Macbeth at the Library of Congress

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

William Shakespeare wrote more than 400 years ago, and his plays sometimes depict times and places even further removed from us. Despite the time elapsed, those who read the plays with students know that many of the issues and themes still apply today, as they have in the intervening centuries. Enduring themes, characters, and images from Shakespeare’s writing have long been woven into the fabric of other media and popular culture. Examining relevant primary sources from the collections of the Library of Congress may strengthen student connections to a particular work.

One play popular in contemporary high school classrooms is Macbeth. Consider engaging students with this newspaper article detailing the historical background of the play. Give students this article for comparison. If time allows, ask them to investigate further the historical Macbeth versus Shakespeare’s version. Look for additional allusions to Macbeth and its characters in newspapers from Chronicling America.

Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once. Shakespeare, Macbeth 3-4. Enlist now, 1915

The news items offer a way to put the play into its historical context and explore the license taken by Shakespeare when creating a fictional Macbeth. Another way to engage students with primary sources related to the play is through primary source analysis of allusions to the play. Offer students this military recruiting poster. Select questions from the Teacher’s Guide for Analyzing Photographs and Prints to help students take a close look. Focus in particular on visual elements of the poster’s design such as color, font, and arrangement. Continue the conversation by asking students to examine the lines as they are used in the play.

Ask:

  • Looking only at the poster, what do you think is the intended meaning of the quotation?
  • Look at the quotation in context in Macbeth. In what ways does the poster agree or disagree with its original meaning in the play?
  • Why might the creators of the poster have chosen this particular quotation?
  • Considering the play’s major themes, explain why Macbeth is an interesting choice for a recruiting poster.

To continue a discussion of allusions to Macbeth, offer this political cartoon from 1850, related to the abolition movement in the United States. Select questions and follow up activities from the Teacher’s Guide for Analyzing Political Cartoons to focus students on the visual and textual elements of the cartoon.

The hurly-burly pot, 1850

Ask:

  • How does each allusion to Macbeth support the message of the cartoon?
  • Compare the text in the cartoon to the originals in the play. In what way do the differences reflect the message of the cartoon? Why might the creator have retained elements of the original?

How do you support study of Shakespeare’s work with primary sources?

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