The Public Humanist

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t

“Shakespeare? Ugh!”

“I love Shakespeare myself, but my students hate just the mention of the name.”

“How do I feel about teaching Shakespeare? Terrified.”

“It’s the language that gets to me. If I don’t ‘get it’, how can I expect my students to?”

No surprise that the above verbatim quotes are responses to my first question to high school English teachers attending a ‘Teaching Shakespeare’ workshop. Within the safety of small group work, true feelings emerge: how can they bring alive these convoluted ‘men in tights’ plays for students who have no cultural context for any theater, let alone works by a four hundred -year-old dead white guy. These are earnest, dedicated people who want the very best for their students but are intimidated by what feels like an impenetrable body of dramatic literature, no matter how celebrated.

Like it or not, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the hurdle over which all students must jump for future academic success, feeds on just the sort of training that can be gained by in-depth study of a Shakespearean work. Imagine the sort of essay a student who has delved into Macbeth could write in answer to one of the 10th grade MCAS English Language Arts Composition prompts in spring 2009:

Works of literature often feature characters whose pride or selfishness creates problems.

From a work of literature you have read in or out of school, select a character whose pride or selfishness creates problems. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character’s pride or selfishness creates problems, and explain how the character’s experience relates to the work as a whole.1

Massachusetts Department of Education frameworks provide the rationale for the study of Shakespeare beginning in the 5th grade. What’s not to love about a piece of literature that supplies accessible examples of so many threads that are woven together in the “Reading and Literature Strand” of prescribed General Standards? For example:

  • Making Connections (understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background);
  • Genre (identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the characteristics of different genres)
  • Theme (identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of theme in a literary work and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding).;
  • Poetry (identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the themes, structure, and elements of poetry and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding);
  • Style and Language (identify and analyze how an author’s words appeal to the senses, create imagery, suggest mood, and set tone, and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding);
  • Dramatic Literature (identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the themes, structure, and elements of drama and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding); and
  • Dramatic Reading and Performance (plan and present dramatic readings, recitations, and performances that demonstrate appropriate consideration of audience and purpose.)2

That’s seven out of twelve “general standards” that can be accounted for through the study of one play. Not too shabby when teachers are faced with time constraints and limited resources!

So then, how do we convince teachers–and their students–that the study of Shakespeare is not only educationally nutritious but also delicious?

We who teach through the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies and Hampshire Shakespeare Company have a very simple approach–performance. Get the students on their feet and incorporating the language and the characters into movement and speech and before they know what is happening, they get it. In Shakespeare’s own day, acting troupes of children tackled the most difficult dramatic works, performing the complex situations and characters we associate with the dramatic literature of the period. Contemporary students are no less capable of comprehending the driving forces of emotional, social and political life portrayed there, and we do them a disservice in thinking they must be fed a steady diet of pop culture just because it is what they are most comfortable with.

In the program we have developed, now in its second year, called “Youth and Shakespeare: Reconstructing the Connection”, eighth- and ninth-graders in Holyoke and Springfield work for five weeks during the regular summer school session, studying the text of one of the plays for two weeks, and then spending three weeks learning to perform it. This is not the standard “let’s put on a school play that happens to be by Shakespeare.” Selected scenes – not the whole play – are performed. Rather than focusing on memorizing lines that the students may or may not understand, the teachers make sure that students have the tools to get into the meat of the play’s theme and language.

Along the way, the teen-aged participants make terrific leaps in a wide variety of social skills. The process of creating theater demands teamwork; every actor must be “in the scene,” understand their function and maintain focus accordingly. Conquering the qualms of stage fright for such a performance goes a long way to build self-confidence in such situations as job interviews and public speaking of any kind. With the ability to penetrate difficult language, imagery and structure comes a more sophisticated approach to literary criticism… not to mention improved comprehension for English Language Learners, for whom texts in English are a daunting challenge from the start!

The central aspect of the program is the involvement of the classroom teachers in overcoming their own fears and giving them the skills, through hands-on participation in the program, to bring exercises and approaches to the material back to their classrooms. Teachers do not need to be theater specialists to be able to utilize the exercises and approaches to the text that form the basis for the “Youth and Shakespeare” project. With this in mind, we work with students and teachers in summer school sessions, developing and testing everything we do for inclusion in a classroom model that can be replicated in other similar school systems and situations.

The key, of course, is to unlock, with the students’ active cooperation, the very aspects of the plays which are responsible for their having been performed continuously since their inception and translated and performed in almost every language and culture. It is a poorer human being who does not feel the sheer beauty of the poetry of Othello, or cannot connect with the raw humanity of King Lear. In our rush to meet the state and federal educational standards, please let us not lose sight of what we most require of an educated populace – the ability to grow in understanding and compassion for others even as we come to understand and accept ourselves and our own humanity.


1. English Language Arts, Grate 10., 98

2. Massachusetts English Language Arts Curriculum Framework, Massachusetts Department of Education, June 2001, 5-6.

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