Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Making Magic at the Folger

By Deborah Gascon

When I introduced myself as one of the master teachers (the other was the fabulous Michael LoMonico) to the 29 teachers participating in the Folger’s first Summer Academy, I told them the Folger was a magical place.  I thought about the unicorn painted on a screen on the ceiling of the Folger theater and the quote around it from As You Like It:  “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”  A magical and mysterious image surrounded by magical, mysterious words.


This indescribable magic was a feeling I felt during my first experience at the Folger in 2012 that I just couldn’t express or convey through words (mine or Shakespeare’s) during the academy introductions.  But a week later, after five very long and very full 12-hour days, every participant came to understand that magic and mystery that my words couldn’t describe, and I was privileged, once again, to see how Folger Education can transform a teacher’s life, his/her students’ lives and classroom practice.


I knew that to help everyone understand that magic and the mystery in our short week of the Summer Academy, some work would be involved.  And boy, did we work.

Hamlet's speech from Quarto One. (Image: Deborah Gascon)
Hamlet’s speech from Quarto One. (Image: Deborah Gascon)


We read.  We read Hamlet (using the 3-D Shakespeare strategy described here). Then we read Hamlet again and compared the Quarto One “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy which doesn’t include “that is the question” but rather “I there’s the point.”  Yep.  It was changed!  Then we read the 1604 version of Hamlet.  Then we read the 1623 First Folio version of Hamlet.  I think you get the point about how much we read.  But with every reading came deeper understanding and a closer connection with Shakespeare’s words.

We researched.  After time at the rare books “petting zoo” we ventured beyond Shakespeare to research and find primary sources to augment and enhance the teaching of Shakespeare.  Some of the titles we thumbed through were Lewes Lavater’s Of Ghosts and Spirites Walking by Nyght (1572) and The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621).  John Barrymore’s prompt book (1924) was studied and images of Sarah Bernhardt analyzed.  Some read through Walt Whitman’s pocket-sized copy of Shakespeare’s poems.  Yes, let that roll around in your brain for a moment—

Whitman's copy of Shakespeare's poems. (Image: Deborah Gascon)
Whitman’s copy of Shakespeare’s poems. (Image: Deborah Gascon)

Whitman carrying Shakespeare.  The Reading Room is an English teacher dream land.  Talk about some magic.


We listened.  We were stretched to see Hamlet in a new way with director Dr. Michael Witmore’s analysis of words in his presentation, “The Need for a Hamlet Detector.”  We were astounded by Dr. Barbara Mowat’s details of editing the Folger Editions since 1989.  We were students again in Dr. Sandy Mack’s “Old Hamlet, New Hamlet: The Tragedy of Cultural Change.”


We were privileged to have the Reading Room staff–particularly Georgianna Ziegler and Betsy Walsh–teaching, guiding and helping us to search for images on Luna and read manuscripts on Hamnet and to decipher a foreign cursive we’ve never seen or understood before.  Listening to scholars enriched our experience and allowed us to learn new ways to experience Hamlet and Shakespeare.  Many teachers in the Summer Academy have been teaching Hamlet for over ten years; these scholars breathed new life into our lessons.


We performed.  The theater ceiling says “All the world’s a stage” and we proved it during the Summer Academy.  We performed two-line scenes on the stage of the Folger Theater.  We performed death scenes on the lawn of the Folger after lessons in sword fight choreography from actor Michael Tolaydo.  We performed pertinent scenes from Hamlet (and proved reading and performing only part of a play is equally as effective!).  Acting teacher Caleen Jennings warmed us up and we performed contrasting king scenes while physicalizing key words.  Through each of these performances, we focused on stress and intonation.  Thinking as teachers, we quickly realized how these small, non-threatening performances are all close reading activities and add meaning to the quite often mysterious and misunderstood words of Shakespeare.


Sword fighting on the Folger lawn. (Image: Deborah Gascon)
Sword fighting on the Folger lawn. (Image: Deborah Gascon)

We planned.  Each participant created a 3-day teaching module that combined scholarship, performance, primary documents and strategies (pulling together the different areas we covered during the week of the Summer Academy).  The results were 29 lessons that will engage students of all grade levels and all abilities.  I know that students throughout the country will have a new and exciting experience with Shakespeare’s language this year because of the lessons planned this week.


And all along, we bonded.  Friendships were formed that I am confident will last.  There is no better resource to a teacher than another teacher who shares the same interests, experiences, philosophies and passions.  Participants cried tears of excitement over the First Folio, performed for the first time on a stage and “geeked-out” over meeting the rock stars of Shakespeare scholarship.  The experiences this week of taking risks and being vulnerable and sharing your true self created a bond that is inexplicable.


And lastly, we reflected.  Director of Education Peggy O’Brien led us in a discussion about this great profession of ours—that she consistently says is the most important job in the world–and what experiences in our careers made us want to be better teachers.  And even though that mysterious unicorn was looking over us in the theater, we jumped back into reality and delved into the world that is our profession, full of pressures from administrators, parents, students, and, quite often the hardest to deal with, the pressures we put on ourselves as teachers.  But we felt armed.  Armed with innovative teaching strategies, new knowledge, a deeper understanding and most importantly, an army of 29 teachers who would support us and remind us about that magical week at the Folger.

The ceiling of Folger's Theatre. (Image: Deborah Gascon)
The ceiling of Folger’s Theatre. (Image: Deborah Gascon)

Deborah Gascon was a master teacher at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2015 Summer Academy. She teaches 9th and 12th grade English at Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, South Carolina and can be contacted at dgascon@lexrich5.org.