I'm working on an assignment about how we could modify the way we teach Shakespeare so students understand it. In combing through JSTOR (our lord and savior) I found two articles both discussing how damned difficult it is to teach Shakespeare. Each is titled 'Teaching Shakespeare'. One is from 1942. The other is from 1893. It is 2017, and we still don't know how the fuck to teach this shit so people get it. Academic struggles all day every day and literally nothing has changed
University was a dream come true for me. I had amazing lecturers and the class had a three-pronged approach:
1. Explain the historical context of the play, how it was originally performed and how it was received
2. View different modern adaptations (at least 2-3, sometimes more, and ideally look at some from other cultures and in other languages) and compare and contrast how they interpret the same text
3. Encourage students to interpret the text in their own way. Wanna make A Midsummer Night’s Dream about two lesbians, Lysander and Hermia, running away from a homophobic society? Go for it. Now explain why you chose to do that and how you would stage it.
We would have lectures that were theory-based, interrupted by the professor playing some clips from different adaptations. Later in the week we would meet in a theatre space and work with the text physically, vocally, and have an open and honest discussion about what we were studying. We got through one play every two weeks over a 12 week period and came out with a solid understanding of each one. Extraordinary stuff.
Now, compare this approach, which is interesting, engaging and relevant to the modern era and our own experiences, to how it’s traditionally taught in high school.
In a room.
You read the play.
You’re stuck with it for weeks and weeks.
You have no fucking clue what’s being said or why you should care.
Your teacher then asks you to write an essay on a topic that will have some ludicrously long title that you barely understand.
You go away hating Shakespeare and viewing it as horrible and boring.
And you completely miss what the text is about and what it can be about.
The thing that was really powerful at uni, and what we should endeavour to bring to teenage students, was looking at other people’s adaptations. Reading Shakespeare as a 15 year old, or indeed at any age, can be a struggle. It feels like you’re reading gobbledegook. How the hell are you supposed to understand Elizabethan slang? How are you supposed to engage with the story if you keep reaching for a dictionary every 2 seconds? But that’s where skilled actors and directors come into it, because these guys do the work for you. For example, The Globe theatre is a massive draw for tourists around the world. They perform plays in the original language in a way that is hugely accessible and entertaining for all people, no matter their background. They use voice, action and gesture to make sure you understand. It’s an old maxim that Shakespeare is meant to be seen and not heard, and it’s true, so let your students watch the professionals act it out. Let them watch two or three! Maybe more! And once they start to grasp the text, aided by historical context, get them up and get them speaking and performing. And if someone’s shy and doesn’t want to perform? That’s totally fine! They’re now the director, and they can come up with ideas that others will put into practice.
Get people talking. Start arguments. Shakespeare’s plays will say something different to each different person. What is it about this text that you latch onto? Which adaptation did you like best? How do you think it should come to life? And when you assigns essays and assessments, let them write and argue about what they are passionate about. I fucking hate those essay prompts that box you in and allow no room to put forward your own feelings, which make you talk about the theme of forgiveness or whatever when you think fuck you, this play wasn’t about forgiveness at all, it was about (x).
Even with the little stuff, there’s no point just saying “so the definition of iambic pentameter is…” and moving on, you should be up there with your hand on your heart, making them tap along to their own heartbeats, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, Two HOUSE-holds BOTH a-LIKE in DIG-ni-TY - great! You feel it, don’t you? You feel those 10 beats in your heart, and now what happens when you recite a line that’s slightly irregular? Sometimes you’ll get a weird line that’s 9, 11 or 12 syllables where everything else is 10, sometimes you’ll get the stressed syllable in a different place than it should be, and you can feel that as you’re reciting - it’s as if your heart suddenly started beating faster or skipped a beat, and you have to listen to it and ask - why did Shakespeare want me to stress that? Why did this character suddenly falter and slip out of rhythm? Same with things like assonance, alliteration, repetition, juxtaposition and all those others words that make students’ eyeballs melt out of their heads. Don’t just make them memorise an arbitrary list of definitions, show them what they can do.
For example: repetition in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick will often choose a word or an idea and then hit it back and forth like a shuttlecock until one of them drops it. But it’s the repetition of the word heart that is most striking, and the image of Beatrice’s heart in particular. Beatrice has a “merry heart,” she has a “wild heart,” Margaret jokes she should lay Carduus Benedictus to “your heart,” Benedick declares he wants to “live in thy heart.” The word crops up close to forty times throughout the play, associated with love, happiness, sexual ardour - nice things, in other words. In the confession scene we see:
BEATRICE: I was about to protest I loved you.
BENEDICK: And do it, with all thy heart.
BEATRICE: I love you with so much of my heart none is left to protest.
And then, all of a sudden, just a few lines later, Shakespeare pulls the fucking rug out from under us. Remember all that nice heart imagery? Throw it out the window, and listen to what Beatrice has to say about Claudio, the scumbag who disgraced and almost killed her innocent cousin: I would eat his heart in the marketplace.
HOOOLY SHIT DUDE
Do you see that? One word, one image, one idea and suddenly it’s like the the roof has caved in. Claudio said he loved her cousin, and then he nearly killed her. And Beatrice, with her loving, merry heart, the heart that Benedick wishes to live in, says I would eat his heart. If hurting women is what Claudio intends to do with his love and his heart, then by God she will fucking pull it out of his chest and eat it where everyone can see so they know what should happen to men like him.
Feel it, listen to it, live it. Those definitions will seem abstract and alien when you read them on the page - who cares if a few words start with the same letter? What does it matter if he repeats a couple of words? But you have to get into the text and really hear and see, viscerally, what these techniques are capable of. They should make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Historical context is another issue I won’t go too far into, but suffice to say that it’s something that deserves far more attention than it gets. Apart from anything else, it’s interesting! People got up to crazy stuff in Shakespeare’s time, we should know about the world the Bard lived in.
I apologise for ranting, but yes. Shakespeare is often taught in an inadequate or inappropriate way, and for the sanity of high school students everywhere we should endeavour to teach teachers how Shakespeare should be taught.