Thoughts about moral teaching for adolescents through Shakespeare's tragedies

By Phyllis Wallbank

It is so important to give adolescents a chance to sublimate their turbulent emotions and strong feelings through singing, music, painting, drama and literature. As they are very interested in relationships and also in discussions of morality, through Shakespeare's tragedies we are able to show how a defect or sin, in an otherwise noble character, can cause the downfall of the people closest in relationship to himself, as well as himself.

Following this they are interested in the present day and the law where this applies. For instance, if we are with someone who commits a crime, we are liable. There was the terrible case of the last capital punishment in this country, where a young man who did not have a gun or fire a shot at the police was hung, whereas the one who fired was too young and escaped the hanging.

I got to know and love the Shakespeare tragedies through Mortimer Standing, the biographer of Maria Montessori. Ted used to stay with us for long periods at a time . He was like one of those Victorian writers who, because of not having money, would go from friend to friend who loved having him. In this way he didn't have to keep up a home. He loved coming to us and we loved having him and he used to quote Shakespeare to my daughter Judith, who was very young at the time. He would tell her the story of The Tempest and pause from time to time and quote. She was fascinated by Caliban! He had a wonderful knowledge of Shakespeare though he had read science for his degree . It was he who really interested me in the tragedies.

Reflecting on adolescents and teaching them, I realised how much these plays had to offer at this time of their lives - especially the tragedies.

In 'Wisdom and Destiny', Maeterlink says that you cannot have a tragedy in drama built around a truly wise or good man. This is because if such a person appeared in the midst of a tragedy, the tragic would vanish with his approach, just as the dark shadows disappear with the rising sun. This is true: wherever there is true goodness and love, it shines out.

Teachers are sometimes perplexed at how to get across to the later adolescent the truth of the moral teaching given in the earlier years. This is the age that so often turns away from parental advice. Drama is a way that reaches this age group.

If one says that Shakespeare has a great deal to offer, there is sometimes a groan! This is because Shakespeare was often spoilt for the last generation by giving the plays for children to read and study whereas of course they are meant to be seen and enjoyed; then, if it is required that they should have deeper study, the pleasure is already there. We should go back to this. Now that there are videos and films, these plays can be enjoyed in the more intimate way of the Elizabethan theatre. In our large, unsuitable theatres the aside remark so often has to be declaimed in a loud voice!

Adolescents love dramatic cracks of doom and there are enough in the tragedies for even our TV drenched adolescent generation! However, these cracks of doom and gloom are described with enchanting wizardry and consummate language,

So why am I advocating something written so far distant from our current generation? It is because the plays of Shakespeare, if seen for pure enjoyment, have a great deal to say. Never spoil it by saying that they are going to have to write about it afterwards, but just let them go deep into the emotions without thinking of the make up of the language. The plays have so much to say and then the reflective power will come over the next days and weeks with what Lonergan calls 'the expanding consciousness.'

Shakespeare's central interest in each case is to show how a defect or sin, in an otherwise noble character, if given into by the character, can cause not only his own downfall but also the downfall of those closest to him. Aldous Huxley in 'Tragedy and the Whole Truth' says that divine tragedy 'refines and corrects and gives a style to our emotional life, and does so quickly with power'. Here then is the opportunity to show how a weakness, left unchecked, has the power to absolutely corrode, even if the person has great power, position and wealth.

In each of these tragedies we see the hero's downfall through his weakness of attitude and the consequent vice, just as in modern times we often see this in our politicians.

In 'Macbeth' we see his overpowering ambition: 'Vaulting ambition that overleaps itself and falls on the other side.'

The fault in 'Othello' upon which lago works with such devastating effect is the fault of the passion of jealousy.

In 'King Lear' it is his temper which he fails to govern, even though he is a magnificent and very noble king. In 'Hamlet' it is weakness of will which allows this very noble character to founder in indecision, thinking too precisely over the event:

'A thought which quartered hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward'.

Hamlet knew of this weakness and says:

'In me lies no greatness Save one far off touch of greatness in knowing that I am not great'.

We can see in all these plays a great moral lesson so dramatically portrayed and the very evil results that occur when people depart from the moral code. This moral code we see is necessary for the well being of the world. The plays show that the results of wrong doing are not confined to the wrong doers themselves, but have far reaching effects. In each case we see how others around them are dragged down with the wrong-doer and the resulting catastrophe.

So, show adolescents the great tragedies of Shakespeare on film or on video or in a small intimate theatre and let them see and enjoy them as the ordinary man in the street in Shakespeare's time. We may want to say as a preface that here is a play that will show how the well-being of the world requires an individual to beware of any habitual weakness, even if it may not seem too bad! Then leave them to get emotionally immersed and enjoy the play.

I think that Shakespeare's plays must have been written for this age group ,when everything has to be larger than life. 'King Lear', in the last five minutes, has Cordelia hung, Goneril poisoned, Regan commits suicide, Edmund is slain, Kent is dying, and the mad king totters to the verge of death! Yet they know that all this happens as a result of the main characters and is the inescapable result. So get the videos or the films and let them enjoy the emotions engendered. Prospero says of play writing in Shakespeare's last play:

' Whose end both at first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature'.

Shakespeare had an adolescent daughter, Susanah, who died....