I have a deep and meaningful relationship with Shakespeare. As a teacher of English and Drama his work is a constant presence in my classroom. No student of mine escapes The Bard! Thus, my pupils also form a relationship with Shakespeare…though in many cases it is less a deep and meaningful relationship and more of a traumatic blind date your parents have arranged for you and no matter how many times you try to get out of it, fake illness or pretend to leave the country…it is a date with destiny.
Even in the face of such disgust and horror from my captive target audience, I adore teaching Shakespeare to young people. It gives me the sort of thrill a career prostitute feels when presented with fresh virgin flesh. I long to be their first. To be the one who guides them through the pain so their pleasure might be all the more intense. Of course not every pupil who enters Room 36 exits with a heart pumping iambic blood through pentameter veins, but I have managed to bend many to My Will.
My first Classroom Rule is that: Shakespeare belongs to the Theatre. The English Department upstairs might think they own his language and poetry, but they are wrong…trill that first syllable again I say: WRRRRRong! Will was a man of “The Boards” not the chalkboards. So I get them on their feet acting out the plays. Better yet—I take them to see the plays. Only after the characters and stories have them ensnared do I even dare get out the books.
Once they have the text lying in front of them, pages open in snapping jaws of incomprehensible literacy like JK Rowling’s Monster Book of Monsters, I throw another mantra at them: Shakespeare’s Language is Modern. He did not write in Old English or Middle English—this is modern English as we know the language. They never believe me so I am forced to pull out Chaucer for a sample of what true Middle English is like.
Invariably, a few students will dare ask: “How come Shakespeare didn’t just write in simple words? Why can’t he just say it so everyone understands?”
I give them three reasons. Firstly, it was the style of the time: Audiences expected characters to speak beautifully. A second reason is for emotional expressiveness: the greater and more intense the emotion of the character, the richer and more complex their poetry. Last of all, the language helps show status of characters: higher characters speak higher language. In Midsummer Night’s Dream for example, the densest poetry belongs to Oberon and Titania, while the Mechanicals speak verse only when performing Pyramus and Thisbe at the end. Hamlet is an intriguing exception to this rule as he swaps freely and frequently between the most beautiful verse and the most straightforward prose, either to emphasise his tangled state of mind or draw attention to the fact that Hamlet largely rejects his privilege.
Once my students accept the role of poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, someone will always wonder: “Why does he have to go on and on and on about stuff?”
To establish mood & setting. There were no sets or lighting in Elizabethan theatre, so Shakespeare relied on language to create atmosphere. The careful reader could easily be overwhelmed by references to weather, time and place in Shakespeare’s plays. You have to when you are performing on an empty stage in broad daylight. The language also gives direction to the actors. There are very few proper stage directions in Sixteenth-Seventeenth Century texts, but Shakespeare was a dramatic storyteller who had clear ideas of how particular lines should be read or what an actor should be doing in particular moments. “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand. Oh that I were a glove upon that hand that I might touch that cheek.” Most importantly, the language tells the story in a far more aural way than we are accustomed to the 21st Century. Elizabethans went to the theatre to HEAR a play, not to SEE one.
A favourite exercise I learned during my teacher training highlights this, but requires a large group to work well. Take one lengthy Shakespearean speech and get everyone in the group to read it from punctuation mark to punctuation mark in sequence. Once you have practised this smoothly, everyone selects a favourite word from his/her section. Read out the speech using only the favourite words and stand back when, as if by magic, the meanings and themes of language float knowledgeably through the ether. I also find that after condensing the speech down, students are eager to get the rest of the language back now they have a better understanding.
“But, Miss,” (they call all teachers “Miss” or “Sir” here…it’s so cute) whines the bravest pupil, “How come Shakespeare is so hard to understand?”
Again, there are three main reasons. Archaic vocabulary and allusions. We use allusions as a short cut to expressing a whole world of images, feelings and stories. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer the core characters refer to themselves as The Scooby Gang, banking on our understanding of the connection between the mystery solving dog pack and the mystery solving slayerettes. Shakespeare did this too, and audiences at the time would have understood most of the connections he made. Modern education tends to lack the hardcore emphasis on Classical Literature. Solution: look up the stuff you don’t understand. Duh. Poetic/Heightened Language. Shakespeare wrote in heightened language, the language of poetry. He used imagery, metaphors and similes frequently. I tend to think of his language in the same way I view a complex painting: I am interested only slightly in the original intent of the artist, I am far more intrigued by what the images mean to me and could mean to a modern audience. Complex sentence structure & syntax. This is the one area of Shakespeare I find truly difficult. The man was an absolute bugger for going off on poetic tangents…it’s like he just becomes so fascinated with a single image or metaphor he picks away at like a determined predator which carries on long after the prey is deceased. Moreover, he insists on iambic pentameter. Have you ever tried to write a normally structured sentence in iambic pentameter? Have you ever tried to write 100,000 of them? The trick is to pick through the important words to capture the through line. Like so…
Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye.
Duncan’s virtues shall blow the horrid deed in every eye.
I do not suggest we boil down a beautiful soliloquy into single phrase, this is simply an exercise to cut through the tumbling images and each the core of what is being said.
My best piece of advice to young pupils and young actors who struggle with Shakespeare is to understand the conflicts and emotions first. You don’t have to grasp every single image, allusion and metaphor to know Juliet is devastated when she learns Romeo has murdered Tybalt. Similarly, audiences need not shun these beautifully told stories. I have never once seen someone storm out of a performance of Richard III complaining they “just don’t get it” (though they may sneak off for a toilet emergency midway through his never-ending pre-Bosworth soliloquy). Once in the theatre, once live bodies speak the beautiful words in character, once they meet the man on his home turf, they do indeed bend to My Will.