I recently stumbled upon backlog of YA book reviews and accompanying teaching ideas that I compiled for a Young Adult Fiction class.  I’ll occasionally include some of them on this blog to spice things up.  Feel free to steal/alter/transmogrify any of my teaching ideas.  First Up–Lady Macbeth‘s Daughter.

Review

Lady Macbeth’s Daughter is an example of how the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain of learning—synthesis—is best applied to the understanding and creation of literature. In the book, Lisa Klein imagines a vivid back-story to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. She both allows the reader insight into the motivations and interior psychological processes of the characters, and creatively weaves new characters into the framework of Shakespeare’s play. By doing so, she deepens our understanding of the play, explores the richness of its characters, and creates a fantastic work of fiction all her own. As a former professor of English, I imagine Klein grew tired of simply analyzing works of literature through a critical lens, and wanted to engage them in a more authentic way. This is a terrific book for high school students to read because it offers a pristine example of how engagement with a text does not have to stop at an explicatory essay, but can extend to inspiring unique creative works.

Having read many Shakespeare plays—including Macbeth—I can appreciate Klein’s mining the characters’ motivations. Often, Shakespeare writes incredibly three dimensional characters that are nonetheless enigmatic. They speak and act from well defined emotional stances, but we are left to suppose what has led them to their particular words or actions. Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters, and while we know she is cruel and essentially the architect of much of the mayhem in the play, we are not completely aware of the circumstances that led her to be so power hungry. Klein, by presenting Grelach as a primarily sympathetic character who has been unwillingly married off twice, forced to give up her only daughter, has miscarried three times, and is ridiculed for her bareness, allows us to reclaim Lady Macbeth. She is no longer simply power hungry and crazed with ambition. Rather, she is the product of grief, fatigue, and incessant patriarchal pressure.

I really enjoyed Klein’s description of landscape in the book. By combining elements of mythology and history, she paints the landscape of Scotland a murky, magical, wet gray. Her imagery often reminded me of Tolkien’s, especially when Albia encounters the boar on the mountain top, and in her description of Geillis and Helwain’s roundhouse in Wychelm Wood. The perpetual winter brought on by Macbeth’s ascendance to the throne was reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Additionally, the fledgling romance between Albia and Fleance, counterpoised by Albia’s nostalgia for her companionship with Colum, reminded me of Katniss’ conflicting emotions in The Hunger Games.

Although I was hoping for more of a happily ever after ending than I got (it is Macbeth, after all), I was pleased with way the book concluded. Albia did not agree to marry Fleance immediately and thereby become debased as a trophy or political bartering chip. Though we are left wondering whether Grelach and Albia will be truly reconciled, they have taken the necessary first step. This potential for forgiveness and healing among women is contrasted sharply with the warring vengeful nature of men. This would be a good book to read shortly before or after Macbeth, and then introduce the critical perspective of feminism.

Teaching Ideas

  1. As I mentioned in my review, I feel as if this text is a perfect one to read concurrently, or shortly before/after reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It is also perfect to introduce the critical lens of feminism. As a means to broaden my students’ perspective regarding both the play and this text, I would briefly introduce the feminist critical lens with a reading from A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. After this, I would have my class read an article from the feminist perspective dealing with Macbeth. The article, called “Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England,” deals with the historical situation of women and the pressure put upon them to produce male heirs for their husbands in early England.
  2. As I mentioned in my review, I feel as though Lisa Klein has done an incredible job of imaginatively playing with and extending the text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This technique fits nicely into the educational approach of Writing to Learn, whereby the student analyzes a text by creating something new with the text’s component parts. As a means to emphasize this educational approach, and to stretch my students’ “analytical creativity,” I would have them participate in their own Writing to Learn activity. They could complete the assignment in one of two ways- they could either imagine themselves as the pen pal of a central character in the play or book and write that character a letter, or they could take up where the book left off and write an additional chapter describing the future of Albia and Grelach’s relationship and Scotland’s monarchy.
  3. Lady Macbeth’s Daughter, while a very accessible and readable text for adolescents, nevertheless includes much arcane and regionalized vocabulary. Words like sheiling, cairn, and wold are not commonly encountered in modern, American English. Additionally, it might be hard for students to understand exactly where the action takes places, as the book mentions several names of nations, regions, and cities whose geography is probably unfamiliar to many high school students. To aid my students’ understanding of these specifics, I would have them read excerpts from Magnus Magnusson’s book, Scotland: the Story of a Nation. I would then create a list of 25 to 30 difficult or unusual words presented in the book and assign one word to each student. The students would then be responsible for looking up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, writing one sentence using the word, and presenting their definitions and sentences to the rest of the class.
  4. As a means of extending my students’ knowledge of Scotland’s cultural heritage, I would offer them the option of writing a short, 3 to 4 page paper on Scottish history and culture as an end-of-unit project. In this paper, they would be required to compare and contrast modern American society with Scottish society during the events of the book. I would ask them to play close attention to government, family structure, the arts, and education in their papers. This paper, while primarily being an historical exploration, would also be an opinion piece, as I would require my students to choose which society they would most like to live in, and back up their choice with historical and modern evidence.
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