Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Teaching Shakespeare: The Play's the Thing

I have just had a remarkable experience. I, along with a small group of Shakespeare enthusiasts, just completed a run of performances of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Shakespeare's draw is truly remarkable. We came together, 11 people, strangers really, 10 actors and one director, dedicating ourselves to performing the Bard's words for several small, but appreciative audiences. And a motley crew we were indeed. All of us had day jobs. Some of us were young professional actors looking to build a resume, others were amateurs looking for a chance to scratch our Shakespearean itch, one had never acted before and one was returning to acting after a long hiatus.

What made us do it? Not money certainly. There was no money to be made from this venture. It cost us all more than we could probably afford in transportation costs and late night meals. If I could sum up the feelings of the cast members as to why we endured the long nights of rehearsal, the foul weather, the damp church basement, the overflowing toilets, the lack of a stage manager and the communal dressing room, in three words, they would be, "It's Shakespeare, dammit!" And it seems Shakespeare rewards the effort put forth.

Because I love Shakespeare, and because I am a teacher, I am constantly wondering how to get my students to love Shakespeare, too. The truth is, most students don't love Shakespeare. Even with my college students, the mere mention of Shakespeare is sure to elicit groans. Shakespeare is difficult. The language is poetic and often arcane. But it is also beautiful and relevant. Shakespeare matters. That is why he lives on today. How do we teach it so that it matters to young people?

One thing that performing Shakespeare has taught me is that the best way to understand Shakespeare's words is to memorize those words and then try to speak them to an audience in a way that communicates their meaning. Shakespeare's works are, after all, plays. As such they are meant to be performed, not read. If we center our instruction of Shakespeare around performance and not around reading we are more likely to get engagement and comprehension.

Approaching Shakespeare from this performance perspective suggests a model for instruction as follows.

Step 1: Entering the World of the Play

Provide students with the background necessary to understand what is happening in the play. It is important to emphasize that, while Shakespeare's plays were set in many foreign lands, the commentary in the play was always aimed at Shakespeare's native England and at social and political forces in England.

In the case of Measure for Measure, students should learn that the play is about the tension between strict laws related to human morality and the natural human desires that often run athwart these laws. The issue of legislating morality is as relevant today as it was in Shakespeare's time, of course, and the character of Angelo, self-righteous advocate for all that is pure, but fatally flawed himself, might as well be ripped from today's headlines.

Once this is understood, each of the key characters should be introduced to the students in relation to the roles they play in explicating this rumination on the state, the law and morality. So we have the Duke as benign and ineffective ruler, Angelo as rigid martinet enforcing morality laws, Claudio as the transgressor to be punished by hanging and Isabella, Claudio's sister caught on the horns of a moral dilemma. As always, Shakespeare supplements the main story with comic relief in the form of the low-life's Lucio, Pompey, Mistress Overdone and Elbow, who provide comic commentary on the futility of trying to legislate morality.

Step 2: Engaging with the Language of the Play

As an actor performing Shakespeare, the first thing I did as I began to learn my part was to paraphrase each of my speeches. I wanted to put into contemporary language what I was being asked to communicate in Shakespearean language. I think this would be a worthy exercise for the student to help them engage with the language of the play. As a teacher, I would choose key speeches from the play I was teaching and assign each student a different one to paraphrase. Here is an example from Measure for Measure, where Claudio ruminates on what it will mean to die.

Claudio: Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

Paraphrase: Yes, but to die is to go into the unknown and to go from warmth and feeling to being nothing but a compacted clod of earth, while my spirit is subjected to floods of fire or layers of ice or besieged by invisible winds blowing me violently and sending me off howling. All this is too horrible to contemplate. The worst of worldly life, becoming old, being poor, being imprisoned, is a paradise compared to what scares us about death.

Step 3: Memorizing and Performing the Text

In this step, students take the passage they have been studying and commit it to memory. The passage is then presented to the class. The student attempts to present the passage to the student audience in such a way that they can make sense of it. The presenter receives feedback from the audience in the form of their restating what they understood from the presentation. The presenter can also clarify any confusions that the students might have.

One obvious variation to the presentation of a single speech, would be to have two or more students prepare a brief scene from the play, again with the focus being on communicating the meaning.

Step 4: Viewing the Play

Many good DVD versions of Shakespeare's plays are available. Of course their are the movie versions of Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing that are readily available, but the BBC television series of all the plays gives the best sense of the plays in a stage-like performance. Since a play is meant to be seen and heard and not read, I would supplement the student performances of parts of the text, with the viewing of the performance on the DVD. 

A video presentation can be treated just like a text, viewing a small portion and then summarizing what was viewed and discussing how the scene fits into the overall plot of the play and what recurring themes are present.

Of course, nothing could replace actually seeing a production of the play. The first professional play I ever saw was a production of The Merchant of Venice at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ. It made a powerful impression on a 14 year-old boy. My love of Shakespeare began that day on that stage and not from the pages of the book the teacher had made us read.

Shakespeare's plays were created to be performed. In fact they existed on the stage before they ever existed on the page. By emphasizing the performance aspect of the plays, and by de-emphasizing the reading of the plays, we may find it easier to invite students into the world of Shakespeare. And by memorizing and performing a small chunk of Shakespeare, students may find themselves reaching beyond a dull comprehension to a richer textual understanding.

Shakespeare wrote plays. Students should be encouraged to play with them.

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