested Macduff to ensure that he would not replace one tyrant with another. Malcolm and Macduff then join forces with the English army to rid Scotland of Macbeth’s tyranny.
In this critical scene, Shakespeare gives his audience a lesson in citizenship.
Though Macbeth at first appears as a triumphant war hero, Shakespeare does not obfuscate his turn to evil. His reign as king is clearly one of terror and oppression. Macduff, Malcolm, and any other concerned Scottish nobleman would be well justified in repaying evil with evil, yet Shakespeare does not allow this.
The lesson for citizens in a modern democracy is that wicked leadership, either real or perceived, should not be fought with equal malice. Bias and dishonesty should not be met with bias and dishonesty of one’s own.
The political success of one party’s womanizer should not inspire the opposition to find a philanderer of its own.
Shakespeare is a timeless voice because he understood human nature so well.
While he lived in a time of monarchs and palace intrigue, his world was not so different from our own. He could not offer these words as a warning to voters, but he could offer them to military leaders, palace officials and counselors, even to the Queen herself.
The lesson from Macbeth is clear: internal tyranny should never be met with tyranny, but it should be bravely fought with virtue.
Therein lies the lesson for the present day.
No matter how egregious the political opposition may be, sacrificing virtue in order to gain power is a losing proposition.
It is very tempting to say anything and push any button in order to “own the libs” or irritate conservatives; but no good is advanced, least of all the good of the United States, when citizens succumb to vice for the sake of advancing a political cause. The prosperity of one group of ill-suited, unvirtuous leaders should never be seen as a license for citizens to pursue their own scoundrels in order to advance even the most noble policy agenda.
Shakespeare’s voice still resonates because he captured so well the depth of human emotion that drives men and women both to marry and to murder.
It should not be missed that in one of his greatest works Shakespeare offers a profound meditation on the nature of leadership in order that the audience both in his own day and five centuries later might be governed by wise and virtuous rulers, and that their passions and fervor should be guided not by heightened emotions but by reason and virtue.
Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and instructor in the core texts program at Samford University, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.