I love Shakespeare’s stuff but I don’t think I qualify as a hardcore fan. For a start, I only know the plays and sonnets that I have had to study or teach – a total of 10 plays and a dozen poems. I have never picked up his complete works with the intention of reading for pleasure on a cold winter night and, while I have been known to watch a performance or movie, I have done so with slightly less frequency than … say … 10 pin bowling.
In fact, while I say I love Shakespeare, I am happy to commit sacrilege in the eyes of people who really do love The Bard. For example, some of you would know that a debate has existed for centuries as to whether William Shakespeare was, in reality, a fraudulent front man for someone else who wished to keep his identity anonymous. There are some people who have devoted their lives and staked their reputations to either proving or disproving this. In my opinion it is entirely possible and even probable Shakespeare wasn’t the man we think he was but I don’t really care because (and this is the thing),
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
So, in the interests of clarity allow me to elaborate a little more. I admire the works that we attribute to Shakespeare, and I absolutely love teaching it to my students. I’ve been an English teacher for 20 years now and, in all that time, teaching Shakespeare’s plays has been a joy that has never lost its appeal. If I do say so myself, its something that I have managed to work on and improve to a point where I am prepared to state publically this is my super hero power.
What’s more, I am prepared to share my secrets with each of you. Here then – in five acts – is the Sterlinghurley playbook for encouraging awareness, appreciation, and even a love of Shakespeare in a senior mixed ability classroom.
Act 1: Forward Defence
It is not unusual, on starting a Shakespeare unit, for there to be an opening lesson that attempts to put Shakespeare’s world and works into some sort of context. I’ve seen lots of study guides and teachers notes that do this and deliver interesting information on the Globe theatre and Elizabethan society and so on. All of this is genuinely very useful but I feel that, as an introduction, it is counter productive. For those in the class who are not enthralled by a discussion of men in tights and codpieces, speaking in iambic pentameter, there is a lot about an ‘Intro to Shakespeare’ that is dry and disengaging. I suspect such lessons, as good intentioned as they are, really just send a signal to many in the class that we are about to start something ‘boring’ so its best to hunker down and let the teacher make much ado about nothing for the next few weeks.
Therefore, in my first lesson of a Shakespeare unit I aim straight at the heart of the rogues in the room. Everyone opens their workbooks and takes down the following heading.
“Reasons why we hate Shakespeare”.
There are always some in the room who engage with this and point out that they don’t actually hate Shakespeare and this invariably leads to useful class discussion.
Generally, classes emerge on the other side of the 10-20 minute discussion admitting the following
1. ‘Hate’ may be too strong word for it but no one is actually looking forward to this unit.
2. The reason they aren’t looking forward to it is that they fail to see what all the fuss is with this Shakespeare guy.
3. They know that they are expected to recognise it as awesome but it is in a language they can’t understand and
4. It is old and irrelevant with nothing remotely useful for them in their 21st century existence.
I think these are valid points of view and I’ll even give them to the class if they don’t offer them. However, having conceded this much, I point out that all the above are merely reasons why someone may not make an effort to learn something over the next few weeks. They will not be accepted as excuses. I go further and make them a solemn promise. I promise that, if they come to our exploration of (whatever we’re studying) with an open mind they may or may not like it, but they will assuredly appreciate it. This never fails to have even the most sceptical students’ thinking. Their faces betray a look that tells me they are thinking about the difference in my emphasised words. Got’em!
Now to keep’em. In what’s left of the lesson I reinforce the message with a little analogous activity (I’ve never been a man to miss a metaphor). With great solemnity, I explain that they are about to take part in a time honoured rights of passage and that, for this to truly work, everyone must close their eyes, put their heads on the desk and, for the next minute and 57 seconds, promise to ignore everyone around them and just listen.
Then I play this.
I could, of course, play lots of things but I’ve always played this because it’s a track from Another Way’s 2002 self-titled album and my little brother is the ‘vocalist’ (I use that term advisedly).
Again, the response from my mixed ability classroom is predictable. Everything from Wayne’s World style head nodding endorsement, to looks of disgust that rebuke me and suggest they want the last 2 minutes of their lives back. These reactions are the spur with which I prick the sides of my intent.
“So what do we think of that?” I ask and what is left of the lesson explores why some liked it and some didn’t. Even those who don’t like it admit that it has a beat, and pattern, and structure. It has purpose, energy and passion. Conversely, those that loved it must admit that they understood virtually none of the lyrics but that it didn’t really matter. Everyone can see that further analysis would reveal its meaning and that the fact I have a personal connection to the piece makes it just a little more interesting. You don’t have to be Hardcore to get it.
“Right then,” I say, “let’s see if we can’t apply the same principles to Shakespeare and get something useful out of that too.”
And that’s it. Well, that’s Act 1 anyway. I’ll save the rest for next time. Adieu gentle reader, as a wise man once said, Parting is such sweet sorrow.