One advantage of teaching in pairs—and of being paired with the program founder—is that I got to go into the maximum-security unit of the Travis County Correctional Complex confident that my students wanted to be there, that they were ready to learn, and that we had a plan. Still, there was some anxiety. Would Macbeth feel at all relevant to them? Would it feel too relevant to a student? Would they be able to penetrate Shakespeare’s language?
Fortunately, I learned, the text teaches itself. Kaitlin Shirley provided the structure for the class, I gave a bit of background on Shakespeare and close reading, and with that the students were off. Kaitlin led a primer on just a sentence or two of Donne’s “No man is an island,” and we followed up with just three lines from Macbeth—“Doubtful it stood / As two spent swimmers that do cling together / And choke their art.” The students pressed on every single image, every single word even, articulating all the complexity of their strained but ever-present connections to the rest of the world as well as the visceral evocation of the “two spent swimmers […] chok[ing] their art.”
A week later, and even as the students were clear that Shakespeare’s language was hard, it was clearly resonating. One student read aloud Lady Macbeth’s “Unsex me now” monologue and got appreciative gasps and sighs from around the class, punctuated with another student offering perhaps the best three-word summary of the speech possible: “That was raw.” We’re learning together, but we’re never short on things to discuss.