Teaching Shakespeare!

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Thirteen Reasons Why Not: Shakespeare, Netflix, and a Teachable Moment

As a participant in the four-week Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2016, I undertook academic research that took me deep into Shakespeare’s language and the Reading Rooms of the Folger. I was intrigued by the role marriage played in two of the plays we studied, Othello and The Merchant of Venice—especially the manner in which particular women chose to use marriage as a form of rebellion. Two especially compelling characters, I noticed, choose to marry without the permission of the patriarchal father figure. Desdemona in Othello absconds in the middle of the night in much the same manner as Jessica in Merchant of Venice. Studying these plays in depth informed how I taught yet another play this year, Romeo and Juliet. Once again, another runaway bride.

The major contrast is the obvious end result of each marriage. While Desdemona dies a horrific death not of her choosing and Jessica possibly lives a life of penury, Juliet chooses to commit suicide because she refuses to live without her beloved. Thus the title of this article. Anyone who teaches adolescents knows about the phenomenon that is Thirteen Reasons Why, the current Netflix series, which centers on teen suicide. This series has created such a furor that superintendents are sending out letters to parents and teachers about the sensitive, serious content.

As an English teacher, I grasp my responsibility here. I see the conversation around this show and the urgent relevance of its main topic as a very real teachable moment. I see an opportunity for students to understand what’s at stake for Shakespeare’s characters and therefore for every human being… a true gift from pop culture.

In many classrooms there are two views of the adolescent choices made by Romeo and Juliet: either the wistful sigh of “how romantic” or the pained groan of “how stupid are they?” In an effort to bridge this gap I created a graphic organizer that includes thirteen points throughout Shakespeare’s play where consequential decisions were made, decisions that directly led to the final, tragic outcome of the drama. In class, students close-read these thirteen excerpts and explained how different decisions could have been, how different outcomes could have been reached. I explained that for each of the thirteen moments, their alternative outcome could be positive or neutral, and the students were given an opportunity to explain their answers.

Aside from the obvious literacy goal of engaging my students in close reading of the text, my other main goal was to help them see that sometimes we are all Juliet. Confused, hormonal, defiant, strong-willed and looking for a mentor to give us sound advice.

I also wanted my students to engage with textual content in a questioning manner in order to develop clarity and understanding of Shakespeare’s words and possible intent.

This lesson is easily adaptable to all students. Some suggestions are

  1. Have students complete all of the sections of the text that could be used.
  2. Do half of the entries for the students and have them complete the other half.
  3. Complete all of the entries for the students.
  4. Have students create a listing from most to least important instances in the text that contribute to the ending.
  5. This is ideal for groups or pairing.

SAMPLE TEXT EXCERPTS, FROM FOLGER DIGITAL TEXTS:

Portion of the text that could have contributed to a different final outcome Explanation, elaboration, personal insight, commentary
1. SERVINGMAN God gi’ good e’en. I pray, sir, can you
read?
ROMEO
Ay, mine own fortune in my misery.
SERVINGMAN Perhaps you have learned it without
book. But I pray, can you read anything you see?
ROMEO
Ay, if I know the letters and the language.
SERVINGMAN You say honestly. Rest you merry.
ROMEO Stay, fellow. I can read.(He reads the letter.)
2.

LADY CAPULET
Speak briefly. Can you like of Paris’ love?
JULIET
I’ll look to like, if looking liking move.
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.

 

3. ROMEO
I fear too early, for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels, and expire the term
Of a despisèd life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail. On, lusty gentlemen.
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