“They aim at it, / And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts” Hamlet (4.5).
In January, when we returned from break, my 9th grade students and I began a study of Shakespeare and in particular Romeo and Juliet. Since my students have had no exposure to his works until now, I’ve spent considerable time priming the pump to build interest for when we actually would begin reading the play. Initially, I introduced my students to Shakespeare’s influence in shaping our modern language. I’ve created two visual images to show them how so many of the words and phrases we presently use are Shakespeare constructions, how nimble he was with deconstructing words and molding them anew to fit his purposes.
From there, I engaged students in a Shakespeare WebQuest in which they had to find the answers to questions about Elizabethan language, wedding and marriage customs, childrearing, food, and entertainment. Afterward, teams competed in games of tic-tac-toe, challenging each other to answer questions such as “Would an Elizabethan eat this meal: braised swan, boiled potatoes, and sliced carrots? “ (No, at that time Europeans assumed potatoes were poisonous; they did not become a staple crop until the 18th century; besides, only the aristocracy enjoyed swan meat in Elizabethan England, as these creatures were food reserved for royalty. Besides, don’t swans mate for life? Is it worth destroying a committed relationship to fill one’s belly? And don’t even get me started on the “bear-baiting” in Macbeth – makes you hope PETA one day discovers time travel) or another question like “T/F: If a young Elizabethan woman didn’t marry, could she join a convent?” (Again, no. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-16th century closed all convents – an important point to consider when the students later react to Rosaline’s choice to enter a nunnery in Romeo and Juliet. The play takes place in an earlier century in the Catholic city, Verona. Hey, at least Rosaline had options.)
Following the web-quest and tic-tac-toe, we began exploring theatre work. In today’s world, we generally read Shakespeare, but Shakespeare himself wrote his plays to be performed. And there’s a reason for that. Reading is a private act, a soundless meeting between author and reader. A play is a public event, a raucous (especially in the Globe where a poor player was liable to be pelted with rotten fruit) occasion that celebrated words, voices, actions, audiences, etc. To appreciate Shakespeare, who after all was an actor himself, entails taking the stage. In my opinion, a student truly understands (“critically thinks about,” to employ the language of the modern skills movement) Shakespeare when he or she can deliver convincingly the lines of the play.
So we played all sorts of games. In one silent game that I learned at Phillips Exeter’s Shakespeare Conference, I gave each student a slip of paper with the name of an archetype: death, magician, mother, hero, child, orphan, doctor, temptress, etc. I asked students not to share their identities, but instead to walk around the room, having fully assumed their new characters. After a few minutes, I encouraged each of them to wordlessly interact with the others. Then, a few minutes later, I directed each of them to center on one other character in the room that they found alluring or appealing in some way related to their own identities. When I called out the word “freeze,” I found the doctor ministering to the needs of death, the orphan trying to draw the attention of the mother, the child captivated by the enchantments of the magician, and on and on. It’s a fun little exercise to help the students see that our gestures, expressions, and body language speak volumes and that everything is about connection in the play and on the stage.
Last week, it was finally time to dive into the play itself. Now, admittedly, I’m an English teacher who came to the profession initially because of my love of literature. However, it didn’t take me long to recognize that I teach students, not content, and that if I was going to succeed in this career, I needed to adjust my focus. I’m not naïve – I recognize that my students and I are often not on the same page. In fact, my students are often not on any page at all since many of them claim that “leisure reading” is an oxymoron. Still, I believe that Shakespeare, like Lincoln, “belongs to the ages.” So, intent on making Shakespeare accessible to them, I created a decoding pie to guide us as we begin interpreting (my students use the word “translating” because they claim “it might as well be written in a foreign language”) the text.
I’ve also “flipped” the classroom so that my students watch “Shakespeare in Bits,” a digitized version of the play I’m testing, for homework online, complete with notes, explanations, and a brief synopsis of each scene, and enter the classroom the next day to take an online quiz via Quia to ensure that they’ve properly engaged with the text. After the fifteen-minute quiz, we begin acting out (and therefore explicating) the previous night’s reading.
So, why is it then that after only a week I have spent the last two nights lying awake wondering if Shakespeare is still relevant? In fact, last night, in my tossing and turning, I imagined an actual conversation between my students and myself that went something like this:
Teacher: Juliet responds to her mother’s encouragement to consider County Paris’ wedding proposal with the words: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move: / But no more deep will I endart mine eye / Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.” How would you describe Juliet’s reaction to her mother? Do you get the sense she’s willing to give Paris a fair chance?
Student A: Mrs. Chesser, her words don’t make sense, so how are we supposed to come up with our own sense? “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move”? Seriously? It reads like a tongue twister, not an answer.
Teacher: Well, maybe you have a point here – perhaps she’s tongue-tied because she doesn’t want to answer her mother or perhaps she’s simply confused, having never had to answer a question like this before.
Student A: By that reasoning, we can assume all of the characters are having trouble speaking and don’t know what to say.
Student B: I have to agree, Mrs. Chesser. Look, I like acting. I think it’s fun being someone else, but it’s impossible to understand what the characters mean. I appreciate that you want us to enjoy Shakespeare but even his jokes aren’t funny especially when you have to explain them. I mean, really, have you ever laughed at a joke when someone has to sketch it out for you afterward?
Teacher: I appreciate your candor. But haven’t you ever considered that Shakespeare is an acquired tasted like champagne or caviar? You have to refine your palate so that you can recognize how truly special he was and how extraordinary his insight into how you and I, or any human, behaves. He knows us better than we know ourselves.
Student C: So just how many servings of Shakespeare is it going to take before I think he’s delicious?
Teacher: I don’t know. Maybe that was a poor analogy. I guess the point I am trying to make is that some things that are really worth experiencing take time and focus.
Of course, the students and I can go on like this forever (as they do in my head), but in the end I wonder if I’ll ever be able to engender the kind of interest in his plays that will last a lifetime. Researching the crisis didn’t ease my anxiety; instead, I was led to an 1898 essay by Mark H. Liddell published in the Atlantic Monthly titled “Botching Shakespeare.” He’s rather long-winded (and I should know, right?), but he makes an ironically modern argument regarding whether Shakespeare is still relevant. He acknowledges that the contemporary man of his day is no longer reading Shakespeare, primarily because he cannot understand his language. Having to rely on “a copiously annotated edition of Shakespeare’s works,” the reader quickly tires of “hobbling along on these crutches!” Liddell contends that resorting to this “artificial process” robs us of appreciating Shakespeare’s greatness. And what made Shakespeare so great? “Universal pertinence, simplicity, directness.” (I’m hearing my students in my head again, except this time it’s just laughter.) Liddell explains,
In the long run people read what they can understand perfectly,
and they make this literature. It is not the best of what has been
thought and said in the world, but what has been thought and said
the best. No other piece of English writing has taken such a hold on
the English thinking race as Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide. Its matter
is the veriest commonplace, the theme of the college sophomore for
generations; parodied, hackneyed, declaimed, misquoted, it still
stands the most magnificent piece of writing in English. Why?
Because this common thought of this common man is clothed in
common words; because the words come straight from his own
experience, without garnish or ornament other than that the
thought itself wore ; because they go straight to the core of the
commonest experience of humanity, without other help or
assistance than that the understanding alone can furnish. Hamlet,
and indeed all of Shakespeare, is an appeal to the general reader.
Liddell’s solution to students’ struggles: they must learn Shakespeare’s language. And, to be honest, I think perhaps he is right, although, with those words, I may have just written Shakespeare’s canonical obituary. Vocabulary is acquired through study and reading. One learns a word, and then sees it over and over in context, until it eventually takes its place in the reader’s own lexicon. But students aren’t reading, so how will they ever acquire the vocabulary to appreciate Shakespeare? And that question brings my post full circle.
Will I continue teaching Shakespeare? Yes, of course I will. But I wonder if there isn’t some other way of making Shakespeare relevant in the lives of my students while still retaining the power of his language and story.