Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Shakespeare: Text to Text

Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear (Folger Shakespeare Library)
Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Teaching one Shakespeare play in a school year can be challenging enough, what with mandated curriculums, standardized testing, holidays, and school activities which take a cavalcade of kids out of class on a regular basis.  I choose to do two plays in a year with my senior classes, a tragedy and a comedy.  I want my students to come away from Shakespeare with the skills to see the similarities in various texts of different genres. I show them how Shakespeare employs common elements they are familiar with such as figurative language and characterization and some they are less familiar with like archetypes and subtext. I’ve diversified the lessons using King Lear, the tragedy we do this year and two they’ve done before Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. I use Much Ado About Nothing as our comedy because of the wide range of characters.

We do Lear over the winter while we start Much Ado in the spring. As we begin the comedy, I ask my students if they think Shakespeare is the most challenging writer they face in high school, and often the answer is yes; nevertheless, I suggest to them once his style, techniques, and language are conquered (which  is always easier than they think), they will feel more confident taking on Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Diaz, Alexie, Tolstoy, Morrison, you name it…

Starting our Much Ado unit, students get into five groups in order to make some connections across their Shakespeare experiences and to preview what’s ahead in this comedy: “Fathers,” “Clergy,” “The Ladies,”  “The Insults,” and “Villainy.”  Each group analyzes two speeches. “Fathers” compare Leonato’s speech from 4.1 (“Wherefore? …To her foul tainted flesh!”) to Gloucester’s in 2.1 (“O villain…’Tis Strange”). Groups discuss their respective speeches and tackles specific tasks, such as analyzing the imagery in the speech; identifying the context of the speech; exploring the subtext and any uses of irony; imagining how the text might be edited to alter the subtext; and examining how the characters represent literacy archetypes.  With “Fathers,” the group often notices it’s difficult to tell, solely on the text, which is the comedy and which is the tragedy. One group mentioned how Capulet sounded similar, controlling and demanding, to each of these fathers. They began to connect the dots, asking questions beyond the text…and these seniors hadn’t read Romeo and Juliet since freshman year!

The “Clergy” (Friar Lawrence R&J 4.1 and Friar Francis Much Ado 4.1) groups often discover how Shakespeare’s heroes need assistance from higher authority, but that authority isn’t exactly scrupulous for members of the clergy who seem to be aware of their own influence and offer deception as solution. One might consider adding the clergy from Henry V as well. “The Ladies” groups look at Lady’s Macbeth’s famous 1.5 speech “unsex me here!” and Beatrice’s “O, that I were a man!” from 4.1. The students always find the similarities striking and stark, such as the appeals to spirits and gods, as well as gender issues, which always generate wonderful discussions about social roles and representations of women. “The Villainy” groups tend to have an easier time discerning genre and categorizing texts along those lines. While Don John in Much Ado, a comedy, simply says, “It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain,” (1.3). Edmund in King Lear, a tragedy, lays out very specifically his reasoning in the famous soliloquy in 1.2 (“Why ‘bastard’? Wherefore base?… Well then legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.”) If time allows, the group discussing “The Insults,” (Oswald and Kent in Lear 2.2 and Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado 1.1) will put the scenes on their feet, allowing a wider class discussion of the texts. This comparison often starts with nuanced, evidence-based insights but often turns into a festival of Shakespearean insults being slung around the room…so proceed with caution!

In my experience, this exercise allows students who have studied more than one Shakespeare play to consider the playwright, his words, and his works through a broader lens. It also attunes students to the characteristics and conventions of genre. It’s powerful for students to see firsthand how their knowledge of Shakespeare has grown and how they’ve taken ownership of the texts. A bonus: studying two plays in relative proximity allows students to discover for themselves how easy it is to see that the same hand authored these varied works.