This week, the seniors and I have been working on the difference between a poem’s speaker and author. The following sequence of ideas arose this morning, while my wife and I drank coffee and talked on the deck, and while the sunlight touched the tops of our neighbor’s seventy-foot pine trees.
We saw his pine trees, as well as what used to be an equally tall oak, until a July storm dropped its top half. During this morning’s coffee talk, I recalled that our neighbor, let’s call him Paul Bunyan, finally began cutting the fallen limbs with his chain saw last night. Mention of the chain saw reminded me of Frost’s poem, “Out, Out,” which the seniors had recently read. In fact, some seniors may be using that poem for their first essay about tone; I hope I steal none of their thunder with this post. (Ssshh, don’t tell any of them about this post, yet.)
Naturally, at least for us two career literature teachers, Shakespeare entered the conversation–in the form of Macbeth, whose speech after Lady Macbeth’s death includes the phrase “Out, out, [brief candle].” When I repeated Frost’s title, my wife gave Macbeth’s next thought, “Life’s but a walking shadow” (5.5.23). At this point, my mind returned to this week’s work with seniors; I often find my mind going there.
Here, I thought, is a fine example of the energy created by the difference between speaker and author. My first thought on remembering Macbeth’s speech was that I disagree with his final claim that life is a “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”–especially as I sat with my wife during this morning’s sunrise. Then I realized, perhaps in a freshly rich way, that so does Shakespeare. If he agrees with Macbeth, why bother writing all of these plays? At this point in the Scottish play, Macbeth has reached the very bottom of his despair and hopelessness. Ever since he has told himself that he is in bloody murders too steeped to turn back, he has been pursuing an untenable human course. He has separated himself from his most worthy being, as well as from other people. His moral coherence, his ethical integrity has been dissolving, unlike the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, which she cannot remove with her bootless cry, “Out, out, damned spot.”
Shakespeare, the author of Macbeth’s final desperate words, does see human life as signifying something, even while imagining a character who does not. In fact, through his art, the author tries to lead us away from such despair by enacting the journey that led to it. He wants to bring the lesson alive on stage.
And here, at this junction of speaker and author, I am reminded of a critical thinking skill that appeared on my recent blog post’s list of such skills. In this case, I am thinking of “shape meaningful schema.” Students who understand the play’s plot, Macbeth’s decline and the speech’s words are ready to combine these understandings with the author/speaker distinction, in order to shape in their minds a pattern that makes sense, that means something, that signifies something. With all due respect to Mr. Macbeth, I will keep making meaning–even out of his story. I will keep helping students do the same.