Alleviating Shakes-fear, Part II

When my young charges entered the room that day, they saw five red balloons stuck to the whiteboard with tape.  Each balloon had taped to it an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper with one of the following phrases printed on it in 100-point font:

  • Shakespeare wrote intellectual “high drama.”
  • The Renaissance was a wonderful time to be alive!
  • Shakespeare was highly educated and wrote specifically for kings, queens, and nobility.
  • We can learn more about Shakespeare by studying his plays.
  • The issues Shakespeare wrote about have no bearing on my world.

I explained to the class that these statements represented some commonly held misconceptions about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England, and that today we were going to symbolically destroy these beliefs that even the very highly educated and refined members of this class may even hold themselves.  Volunteers would come to the board to read one statement out loud, pop the balloon, and then read aloud the folded-up refutation that I had placed inside the balloon before inflating it.

The initial response was blank stares and silence from the class.  Uh-oh.  Had I completely lost the plot?  Was this too babyish for my high school sophomores?  After what seemed like an eternity of silence (which was roughly equivalent to three seconds realtime), an explosion of “ooh, me!” and “can I go first?” and “Mr. B, can I get a shot?” and other general commotion overwhelmed me.  When I heard one of my much less motivated students say to himself (unironically), “Wow, that’s really creative”, I knew it – they were hooked!

Five students got to (not “had to”!) go to the front of the room, pop a balloon, and explain to their classmates about the hygienic pitfalls of living in England during Shakespeare’s time, the universality of Shakespeare’s themes, and the rather straight lines one can draw between Shakespeare’s plays and some modern horror movies.  Afterwards, I gave every student in the class their very own red balloon, into which I instructed them to channel every bad feeling and negative association they ever had with William Shakespeare.  Then, on the count of three, we all popped our balloons in a cathartic release of negative energy.

Of course, a hook without substance is nothing but a cheap gimmick, and to follow a start like that with anything less than both barrels blazing would have been a heartbreaking waste of momentum.  We then did some work with Shakespeare’s language and physical movement, just getting familiar with the vocabulary and cadence and simply getting the words into and out of our mouths, much like a baseball player takes a few practice swings before stepping up to bat.  A little bit of acting, some discussion about stage directions, unfamiliar syntax, and using context clues to determine meaning, and before I knew it they were arguing over who got to be the witches first in 1.1.

In subsequent years, I added Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, and Twelfth Night to the list of Shakespearean plays I would explore with my high school students.  While the specific assignments and activities varied by play, I found that by following a few guiding principles, I was able to make Shakespeare a relatively painless (possibly even enjoyable!) experience for my students.

While we all had a great time popping balloons and making a commotion, at the heart of that activity was an attempt to help the students get to the content in an unconventional way.  Along that line, I’ve found that having a healthily irreverent attitude towards Shakespeare can go a long way toward defusing some of the anxiety, intimidation, and subsequent resistance students demonstrate when confronted with this seemingly foreign writing.  Where others might put Shakespeare up on a pedestal, I always aimed to take him down off the pedestal and have some fun with him.  Making jokes and poking fun at odd phrasings or situations had my students laughing with me, and we were all in the Shakespeare boat together, which made for a dynamic well-suited to open-mindedness and learning.  If you haven’t seen The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), do so – it’s a perfect example of irreverence toward Shakespeare by people who clearly love him.

Physical movement is imperative to any study of Shakespeare.  I cringe when I think of all the time I wasted as a young teacher having students sit in their chairs, reading the play aloud.  Having my students get up and move around with the text made them think not just about what is being said, but how that translates into physical action, and why.  Whenever I asked students to block scenes, I would always challenge them to defend their blocking – why should Juliet stand here instead of here?  Why did Ophelia give the crowflowers to her instead of him?  Acting out the same scene in different ways can also lead to high-level discussion about character motivation and major themes in the context of a director deciding how to play a scene.  For example, I used to split my sophomore classes in half and ask one group to act out the banquet scene from Macbeth twice: once with an actor playing the ghost of Banquo, and once with no one playing Banquo.  We then discussed how both the audience and Macbeth’s dinner guests are impacted by a directorial decision to have Macbeth scream at an actor in ghost makeup versus having him scream at an empty chair. These all helped the students gain a more multi-dimensional understanding of the play – not just what’s happening, but why, and what could (or could not) happen as a result.

Also in a performance vein, I strongly suggest watching movies with your students.  More accurately, I suggest watching clips of movies.  I don’t believe I ever showed a complete film start-to-finish during any study of Shakespeare.  I used clips of scenes to reinforce basic comprehension or to make a point as needed, but my primary focus was to use film as a text for analysis and discussion.  One of my favorite film-based activities was to show three different versions of the same scene in Hamlet and have my students discuss whether they felt Mel Gibson, Campbell Scott, or Ethan Hawke had the most accurate take on the great Dane, and why (they are three very different portrayals).  We also examined how each film treats the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia and discussed the major points of contrast and what impact that has on the audience’s perspective.  Studying how closely different versions of a scene (such as Titania’s seduction of Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) adhere to the text can lead very easily to discussions of how the tone of a scene (and the subsequent impact on the play) can be altered by omitting a single line or set of lines, or by re-arranging the events of a scene.

Speaking of lines, editing Shakespeare’s text is a fantastic exercise in critical reading.  I often gave small groups of students a scene and instructed them to edit out ten (or twenty, or thirty) percent of the lines.  To do this effectively, they had to work together to distinguish what was essential to the scene and what was not, as well as what might be important to keep for later in the play.  As I’ve never been one to ask my students to do something I wouldn’t do or haven’t done myself, I first did this at TSI 2002, and I can honestly say that it is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been asked to do with a Shakespeare play.  Try it yourself before you assign it to your students; you’ll see what I mean.

Regardless of the teaching strategies you try, above all, please: have fun.  If you dread teaching Shakespeare, your students will dread learning Shakespeare.  If you display your genuine enthusiasm, however, and can maintain a light-hearted attitude, even the most reluctant learners can be brought along for the ride.

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