Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Experience, O, thou disprovest report! (Part 1)

Happy holiday break! I hope you’re enjoying your week off from school (if you have one)! This week I’ll be sharing two activity ideas from Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger on helping students experience Shakespeare to overcome their expectations of the language and text. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, and let us know how your first semester went, or what your plans are for the coming one!

~by Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger

We are sometimes asked for help from teachers whose students are having trouble with not only the language, but the plot of a play. For example, I was recently asked by a young friend’s teacher if I could come and talk to her class about Othello, which they are currently studying.

The questions I ask myself when preparing for something like this is: How can I help students understand language they don’t expect to understand and follow a plot they expect is too hard to follow? How do I help them overcome their expectations?

The Folger’s approach is to give the students activities that help them experience Shakespeare, to help his world come to life off of the page.

Sometimes, especially if the students are fairly new to Shakespeare, I’ll begin with having the kids act out theatre in Shakespeare’s time with a simple role-playing exercise shared with us by another Docent earlier this year. A few students will be “groundlings” with permission to behave badly: shout out during the performance, eat, drink, and generally make a scene. A couple of students will sit on the “stage area” as the wealthiest playgoers did. Their goal is not to see the play, but to be seen, so they are encouraged to call attention to themselves. A few more students are merchants, who must sell all their wares if they want to make a living and feed their families. A couple will take the role of “cut purse” and move stealthily about the crowd, stealing whatever they can without getting caught. Now I ask some players to be ready to take the stage in a 3,000 seat outdoor theatre, recognizing they have no microphones and if the groundlings are not impressed they are likely to pelt the players with rotten fruit. At this point I bring in a student to play Shakespeare. What does he need to do to get and keep the attention of this crazy crowd?

Having the students experience this for a few minutes, with chaos and laughter and movement, teaches them infinitely more than my standing in front of them and telling them about Shakespeare’s theatre and time. They recognize that Shakespeare must have done something pretty remarkable to have had so much success getting that crowd to hear the play. The play must, somehow, be more interesting than it seems sitting there on the page.

This is, of course, the whole point. The play isn’t sitting on a page, it’s alive and active. On Thursday, I’ll be sharing an example of a scene from Othello which students can use to play with the language Shakespeare provided.

Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine.

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