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The Impact of Shakespeare on Teachers and Students

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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William Shakespeare was the R-rated writer of his time. His plays were potentially more sexy than any E.L. James novel and oft-times more violent than any Quentin Tarantino film. The words of the Bard make up a universal language, one that can unite cultures with their themes and conflicts. And, more importantly to this blogger, William Shakespeare changed my life.

Therefore, as this month marks the anniversary of The Bard's birth, I wanted to pay a tribute to the writer who inspires so many.

The Timeline of My Own Fandom

I have been a Shakespeare geek since, well, as long as I can remember. In elementary school, my father used to lend me his Classics Illustrated comic books of plays like Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I even developed one of my first fictional crushes on the impish Puck. In middle school, I first read Twelfth Night and, for the first time, laughed out loud at dialogue on a page. However, it was in high school when the words of The Bard helped redirect my life.

As a high schooler, I was not making great decisions socially. My friends were not ones that parents would be proud of. These were worrisome peers with which I surrounded myself, and although I knew they weren't my future, I didn't understand enough about reflection or metacognition to know why I was making the choices I did. That is, until Mrs. Dunn's class where I read the following lines from Henry IV, Part 1:

I know you all, and will awhile, uphold
The unyok'd humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the Sun,
Who doth permit the base, contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world...
I'll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

I mean, come on. What high schooler doesn't understand this version of logical misbehavior? In Prince Hal, I had found someone, a character, to relate to - one who spoke of my hopes and voiced my thoughts clearer than I could at that time in my life. From there, I gobbled up Shakespeare, not just to read about images of fairies and queens, but to understand myself more, and the world around me, and the people within it.

In the summer before my senior year in high school, I studied drama at Oxford University. I was cast in our program's production of Macbeth. Now, I'm not generally a superstitious person, but clearly I must have said the unlucky title of The Scottish Play within the walls of the theater because I ended up in the local hospital with an emergency appendectomy. Nevertheless, for one brief shining moment, I almost performed Shakespeare in a sixteenth-century church in England, and so I become a part of the curse's history of victims.

In college, I learned that even Shakespeare was fallible, capable of writing plays that even I didn't love. In so doing, I learned that a career is made up of ups and downs, of successes and failures, of accomplishments that you are proud of, and ones from which you'd just assume move on.

Later in my own career, I had opportunities to direct Shakespeare. I began a middle school Shakespeare elective for a school in Dublin, California. I introduced his words to students of all levels, and our little troupe performed all over the Bay Area doing scenes from scores of plays.

The Universality of Shakespeare

For that's one of the amazing things about Shakespeare's works: you can throw all rules out the window. You don't have to be so reverent that you can't inject your own spin. Because of their universality, they can be set anywhere, in any era, with any cast. I've seen productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in the American colonies. I've also seen it set in heaven. I've seen all male versions and all female versions. I've seen black-box theater simplicity and CGI-enhanced productions. And each decision helps shed new light and new possibilities on new themes and new revelations.

As a classroom teacher, I now share my passion with students of all levels. I use Shakespeare with my honors students, my at risk kids, and my special ed students. My English language learners, who are constantly internalizing their translating anyways, are the quickest to paraphrase the most complex of excerpts. There's a pride in students when they click with what a stanza means. There's a light bulb that goes off unlike any other when they realize that these topics and phrases aren't unattainable.

Because, let's face it, Shakespeare has a bum rap in schools. Somewhere along the line, we all bought the line that his plays should somehow be reserved for the highest level of student or the oldest kids in our K-12 system. However, this does a disservice to both the accessibility of Shakespeare's words and the ability of our students to comprehend them. I would argue that his words open up doors to literature and analysis and confidence for all levels, and arguably in a variety of subjects.

There is a connection to Shakespeare in science. Botanical gardens have been themed with the flora and fauna in his plays. Potions and medicines appear in their historical infancy embedded within the acts of multiple productions. There is a connection to Shakespeare in history. Medieval kings and queens walk down the aisles of the pages with great pomp and circumstance, and Shakespeare has even defined some of their own long-lasting reputations and descriptions.

When I shared a connecting door with another Shakespeare-loving teacher, we would open the door (a la an episode of "Laugh-in") and shout quoted insults from the plays to each other during class time. The kids would yell "ooo" and "diss!' with glee when they figured out what our slams meant. Shakespeare is rigorous, sure, but there is so much fun to be had with his words.

Shakespeare speaks in the universal language of metaphor and simile. After all, every student can understand that "The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars/As daylight doth a lamp." He uses personification, playing on the underlying suspicion within every child that somehow everything that happens proves sentience. For why wouldn't the fair sun arise and want to "kill the envious moon?" And this universal comprehension evens the playing field for many groups and cultures.

I will end this post on a call to action, if you will, a challenge for any teacher. Rediscover Shakespeare and rediscover enthusiasm for the written word. Pick up a play written by The Bard. Open its pages, and let yourself be seduced. Pick a stanza and dive deep into its depths. Lose yourself in the layers of meaning that reflect the layers within our own world around us.

How has Shakespeare impacted you as a person, as a learner, and as a teacher?

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Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sandra Schneiderman's picture
Sandra Schneiderman
Years 8, 10 and 12 English and History-Australian Curriculum

Hello fellow Shakespeare teachers,
My Year 8 class of girls is currently looking at the ways in which Jessica and Portia shared many similar traits in 'The Merchant of Venice', and how they had to resort to devious ways to show independence. We have had some highly engaging discussions on the role of wives, sisters, mothers and daughters and how those roles have changed, OR stayed the same over history.
The girls had to interview their parents/guardians and grandparents if they were still alive, on whether or not marriage is still as necessary now as it was in Shakespeare's time. Would THEY have stolen from their parents to escape with the boy of their dreams?
Would they have deliberately directed their heart throb to make the right choice in choosing the correct casket? Why or why not?
Finally, to what extent is it acceptable to bend the rules to marry the man of your dreams?
Lots of hilarious discussions about what really DID constitute a heart throb and the extent to which girls go behind their parents' backs to be rebellious.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

That's the thing, isn't it? The themes are universal, which is one of the reasons why the Bard's plays have been so enduring. There are so many ways for people to enter the plays: the action, the humor, the tragedy, the romance, and so on.

And I love that Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers fame, recently directed a version of Much Ado About Nothing. That in itself is another entry point and one that might intrigue students.

jharbeck's picture

It's fun to find different interpretation options for students to experiment with - everything from costume choices to setting choices. Setting the Grumio-Kate food scene from Shrew in a back alley brought a whole new aspect to the dynamic between the characters.

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