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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.

December 23, 2009

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.

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