by Adrin Fisher
There’s more than one way to skin a cat. This gruesome proverb, with roots in Renaissance England, describes precisely how a teacher in the early twenty-first century should be teaching Shakespeare: however she can.
During my career, I’ve taught at least one play by The Bard per year—sometimes three. That’s no surprise. Shakespeare’s work has been The Greatest Hit of English literature for centuries, and is required in high schools and colleges throughout the US—even in non-literature courses like biology or journalism (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/400-years-after-shakespeares-death-hes-still-required-reading-even-for-econ-majors/ ). The Common Core State Standards demand one Shakespeare play each year in high school. The message is clear—you’re stuck with Shakespeare, so what’s the right way to teach him? Here are some ways I’ve seen advocated.
- The Folger Shakespeare Library (https://www.folger.edu/ ) campaigns for performance-based readings. According to their PD sessions, they want Shakespeare’s words in students’ mouths. It doesn’t matter so much that you teach the whole play or parse every line. I’ve tried some of their activities in a mixed-grade, mixed-ability Theater Appreciation class with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I brought in a teddy bear—Shakesbear, if you will—and we “tossed lines” (and the bear) around the circle. It was fun—and kids got to insult each other with Hermia’s and Helena’s best barbs.
- Dr. Bob Harrison, a WV educator with a doctorate in Teaching Shakespeare, believes in viewing performances—not even necessarily reading the plays. In his experience, he’s found it’s enough to hear the words and to discuss the story. But he’s also found a way to engage non-college-bound students. In the lectures I’ve attended, “Dr. Bob” advocated showing kids the historical value of the texts via a facsimile of the First Folio. He’ll talk about, say, the printing process, and show trays of wooden type and, thereby, get students engaged in the “how” of Shakespeare.
- I have a colleague down the hall who reads Macbeth out loud with her students. Personally, I’d rather stick a pencil in my ear than hear an unpracticed class of 10th graders stumble through a page of text. But, there’s something wonderful about making it clear that Shakespeare is for everyone at every level.
Over the years, I’ve developed my preferred method of teaching high school kids who are more interested in maintaining their Snapchat streaks. For each play I’ve taught, I’ve purchased a full-cast CD (or in a few cases, downloaded MP4s from iTunes). I have students open their books to follow along while listening to the performance, hitting two learning modalities at once—auditory and visual. I ask kids to not worry about the meaning of every word or phrase, but instead, to get “the gist.” One of the main tools I give them is the actors’ inflection. My major focus with Shakespeare is plot, but themes are a close second. Right behind is his rich language.
My method of discussion is time-consuming and thorough. First, I tell them what will happen in plain language:
“Horatio feels like an ancient Roman soldier. Do you know what a high-ranking soldier would do on the battlefield if his king were killed? He’d fall on his sword. Oh, you’ve heard of Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku? Right! Same idea. So Horatio knows that Hamlet’s dying, so he’s ready to lick the poisoned cup. But Hamlet’s going to say no—be ready to tell me why.”
Then I push play and we follow along.
Then I ask them to answer my question. And they can.
Then we do some study guide questions, with a partner if the kids need support, and then we talk as a whole class. We get Shakespeare.
As you can imagine, though, it’s a slow process. My co-teach seniors and I are finally winding up Hamlet, and we’re all pretty tired of his whining. It’s been a few weeks, after all.
Necessity has caused a shift in my preferred method. Last year, in dealing with a truculent group, I found Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet invaluable. He directed and starred in an epic full-text film full of secret doors, one-way mirrors, lush furnishings, and a padded room for poor Ophelia. Partway through the play, we switched from CD to DVD with subtitles (and books and study guides).
For my seniors, it’s been wonderful to see the film acted: to tap into modern sensibilities, to be the critic, to watch facial expressions and nonverbal cues.
And for me, watching my seniors watch a 400-year-old play come to life before their eyes, helping them grapple with revenge and death and decision-making, giving them the privilege of seeing the world through another’s eyes—priceless.
There’s something to be said for Shakespeare—no matter how you want to skin him.
WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What ways have you found to teach The Bard? What advice can you offer your colleagues? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not managing lively discussions, dreaming up new ways to engage her students, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her drinking chai latte, walking through the woods, or pounding through a good novel. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin