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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teach Shakespeare However You Want -- Just Keep His Language Alive

Where there's Will, there's a way . . . to teach. Any approach that brings students to Shakespeare is worth trying, but in the end, the lingo's the thing.
Owen Edwards

This article accompanies the feature "Teachers Shake Up Shakespeare with Digital Media."

William Shakespeare is the great shape-shifter of English literature, maybe of all literature. Because relatively little is known about him -- unlike, say, Dante or Goethe or, for that matter, Danielle Steel -- he has been imagined to have been the Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, or even Queen Elizabeth I herself.

There are still those who contend that an actor from a small town, with only a basic public education, couldn't possibly have written such towering works as Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest. As if the phenomenon of a genius can be rationally explained.

What matters in the end is not who Shakespeare was but what he did. And because his work is so resilient, its shape has also shifted in countless adaptations to fit the tone and temper of changing times. Costumes evolve from the togas of ancient Rome to the uniforms of fascism and from the doublets and gowns of Renaissance Verona to the jeans and tank tops of today's Los Angeles, but the plays endure.

Even when settings and eras range far from the playwright's originals in such films as Ian McKellen's portrait of Richard III as a ruthless dictator in the 1920s and the streetwise Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes. Even when the times and places stick to tradition, interpretations change with trends in acting and stagecraft. For a vivid example, go to YouTube and watch Sir Laurence Olivier's classical delivery of the St. Crispin's Day speech, then look at the same famous speech in a much grittier and realistic version by Sir Kenneth Branagh.

The point is, all sorts of reinterpreting can be done without ruining Shakespeare. From which follows a further point: The Bard's bounty can be taught in all sorts of innovative ways without losing touch with his genius. The main thing is just to make a connection. But as most English teachers know, you can lead students to Shakespeare but you can't necessarily make them drink it in.

The problem, ironically, is that the difficulty and the joy of teaching and learning Shakespeare are the same: Elizabethan English. While not part of a foreign language, technically speaking, the words and cadences of 16th-century London can sound very foreign to modern American ears. Understandably, that's often enough to discourage even determined students.

This isn't a new problem -- I suspect that most teachers, when they were first studying Julius Caesar in their high school years, saw the language as an obstacle, just as their classes do today. Yet it represents one of the great flowerings of the English tongue.

So, finding any way to preempt that natural, and probably inevitable, resistance, is well worth a try. But one crucial fact shouldn't be forgotten amid all the earnest and imaginative innovations: Shakespeare's greatness lives in his language.

Of course, it's important that he be understood, and that students aren't mired in a swamp of archaic words. But there's such memorable music in the meter of his lines that it shouldn't be sacrificed in pursuit of simplification. Putting the speech of three centuries ago into a modern idiom, whether in rap or "plain" American English, is not necessarily a bad thing to do. But let's not lose touch with the captivating original lines that have made Shakespeare's work survive over the centuries.

Those who value the craft of writing do not take this lightly. C.K. Williams, an award-winning poet who teaches at Princeton University, told me, "The very thought of William Shakespeare being rewritten makes me ill."

Perhaps it's best to remember that the audiences at the Globe Theatre weren't reading Hamlet or Henry V; they were watching the plays. To ask students to read Shakespeare before hearing the words spoken -- or before performing scenes themselves -- is asking a lot. Encountering the original work in a recognizably modern setting, such as the DiCaprio Romeo and Juliet, may provide just the right combination of then and now.

And rather than letting constant explanation ruin the fun, it's probably a good idea just to let the beat go on, immersing students in the compelling rhythms of the iambs, trochees, and dactyls without, at first, slowing them with too much analysis. At least they'll encounter, if only once, a flow of speech at its most magical. At best, a seed will be planted for future fascination, when the complexities of life -- and language -- become more intriguing.

In the meantime, let's let Will be Will. As Prospero says at the end of The Tempest:

As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Do we really want to try improving that?

Owen Edwards is a contributing editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian magazines.

Comments (2)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

lynn herman's picture
lynn herman
honors and regular 9th and 10 grade English teacher in rural Wisconsin

The thought of reading Shakespeare in any form other than how he wrote it, makes me ill as well. I chuckled when I read the part about the Princeton prof. I have teachers telling me all the time to dump Shakespeare---NOT A CHANCE!

Kimberly Waldin's picture
Kimberly Waldin
Performing Arts Consultant

I also love Shakespeare. So while I agree that you shouldn't "mess" too much with the language of the original script, I also believe that the reason why his works are so timeless is not because of the language. Beautiful though it may be, his writing was flowery for his time, and not indicative of how the average Elizabethan spoke. Nor was he the most popular playwright of his time! What makes his work thrive, even today, is the universal themes that he communicated through his art. So rather than treat the Cannon as sacred text, I believe we should be open to adapting his works to students audiences. As Edwards suggested: it's important that he be understood, and that students aren't mired in a swamp of archaic words. So, as I adapt A Midsummer Night's Dream for a fifth grade production, I will be cutting down the play to make it more accessible to my student actors, but you can also be reassured that what I will use will be all original Shakespeare.

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