Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Why I Love the High School Fellowship Program

The High School Fellows program at Folger Shakespeare Library. Photo by Corinne Viglietta.
The High School Fellowship Program at Folger Shakespeare Library. Photo by Corinne Viglietta.

We often feature the voices of teachers on this blog. But today, we hear from a student…

By Mikaela Ruiz-Ramon

The Folger Shakespeare Library High School Fellowship Program is a 3 month-long course offered to Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area high school students.

I am part of a group of 16 Fellows that meets every week for 2 hours to discuss and explore the wonderful world of Shakespeare’s works with the help of Folger staff and guest lecturers. Topics so far have included the nature of cruelty in King Lear, editing Shakespeare’s plays, and analysis of the sonnets.

I applied to the Fellowship Program because I love Shakespeare and I wanted to explore him with a community of like-minded learners.

I also wanted the opportunity to delve deeper into the Bard’s texts than what I’ve been offered in English classrooms, where units on Shakespeare tend to be dull and dry. Luckily for me, the Fellowship program has met and exceeded those desires by making Shakespeare a tangible, relatable subject with more applications than I could dream of.

In my mind, the best part of the program is that it places Shakespeare in context with so many different elements, which makes it much easier to get through his often challenging plays.

For example, the language in King Lear looks less alien when you understand the fluid nature of Elizabethan spelling, the edits publishers would make to ensure text fit properly on a page, and how the editors of the Folger edition pulled from both the Quarto edition and the First Folio. Learning how to decode Shakespeare’s plays for myself has been challenging but so much more satisfying than being told their meaning by someone else.

I found comparing Shakespeare’s texts with other pieces of writing helps draw out Shakespeare’s meaning. Shakespeare can confuse me and the meaning of different passages is quite often lost on me. However, when we used Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of Cruelty” to look at the theme of cruelty in King Lear, things began to click! I found that each piece of writing helped me understand and draw out meaning in the other, so that even if I didn’t understand either one completely by the end of our lecture, I was still much better off than I was before.

One of the best ways the program puts Shakespeare in context is by offering the Fellows the opportunity to physically and visually engage with the text beyond just reading it. It was such an indescribable feeling to actually see an original First Folio and King Lear quarto pass beneath my hands. I also got to look at playbooks from the 19th and 20th century, which was an amazing way to look into how Shakespeare’s plays have been performed in the past.

Speaking of which, there is nothing like seeing the plays you’re reading performed live in front of you – something the Fellows got to experience when we saw a production of Othello on the Folger stage! After all, Shakespeare is first and foremost a playwright and there is no better way to connect with (and understand!) a play than to see it.

My favorite part about the program is that it puts Shakespeare in context of varying topics, instead of limiting it to just the language and thematic content of the text.

Shakespeare can be difficult to get through, let alone understand, but it becomes much easier when you understand exactly how the Folger edition of King Lear has been put together using the Quarto and the First Folio. Shakespeare’s language is also less intimidating when you understand how flexible Elizabethans were with spelling and the ways publishers would alter the text to make it fit onto a page.

I’ve loved the Fellowship program and I would strongly recommend it to interested students. I think putting Shakespeare in context of history, editing, publishing, performance, and the humanities is an excellent way to teach the plays because it makes them much easier to connect to and understand. A

ll too often Shakespeare’s plays are taught as if they were isolated works, when in fact they’ve had such a huge impact on the history of theater, literature, and, to a certain extent, the world. The Fellowship Program smashes that mistaken idea to pieces and I love it.

Mikaela Ruiz-Ramon is a 2014 FSL High School Fellow and a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, where she is currently in her senior year.