Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Shakespeare through Fresh Eyes

Students watch another school perform during the 2010 Children's Festival

Last night my younger brother-in-law’s 8th grade class performed an abridged Macbeth after studying and rehearsing the play for 4 months. For most of them, this play was their first experience with Shakespeare, and – at least from my seat in the audience – they were enjoying the heck out of it.  Even as it warmed my heart, I kept thinking of a bit from a recent article by STC’s former literary associate, Akiva Fox, (the whole article is definitely worth a read):

“I wish I could be shocked when Cordelia doesn’t make it—what a ballsy and maddening and vital way to end a play! I wish I could hear jealousy described as a “green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on” and remember what jealousy felt like and realize what an insanely original and right way that is to describe it. I want to be 15 again for that (and not for any other part of being 15), but I understand that genie is not easily rebottled.”

In a lifetime of loving the Bard, it’s hard to be surprised by the plays I know so well. Macbeth is going to kill Duncan, and Banquo, and Macduff’s entire family. The things that were once shocking are commonplace to me. But to these students four months ago and to their families in the audience, it was totally new.

Isn’t it nice to be completely surprised by a 400 year old play? To see revelations dawn on faces young and older as they see the pieces fit together. To catch a couple of parents nodding (and “hmm”-ing) in understanding with “Tomorrow and tomorrow…”  (which my bro delivered like a pro). It was really invigorating to see this play unfolding before an audience for the first time.

This is what I love about students performing Shakespeare, especially when we’re coming up on Festival time here. The students in the audience may have never before seen the plays their peers put on at the Festivals, but there they are – gasping when Petruchio insults Katherina, clutching their sides when Titania discovers Bottom, or biting their nails when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth discuss treasonous deeds.

If your class watches a performance (on stage or screen) of a Shakespeare play for the first time, what are their reactions like? Older students can definitely be self-conscious of any reaction at all, but they may ask questions. For a first-time audience, what does a Shakespeare play look like?

One Comment

  • A friend described an experience of watching Othello and being aware that two young teens seated nearby were seeing the play for the first time and completely caught up in the action. As the end drew near, one young woman, utterly unable to control herself, exclaimed “Oh no! He’s going to kill her!” My friend was delighted to see a young person so completely transfixed by and involved in the play. When students have the opportunity to give themselves over to these plays, they are changed by them.

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