Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

'Tis in my memory lock'd

During the Folger’s recent Webinar on Teaching Macbeth, a teacher asked us, “Is it important to get students to memorize Shakespeare?” This is a question that often comes up, and memorization is often cited as a task that teachers use in their teaching. I have an answer for this, but first let me give you some background.

In Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice, Kylene Beers and her co-editors  discuss the stages of literacy. They begin by stating that from Colonial America until the Revolutionary War, the ability to sign one’s name was a sign of literacy. We’ve all seen those old movies where a character can only sign a document with an X. The authors call this “signature literacy.”

From then until the Civil War, literacy was the ability to read and write, with an emphasis on penmanship. Remember those extraordinary letters that soldiers wrote during the Civil War in Ken Burns’ documentary. Some  of you may have even learned the Palmer Method of handwriting (I am still the proud owner of a Palmer pin that I won for achieving some level of mastery). But the days of teaching “proper” handwriting are long gone. 

Following the Civil War and up until World War I, literacy took on another stage. With the influx of so many non-English speaking immigrants, the sign of a literate person was the ability to memorize.  As the authors wrote, “Literate people were those who had memorized poems, speeches, soliloquies.We now look back and label this time as recitational literacy, in that literacy as penmanship was replaced with literacy as knowing a body of work.We still see the interest in this today through E.D.Hirsch’s thoughts on cultural literacy and the (rare) tenth-grade teacher who demands that students memorize something from Shakespeare. But many readers of this text will remember being in school and memorizing “Trees” or “Annabel Lee” or “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”When you asked why, you were told, “Because you ought to know these poems.” In other words, recitational literacy.”

When I first heard Kylene Beers speak of this, I had an epiphany. My father, the son of Italian immigrants, never finished high school. But I recall his ability to recite some random poems at random times. My favorite was “Casey at the Bat,” but I seem to remember his reciting passages from “Charge of the Light Brigade” and “The Raven,” as well as some other I can’t recall. I never got to ask him where he learned them and why he learned them, but clearly he was a product of a NYC school system that valued Recitational Literacy.

So that brings us back to the question of memorizing Shakespeare.

I see the answer to this three ways:

  1. If your goal is simply to have students stand at your desk and “privately” recite their sonnet or soliloquy to you so that you can put a check in your grade book, I say STOP doing it. As previously stated, this methodology ended around 1920, yet so many teachers persist in doing it. Here’s why: Their teachers did it because their teachers did it because… I even started doing it in my early years in the classroom for the same reason. Although I hated doing it in elementary and high school, I figured it was just something I was supposed to do. No one ever told me that I shouldn’t so I did it. But soon I realized that it seemed like a waste of time–both mine and my students’, so I stopped. It was only when I heard Beers speak that I felt justified in my decision. So if you have similar feeling, you have my permission to cease and desist immediately.
  2. The Folger approach to teaching Shakespeare is to conclude a unit with a performance–whether it be in class or on a stage with other classes or on a stage at a Festival. When you get to this point in your unit, memorization of one’s lines is essential. But the difference is that the student is moving on the lines, thinking about what they mean, and engaging with other actors when saying the lines. This is very different from standing next to the teacher’s desk.
  3. In between #1 and #2 is memorization for a purpose–that purpose being a competition. Each year, the English-Speaking Union sponsors a National Shakespeare Competition in NYC. Here’s what the ESU says about its program: “16,000 students and 2,000 teachers from 60 ESU Branches participate in a curriculum-based program designed to help high school students develop their communications skills and appreciation of language and literature, through the study, interpretation and performance of Shakespeare’s monologues and sonnets. Students participate in three qualifying stages at the school, Branch and national levels. The English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition first place winner will receive the ESU’s Amanda Steele Scholarship for summer study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.” So if your goal is to have students develop their communication skills in front of an audience, I would encourage you to find a Branch near you and enter the competition.

I’m sure some teachers disagree with me, and I’d love to hear from them. So please add your comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.