It is a tale told by an idiot

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Ever wonder why schools persist in teaching Shakespearean texts? Isn’t there something newer and fresher that we could be getting students to read?

It’s a common complaint and I feel an unfair one. Shakespeare’s works are truly extraordinary and their impact on modern society is so pervasive and fundamental we don’t even know it’s there. So really I’d argue a better question to ask is why do schools persist in teaching Shakespeare badly and by badly I mean the following scenario.

A unit of work, entirely teacher directed, where students are appointed to read the text aloud in class (with no pre-reading preparation time) for as long it takes to complete the play. Thereafter the class spends however many lessons it takes to discuss and write essays on the text and finish up watching a movie version like this is some sort of treat for surviving.

I admit I’m painting a fairly extreme and sardonic picture of English classes here. Lets hope I’m not too accurate. But even if I am exaggerating the scenario is fundamentally correct.

  • Teacher centred class activity with little student autonomy
  • Little if any encouragement of creativity
  • A dogmatic approach to analysing the text in its entirety
  • A thematic focus that targets future assessment

Arrgh! Enough! “Avaunt and quit my sight” I say!

There are better ways of exposing young minds to some of the greatest literature on the planet. I have no real authority to suggest the best way but, having taught many plays over the years, I am absolutely certain of what doesn’t work. So here are some suggestions, which I promise you have worked in my classroom.

Be a flipping spoiler

When we watch a movie or a play for entertainment we begin at the start and see it through to its conclusion. We read books the same way – start to finish. But I would suggest that’s not how to study Shakespeare effectively. Actually, any text really. I always set the class the task of finding out as much about the narrative as they can on their own. They will certainly need to be guided in an analysis of the text, but they don’t need help in learning the storyline. I’ve read that some bloggers call this ‘flipping’ the classroom and, in a way, this is also in keeping with the principles of Sugata Mitra (see ‘What have we got to lose?’) as the students are driving their own learning. Occasionally I’ll start our work on the unit in the class with a quiz or a play trivia game that affirms in the students’ mind that they already know a lot.

Basically, I want to avoid a drip feed like process where students are relying on me to lead their slow march through the play. They should go into the whole thing already knowing that Hamlet will die, Romeo and Juliet too … and Julius Caesar … and Macbeth. The plays are 400 years old and I think we can turn off the spoiler alert. The thing that makes these plays awesome is not the fact that these characters die but why they die. 

Be bloody, bold and resolute

I strongly suggest skipping (what you consider to be) the boring bits, gloss over unnecessary or monotonous subplots, and above all else play with it. No self-respecting director would force their audience to sit through every line unedited and nor should a teacher. Again, I’m guilty of sacrilege in the eyes of purists but I’m only doing what I’m told the players did themselves. In every play there are crucial sections of dialogue that I want my class exposed to so I shamelessly target these and let the rest take care of itself. For example,

  • Julius Caesar is an incredible play for three acts. It peaks with the death of JC himself and Mark Antony’s speech that turns the crowd against the conspirators. I’ve always analysed the play with my classes up to this point in great detail and then glossed over the rest. Sorry Brutus, no one cares about you really.
  • Act 4 Scene 3 of Macbeth is absolutely fascinating … once you have ignored the first 159 lines of it and started from where Ross walks on stage.
  • The Merchant of Venice is a mess. It has the action bouncing from events in Venice to events in Belmont like it’s a tennis match. I tend to cut and paste it for the sake of sanity. We start with the early action in Venice first (Act 1 Scenes 1&3) then some Belmont scenes (Act 1 Scene 2, Act 2 Scenes 1&9 and Act 3 Scenes 1&2) and then Venice again (Act 2 Scenes 3-6 and Act 3 Scene 3). You will perhaps have noticed that I’ve missed a few scenes altogether and I remain unapologetic about this because nothing is getting in the way of a close scrutiny of Act 4.

It’s a play so be prepared to play with it

Play with the play wherever possible. Insert little activities into the lessons as you go. I aim to cover a scene or two each lesson and run quick (10 minute) activities that are relevant to that scene. The sheer magnitude of material that is in existence on Shakespeare is far beyond my ability to itemise here so lets just say you google it and keep an open mind to what you can do. Essentially, the aim is to promote thinking and creativity and I believe few English texts can match Shakespeare’s work in this activity. 

One man in time plays many parts

I use a great deal of multimedia tools these days but I rarely show a movie version of the play from start to finish. I find that this tends to stifle creativity. If it’s bad students tune out and if it’s good they defer to the director’s interpretation and don’t bother to come up with their own.

Instead, I tend to use an audio version of the play so that the class can read along and hear the lines fluently and expressively. When we’re ready I’ll show multiple movie versions of the same scene. Once again, I only target some scenes. In showing the same scene from more than one movie we can better discuss what lines have been highlighted or cut and how that affects character development. Even the low budget productions are fantastic when you only watch a fragment. Also, Google has hundreds of images from past professional and amateur productions. These are great for suggesting set and costume design.

Once again, the aim is not so much to memorize quotes for the inevitable essay but to encourage multiple interpretations. Assess the class in whatever way you must but measure your success by how much the students can do to justify their opinions. There will always be some students who still hate Shakespeare’s stuff but at least they will be eloquent about why they dislike it.

Oh, and there will be quite a few of them who will still regard Shakespeare fondly long after they’ve forgotten who introduced them to it.

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