Teachers at Work

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Brush Up Your Shakespeare: The Bard's Words in the Classroom

Welcome to the school year of 2010–2011, y'all! Backpacks have been loaded up, portable coffee mugs rediscovered, and long sighs of weary acceptance have eminated from both teachers and students – it is, like it or not, time to head back to school. While I'm writing this in Brooklyn with two more weeks before I'll report back (insert smug nod here) for my 11th (ye gods!) year of teaching, I know that many American school districts have been back in session for a while. And I also know that the vast majority of those school districts will ask their upper-level English teachers to include at least one of Shakespeare's plays in their curricula, just as I am doing this year. Thus, this column takes a look at Shakespeare and his language and vocabulary, which I dearly hope will help out those of you who are out of time for leisurely summer lesson planning!

Canon-ball Run: Which Play to Teach?

One of the nicest things about teaching Shakespeare is that his works are no longer under copyright (what with copyright not being invented in the 1600s), so there are approximately 3 trillion different publications of his plays. For those of you, like me, without much in the way of funds to spend on books, this is a boon indeed, as you can purchase single copies of his plays for just a few dollars.

There are a number of series that present his words on one page with the "modern English" translation facing it. Folks, there are people out there who will just go bananas if I advocate for or against this style, so let me say this: In considering the plays I'm teaching, I chose to get the "translated" version for one of the plays, and purchased the "regular" text for the other. I know that when we look at the "modern translation," we won't see the same beautiful, stirring language that Shakespeare used. I also know that I can't give my kids the original text of one of the plays and nothing else, and expect that they'll know what's going on. And that is all I have to say about that.

Which play to choose? Excellent suggestion. No matter what grade, I always begin my high school students with Romeo & Juliet. It features teenaged protagonists; is essentially about sex, love and how adults (especially your parents) are constantly screwing up your life; and the language is reasonably accessible. I also like Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Henry V.  That last is a bit of an unconventional choice but I happen to absolutely love the play, and I think it is accessible to most students, especially those with good history teachers. All of the plays I've mentioned feature reasonably straightforward single plots (without the subplot complexity of, say, King Lear) and contain scenes that are intriguing enough to hold a class's interest, but that are not so obscure as to never secure it.

Which works am I not in favor of? Well, Julius Caesar is often found in older literature textbooks, but I'm not a fan of the play for younger classes (I believe an older class, familiar with Shakespeare, could enjoy it quite a bit). Old JC is a remnant from the times back when we believed an American education should mimic a classical education, and it makes sense that students learning classical history and Latin would be able to follow and enjoy the play. So, you know, the next time I'm teaching at school where my kids are learning Latin, I will definitely teach that play. Also, A Midsummer Night's Dream is another popular choice for students, and, again, I'm down with using it with kids who know something of Shakespeare already. But I find the play very convoluted – there are three different (if intertwined) plots running throughout it – and, frankly, I just don't want to deal with the fairies, much as I love the character of Bottom. Of course, both the aforementioned plays (as well as any of his plays except the ones that you can't bring to mind right now) are works of genius, with intensely beautiful writing contained therein, so feel free to ignore me. 

This year, for my 12th graders (a new class at my school!), I'm going to begin with Romeo & Juliet, since they've not read much Shakespeare. Then we will move on to Othello. As I work in a predominantly African-American school, I am interested to explore the issues of racism and sexism presented in this play with them. I think they'll be quite interested to think about how these issues predate American slavery.  Also, we will be working with teaching artists from Epic in the second semester, creating an adaptation of Othello after seeing their touring production of the same. It's a good idea to have my students familiar with the play before we begin this adaptive work. If my students are interested in Shakespeare, I'm thinking of reading a third play with them – maybe Macbeth, maybe Twelfth Night. I'll see how things go!

Speaking the Speech, Playing the Play

Any unit on Shakespeare should include (although not necessarily begin with – get their attention first!) an overview of the Elizabethan times in which Shakespeare lived and worked. There are dozens of books, websites and online lesson plans to help you do that, so I'm not going to toss my paltry knowledge onto the pile. However, I do want to mention that teaching Shakespeare is the area in which I have been most glad of a reasonably deep understanding of his life, times and work from my own education (thanks to you, my incredibly expensive BFA in Theatre!). For some reason, my students want to know more about Shakespeare than they do about, oh, Willa Cather or Edgar Allan Poe. If you are looking to expand your own understanding, I highly suggest the book The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl which is now available in paperback. I've (been forced to) read a great deal about Shakespeare, and this book wins the prize for 1) being very engagingly written, 2) helping me understand what it was really like to live during his lifetime, and 3) giving me actual new information about the man and his work. Check it out!

I also like to impress upon my students that Shakespeare was a wordsmith and a word coiner. (And, right after I say that, we figure out what "wordsmith" and "word coiner" mean...). You can find plenty of information on the internet about the words he made up, which vary in count (some say 1,500, others 3,000!). These include "elbow", "critic" and "flawed." (Aside: Where would critics be without the word "flawed," right?). I love sharing this with kids because I think it validates something that they love to so – making up new words (we call it "slang" or "those crazy things kids say these days"). I love playing with words, and I'm happy to encourage my students to, as well!

Given that my students have some basic concept of Shakespeare's life and times and genius, I like to dig into his actual text with Hamlet's speech to the player in (yes) Hamlet. Here's a nice Web version. The context is little needed, here, since you're not teaching Hamlet. Just suffice it for your students to know that Hamlet is giving advice on how to act well to someone he's hired to perform his play. And let me be clear – I ask my students to read this aloud (there's an infinite variety as to who and how – one at a time, in choral groups, working from punctuation to punctuation, etc.).

Why do this? It kills many birds with one stone. It puts Shakespeare's words on their tongues before anyone need worry about plot, characterization and whatnot. It is fairly straightforward but not simplistic. It gives applicable advice for what they'll be doing (believe you me, I do not want my students to "saw the air too much" nor "be too tame"). And it's fun, because at the end of it, you know what that Shakespeare guy meant! It wasn't hard after all!

Making Stepping Stones

Next, having helped my students with an initial look at Shakespeare's words, I try to help them prepare to read a play a bit more by giving them some stepping stones. If you think of Shakespeare's plays as a river we need to cross (a nice river, a pretty river, but still, one can easily fall in and drift away without getting to the other side, as any teacher who's lost 4 months on Macbeth will tell you...), words can be stepping stones to help your students do this safely.

Which words? Before we begin reading, I chose 10 to 20 (no more!) words that I think that my students do not already know, and that will be helpful to them to know in working on the play. You will have to decide on the words for yourself, because only you know your class. (If you're at a loss, you could always pull 25 possible words and test your kids' knowledge of them beforehand, focusing on the 10 they were most at sea about.) For example, in looking at Othello, I know that I will present them with "chaste," "damned/damn'd," "strumpet," and "Moor," for sure. I don't think they know "chaste" at all. "Damned/damn'd" is likely a word that they think they know what it means but actually is fuller and richer than they've realized. "Strumpet" is just an awesome word that they'll enjoy. And "Moor"? Well, you really do need to understand what a Moor is to understand Othello. In fact, if I want my students to understand two of the major ideas in the play, namely sexual obsession and racism, isn't it our best interest to make sure that they can identify words that allude to those themes in the text? Give your students the tools they'll need to discover the play; it's very empowering for them.

How to teach these words? Well, I like to repeat them endlessly until my class is thoroughly sick of them and all joy in learning has left our classroom.

No, not really. Some of the vocab techniques I discussed in these articles will be of help. Here, also, is a great opportunity to include some playwriting – you could ask your class to write scenes using all 10 words in a reasonable, non-nonsensical way.

The Mirror Up to Nature: Reading the Play

Now you're at the point where you're putting the play on its feet (and making nature's mirror!). I don't mean after reading it, by the way. Just like a theatre director puts his or her actors on their feet before too much time has passed in the rehearsal process, I prefer to keep my kids up and moving whilst reading the play. I don't ask them to read every word (it's perfectly reasonable to summarize the boring scenes and move past them quickly), but what I do ask them to read, we do so on our feet. Shakespeare wrote these plays to be enacted. Sitting down and reading them silently makes no more sense than forcing students to read a Science textbook as a choral ode. Don't make the language do something other than what it was written to do and expect that to work!

As your students are working on the play as actors (or audience, or directors, etc.), they're going to encounter words that they don't know. That's the first pitfall. The second is that they're going to encounter words that they do know but the meaning that they know makes little sense in the context given.

You want to pick and choose here. If you can keep your students reading, and they are on-track in terms of understanding characterization, plot and theme (you'll have to stop and ask them this, as you sadly cannot count on them to blurt out things, like, "I am intrigued by the way this monologue furthers the theme we discussed earlier!"), and all is going well, please do not screech your class to a halt to ask, "Say, does anyone know what a 'journeyman' is?" Is knowing that word super-important to a good overall understanding of the play? (I will answer that: No.) Then, keep going.

But don't blaze ahead so much that you proudly report at your ELA department meeting that you read Henry V  in three class periods. Stop and look at words, too, just be judicious. A focused, thoughtful conversation about a specific word, phrase or speech can help students understand the play and the power of Shakespeare's language. In reading Hamlet, for example, stopping at the famous "Get thee to a nunnery, go!" is worthwhile, allowing you talk about multiple meanings, confused readings and the weight of history on a word.

As for the second problem, that of knowing the word but not, perhaps in context, let's look at  Act II, scene ii of  Romeo & Juliet (e.g. the famous balcony scene), Romeo asks Juliet, as she's about to scoot back inside before getting caught by her nurse, "O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?" Juliet responds, "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?" I like to stop here and talk about the word "satisfaction" with my students. We talk about our usual meaning of the word (which almost always involves some sense of "doing a good job" or "easing my intense hunger"). Then I bring up the Rolling Stones' "(Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and we talk about the more carnal meaning Mick Jagger is alluding to (I hope it does not come as a shock  that he is not bemoaning his inability to get enough dinner). With that meaning in mind, we look back at the play, and suddenly a whole new understanding of what each of the young lovers thinks the other means is shown. I go on to ask several students to play these few lines (including Romeo's response, "Th'exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine," – a nice save on his part) with different subtexts. Always fun.

The Green-Eyed Monster and So On

One element of Shakespeare's words that your students cannot discover on their own, even with your scaffolded help, is to know which of his phrases are famous. Most students will recognize "To be or not to be," which I am told pops up frequently in Bugs Bunny cartoons, but the days of expecting them to already know much else are dwindling. I'll be sure to point out "the green-eyed monster" that Iago refers to in Othello, the great metaphor for jealousy Shakespeare dreamt up (and used first in The Merchant of Venice, by the way). I don't know if my students will have ever heard the phrase before, but I think it's worthwhile for them to learn it now.

As a teacher, I think it part of my job to help my students know these phrases, and their source. It's interesting, and it demonstrates the breadth and history of our language. I hope you'll join me, and take the time to point "To thine own self be true" (which is not, as it turns out, from the Bible, as many believe) and "Et tu, Brute" and "the game is afoot" and so on. Here's a nice list of some of the more famous phrases. And don't be surprised if, as you're reading along with your class, familiar words pop out at you and you realize anew what a source Shakespeare's works are!

The Overachievers' Section

If you're living the English teacher's dream and your class is besotted with Shakespeare's words, you may want to think about buying a concordance for your use. They're pricey, at $300 or so, but so much fun, if I may say (and 1,000 pages long, so really, your cost per page is low). John Barlett's and the Harvard editions are generally most beloved. A concordance is an index to every word, phrase and passage in Shakespeare. You can use it to find out meaning and see where else in his works you can find the same word amongst other things. I wouldn't consider teaching a class in Shakespeare without one, and am already secretly plotting how I can procure one for my classroom this year.

The Readiness is All!

Hamlet said that, in a scene in which he wasn't quite ready. I suspect that's where we are as teachers of Shakespeare too. Excited, motivated, but a little intimidated. So I leave you with this final piece of advice, which I tell myself before I start any unit on Shakespeare: you're not trying to teach your students everything about the man and his work. Rather, you're opening a door to a pretty magical world, a world that they can visit throughout their lives (and so can you). Words are a tool, map, motivation and reward in this world. Just give 'em a few of those.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 30th 2010, 2:44 AM
Comment by: Michael M.
Thanks, Shannon, for your informative and inspiring article.

What do you think of your students doing "The Tempest"? It has young, first love as a subplot, the impulsive violence and comedy of the would-be assassins, and the fascinating conversations between Ariel and Prospero and between Calaban and Prospero. Plus, kids can understand and identify with having the opportunity to take revenge on enemies but then being gracious and good enough to opt instead for enlightening them and reconciling.

Michael McL
Monday August 30th 2010, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Michael,

I think The Tempest would be fantastic. I always feel that a teacher's passion for a work is a strong factor in how much kids will enjoy it. I know that I can't really "sell" a book that I don't feel passionate about, so if a teacher loves The Tempest, I would say go for it. For me, in my classroom, I would do it with 12th graders who are familiar with the Bard. There is a strong element of aging and nostalgia and regret and so on that I think is very difficult for the majority of teenagers to understand -- but maybe graduating seniors would get it, you know? Thanks for your contribution to the conversation!
Monday August 30th 2010, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Please delete this comment after correcting the following mistake. In the second sentence, the article says this: "long sighs of weary acceptance have eminated from both teachers and students." The verb eminated is a typo for emanated. I suggest changing it.
Monday August 30th 2010, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Stephen B.
I have a suggestion for a fun exercise using Shakespeare. As any reader of Shakespeare's works knows, he was a master of the insult in addition to all the other stuff he was a master of. I have a 3-column presentation of some of the insults that can be found on the internet. You take from one, two, or all three of the columns to create your own insult. For example, "You, sirrah, are a loggerheaded, hedgeborn clotpole!" Here's my suggestion: Pass out copies of the 3-column list to each student who then makes his/her own insult. It doesn't matter at this point whether the precise meaning of the words is known -- the insults amazingly work anyway. Then have each student read his/her insult (preferably at another classmate). There will be laughter. The assignment is to find the meaning of each of the words composing the insult. This is a good way to get past Shakespeare the icon and begin to get acquainted with Shakespeare the man. Shakespeare was no tardy-gaited flap-dragon, that's for sure.
Monday August 30th 2010, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
When teaching Romeo and Juliet to ESL students at the grade 10 level, I was often surprised by their level of understanding of the plot. Many of them come from countries where parents choose a teen's spouse, expect complete obedience from their daughters, and would be horrified if a daughter did not accept her father's decisions. We never seemed to need to discuss such cultural matters at length and could spend our time on the language. Canadian teens, on the other hand, would usually be astounded by such behaviour.
Monday August 30th 2010, 7:02 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)Top 10 Speller
I'm a fan of _The Tempest_ in college literature classes because it can easily be connected with the explorations that, for good or ill, mostly ill, got so many Europeans and Africans over to the west side of the Atlantic. Most American students know more about American history than English history, so _The Tempest_ provides a good first step into the times. I would think this might be true for high school students if linked--say--with stories of Pocahontas, considering the Disney version vs. the John Smith original, which itself probably embroidered the truth. Characters in _The Tempest_ speculate about what might be found on the island in terms that echo both Sir Thomas More's _Utopia_ and Sir Walter Raleigh's promotional descriptions encouraging the Virginia Company's colonization. The comic characters drunkenly consider how they can advertise and display Caliban for profit, then (eerily predicting the drunken Indian stereotype) introduce Caliban to alcohol. Dialectical differences marking social class are striking. The opening scene is hilarious, with noblemen pompously trying to take charge while seamen try to shut them up so they can save the ship. Poets who are people of color have identified with Caliban (Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Aime Cesaire)and poetically transformed his slavery into defiant rebellion. And Louis Montrose's essay "Learning to Curse"--based on a Caliban speech--helped start a method of literary analysis called New Historicism. _Othello_ also resonates with such issues. Othello refers to travel tales of finding "The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads. Do grow beneath their shoulders." People WERE influenced by such travel tales as they sought to define humanity in the light of contact with people who looked, behaved, spoke, and thought differently from anything they'd encountered before. And it is his skill with storytelling--LANGUAGE--that wins Desdemona's love for Othello. The best college course I ever took was called "The Age of Exploration and the British Imperial Imagination"! Obviously, I was influenced.

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