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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guest Post: No Sweat Shakespeare

Having recently made the acquaintance of the folks over at the educational website No Sweat Shakespeare, we decided that it might be a good thing to exchange ideas and thoughts in the form of some guest posts. For those of you who don't know their website, let me just say that it's not only a 'blog' (in fact, I believe the blog to be one of its newer components) it's also a full-fledged website full of ideas for learning and teaching Shakespeare that's been around for seven years or so. No Sweat Shakespeare is shepherded by London-based John and Warren King. John's dad, Warren, was an English teacher and Shakespeare expert in the UK for 35 years. I'd advise anyone interested in most aspects regarding our man Will Shakespeare to check out their site--there's something for everyone. Without further ado, what follows is, in my opinion, a great tool for teachers of the Bard; a way to make Shakespeare Live.
Thanks Guys. JM

A Shakespeare Lesson For Teachers
By Warren King

One of the most common tasks English teachers are confronted with is to teach a Shakespeare text. The question, particularly for a teacher new to it, is how to approach it.

The last twenty years have seen a revolution in the teaching of Shakespeare in schools. Before that teachers had been trained to regard a Shakespeare text as a literary document and to teach it in a strictly academic way. It was a common cry of students that ‘Shakespeare is boring’ or ‘I can’t understand it’, or ‘It’s written in old English with a lot of thees and thous.’
Shakespeare’s language was generally regarded as a barrier that prevented most students from access to the wonderful things contained in the text and it was the job of a teacher to decipher it for them..

All that has changed as a result of the development of Shakespeare teaching methods. Teachers now look at a Shakespeare play, not as a literary text, but as a pointer to the fun and actions and emotions of a group of characters involved with each other in a life experience. That change in attitude has led to an exploration of how teachers may use active methods, bringing the language to life, rather than giving line by line explanations.

Take Macbeth’s ‘soliloquy, ‘If it were done when ‘tis done,’ at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 7. Teachers will not only want students to understand what he is saying there but also how the themes of the play are reflected in the passage and, above all, what kind of person is saying these things. There is a simple, fun way of doing that.

Student desks should be moved out of the way, or students could be taken into a cleared space such as a hall or gym or drama studio. Students stand in a circle with copies of the soliloquy and follow as the teacher reads it. At this point students will probably not make anything of it. The teacher then tells them she is going to read it again and every time there is any word or phrase that suggests any physical activity the students should speak that word or phrase with her as she reads. That process can be repeated until all the students are speaking those bits of language with her. They will then be joining in with such things as ‘’assassination,’ ‘trammel up,’ ‘catch,’ ‘blow,’ ‘jump,’ ‘teach,’ ‘shut the door,’ ‘bear the knife,’ ‘plead,’ ‘taking off,’ ‘striding the blast,’ ‘horsed,’ ‘drown,’ ‘prick the sides,’ ‘vaulting,’ ‘leaps,’ ‘falls,’ and so on.

Students will now see that there’s a lot of reference to physical activity, including the kind of sport and athletic activity that they are familiar with. The teacher now asks them to perform the actions each time. Students will soon be striking blows, jumping, leaping, striding, taking off, horse riding, vaulting, falling, and performing all the actions. They will be laughing and having fun. The teacher may draw two chalk lines on the floor and ask each student in turn to stand on the first and say ‘but here upon this bank and shoal of time….’ and jump to the second as they say ‘we’d jump the life to come.’ Students will naturally pause, take a deep breath and jump on the word, actually feeling the physical effort and the change in their breathing.

We now have the basis of a discussion. The teacher doesn’t have to explain anything: the students will tell her that this is a man of action, a sportsman. They will feel the strenuous breathing in the language, the muscular stretching, the desperation that is all there in the language. Macbeth is examining his own feelings about killing Duncan, setting out his arguments for and against, but strictly according to his own physical nature. And it is that physical nature – the man of action - that is the clue to his personality. They will have a perception of the violence that underscores his personality. His yearning and desire are all felt in the muscles of his body and students will understand that. The actual arguments, and therefore the surface meaning of the soliloquy will become apparent and there will be no need for the teacher to try and explain it.

An exercise like that will capture the students’ interest in further exploring the play. It could actually be their introduction to the play, the first lesson. They could be asked to talk about what kind of man this is, what he is planning, and they could be asked to construct a story from it. They will also see his reluctance to carry it out, and thus the tension. They will see how profound his ambition is and how even now he knows that he is an over-reacher and that his plan is doomed to ultimate failure. The teacher’s input will have to be nothing more than a few guiding comments. The language barrier will have evaporated.

Active methods are available in almost any passage in any Shakespeare text and if teachers apply their knowledge of a text to devising them students will remember that teacher for the rest of their lives and refer to her as a wonderful teacher.

By Warren King, Nosweatshakespeare.com

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