“A play is acting.” (Elementary school student, grade 2)
“For all my reign hath been but as a scene/Acting that argument.” (2 Henry IV, IV.5)
Last week, I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with high school students participating in Folger’s High School Fellowship Program. I was especially fortunately because our guest instructor was Caleen Sinette Jennings, Professor of Theatre at American University. Through an afternoon working with Caleen, I learned several important things about Shakespeare and his language.
1. Each word can be a physical experience. Think about the way little children tell stories. They use their entire bodies to tell the tale. It’s like they can’t help but move and shake and wiggle and engage all of themselves because they are so excited. They act out the story. Shakespeare’s language invites us to do the same. The words are so packed with meaning they burst out of us. If we get up on our feet, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself moving as you say the words out loud. The words are parts of a play—a living thing. They are a series of physical experiences.
2. The behavior of the words provides us with clues into the state of mind of the speaker. Look at a phrase from Shakespeare. In this class, the students acted out Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. These words are so well known, it’s tempting to just run your eyes over them thinking “yeah, I know this.” Instead, act each word out. Pay attention to words and phrases: nobler in the mind, slings and arrows, outrageous fortune, perchance to dream. Give over to the motions the body associates with the words. You’ll begin to understand Hamlet as you give motion to his words.
3. Sometimes the words fight with each other. Characters try to hold different “truths” in their minds at the same time. Characters deceive each other. Characters struggle to find meaning in experience. All this is expressed in words that are at odds with each other. Let the words fight. Give the words expression with your body that lets them fight. Character’s inner turmoil becomes evident as their words do battle.
4. Shakespeare is not hard to understand when you physicalize it. I’ve seen the light in young people’s eyes as they recognize they do understand the language. They get the meaning. The words make sense. Once they are up on their feet, putting the words into action, it’s not difficult to understand. In fact, it’s very much what they are experiencing in their lives.
Thanks to Caleen and these great students, I literally saw Shakespeare come to life, right before my eyes.