Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Getting Out of the Way

The week of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Summer Academy challenged, inspired, and intellectually filled me; it was exciting to be surrounded by people who light up at the sound of iambic pentameter and are thrilled to talk about Shakespeare twelve hours a day and then some. I returned home brimming with new ideas, and I experienced a philosophical shift. One of the most important messages I heard is to get out of the way of the relationship between student and text. I am fortunate to teach a Shakespeare course, and my decisions have always been motivated by a desire to show students that Shakespeare is accessible, interesting, and even fun. To introduce a play, though, I have thrown background information at the class in the misguided belief that they need to understand these ideas/issues/characters before they can delve into the play. I ignored the fact that my relationship with Shakespeare’s work is rich and meaningful because I engage with the text and encounter it without a middleman, even one with good intentions.

 

I experimented some with The Tempest at the beginning of the semester, and I also used that time to encourage a sense of community and trust. Then, we started The Merchant of Venice. Inspired

The Merchant of Venice 3.1 (Folger Shakespeare Library)
The Merchant of Venice 3.1 (Folger Shakespeare Library)

by the wonderful summer session with Caleen Jennings, we physicalized some of the words in Shylock’s speech from 3.1. Once students created movements to accompany words (revenged, mocked, senses, food, etc.) and taught the gestures to the class, we read the speech together and added movement. Then, I gave them another copy of Shylock’s speech, but this time, I interspersed denigrating remarks from other characters. We read the page chorally, with one side reading a line from Shylock (“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?”) and the other side responding with insults (“A creature that did bear the shape of man”), and then we switched. Students discussed the emotions and acknowledged that it was both powerful and uncomfortable, but it led us much closer to the emotional heart of the play than my trusty “History of Jews in England” lecture. The most interesting aspect was our conversation at the end of the play. The class said that they expected to feel more sympathy for Shylock because of the opening activity, but his actions and insistence on the pound of flesh made that difficult. I was thrilled that they felt conflicted, for the beauty of those characters is that they are not simple; struggling with them is a valuable exercise.

 

To start Richard III, I gave students a blown up version of the opening monologue, some markers, and instructions to find a partner and tackle the speech. Instead of being overwhelmed by a PowerPoint on the Wars of the Roses, students discovered Richard’s issues and nefarious plots for themselves. They uncovered all I hoped they would and more. After our journey through the play, I chose six scenes and asked each student to reduce a scene by 40-50% but maintain the integrity of the text. They took several days of class to read, reread, and read again. They had to justify every line they took out and then write a summation in which they explained what they deleted and what they kept. All agreed that it was more difficult than writing a traditional analysis essay, but part of the challenge came from trusting themselves and their decisions. It was an opportunity to read closely and to understand and believe that they have as much presence and legitimacy as anyone else encountering the text.

Thanks to the week at the Folger, I have witnessed students engaging with the text on a deeper level, wrestling with the characters, and learning to trust themselves more. Part of our school’s mission statement is “We exist to inspire a passion for learning.” I believe that students are entering into a rewarding, lifelong relationship with Shakespeare as I move to the side and they greet each new experience with growing skill and confidence.

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