This young company is not just promising: It’s delivering.
– Adam Feldman, TimeOutNY
Sigh No More: Reinventing Shakespeare in Our Classrooms
Sigh No More:
Reinventing Shakespeare in Our Classrooms
Shakespeare presents one of the most considerable challenges for teachers and students alike. After all, he is, as everyone knows, the greatest poet who has ever lived— a peerless master of language. His illustrious oeuvre is a master class in the complex relationships and systems—physical, political, emotional, spiritual—that exist within and between us. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Blooms writes: “Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us.” “How he was possible,” Bloom writes, “I cannot know.” Simply, he is one of the most important people to ever live. We stand in awe of him, The Bard.
And this is the problem.
As I see it, the most considerable barrier separating educators and students from Shakespeare is the insurmountable monument of presumption we have constructed in his honor, one that we root dauntingly at the front of our rowed rooms. We make him nothing less than a secular deity. But how easily praise becomes platitude, reverence becomes redundancy. And I see often how students tire at the seriousness of it all, yawn at the nuisance, and I don’t necessarily blame them. To help adolescents become more engaged with Shakespeare, to not just view his works as tedious, impenetrable, and irrelevant, we need to continue to rethink how we teach them to our students.
To the point about Super Serious Shakespeare is the preponderance of his tragedies in high school classrooms. The Big Four of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello are pillars of English curricula. In fact, Macbeth and Hamlet are the only two of his plays specifically cited under the Common Core Standards as texts “illustrating the complexity, quality, and range of student reading.” (Further: Shakespeare is the only author mandated by the Common Core.) The tragedies have a self-evident eminence, rich in their immediacy and potency; but cannot our students learn a great deal from the comedies—and, dare I say, have fun doing so? This is not to say that the comedies or the romances or the historical plays are never taught, but it seems that we have found the moral imperative of the tragedies to better suit our teenaged students. In doing this, we are denying them the opportunity to experience Shakespeare in a way that doesn’t involve them glaring up at him, glassy-eyed, upon the altar.
Specifically, Much Ado About Nothing, though not exactly the pièce de résistance of his comedies, with its clever wordplay, folly born of miscommunication and misidentification, and issues of honor and honesty, slides deftly into the void slowly sucking our students into weariness. There is much fun to be had with Beatrice and Benedick’s witty nihilism, or with the masked ball where the play takes its shape, or with the second wedding fake-out of the irritating Claudio. Even Dogberry, one of the most ridiculous of Shakespeare’s creations, is an entertaining lesson in language (though, admittedly, while his senseless malapropism would have more dire consequences in a tragedy, here his solecism is simply inane). Indeed, in this play students can see that Shakespeare is not perfect.
In my classroom, my students take a project-based approach towards better understanding (or “learning,” if you will) Shakespeare. Performance is the heart of the project. “All the world’s a stage,” after all, and students feel a greater comfort with and comprehension for Shakespeare when they embody his creations. Having students be Beatrice “[speaking] poniards,” enables them to more closely connect to the sharpness of her esprit, and perhaps better question the source of her marginal acidity (gender politics, anyone?). Pair in-class performance with character blogs and Twitter feeds and students can get inside the minds of their characters and give them greater dimension. Characters like the insufferably dour, “plain-dealing villain” Don John (Iago-lite) and the nearly voiceless Hero find life as they are reimagined through media. Furthermore, the use of media accentuates and diversifies the layers of miscommunication in the play. Ancillary yet essential characters like Borachio, Margaret, and Ursula find depth beyond their functionality. Imagine a Twitter exchange between Beatrice and Benedick, or a rap battle between Balthasar and Don Pedro (or, for that matter, Feste, Ariel, or Autolycus).
Rethinking our approach to teaching Shakespeare to our students is necessary if we wish to refine their comprehension and broaden their creativity. Activities such as the ones only briefly mentioned above will keep students engaged, and dispel their presumptions about the Bard. They will reconstitute and reinforce relevance, and differentiate their experience. In this way, Shakespeare in the classroom becomes more than just much ado about nothing.
St. Francis Preparatory School