Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Moving Beyond Explaining “The Deeper Meaning” of a Play – Part 1


*This is the first in a two-part series from our teaching colleague Vanessa Mancinelli. Check back next week for more.*


Just about a year ago, I was standing on the lawn outside of the Folger Shakespeare Library in the late afternoon sunshine of Washington, D.C. In my hands, a wooden dowel; in my heart,

Henderson as Hamlet (Image: Folger Shakespeare Library)
Henderson as Hamlet (Image: Folger Shakespeare Library)

Shakespeare. Knees bent, arms aloft, I held the dowel in front of me and pointed at my opponent, April, a fellow English teacher. Around us, other English teachers from all over the country were crossing wooden dowels, parrying and thrusting like old pros. Our teacher, the great Michael Tolaydo, sang out, “Keep those knees bent!” I lunged, and April parried and then thrust back. I’m telling you, there was flint in her eyes: she was Laertes bent on revenge, and I was a witless Hamlet, trying to remember my 1 position from my 2 position. While I was still thinking about what I should do next, April thrust once again. Caught off balance, I slipped a bit on the slick grass, laughing as I skidded into another pair of duelists.

It was the middle of the weeklong Summer Academy for teachers at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The focus was on Hamlet, the very play I teach to my juniors every year. Over the course of the week, we learned how to connect students directly with the words and actions of the play, how to integrate scholarship and performance and great teaching in our classrooms. And on this sunny afternoon in particular, we were learning how to stage swordfight. I had just taken in my first important lesson: pay attention.

There’s nothing like learning by doing, which is the whole point of the Folger method of teaching Shakespeare. Do the play, don’t just read it. Perform the play. Interpret the play. Make the play. After all, if we can guess anything about what Shakespeare intended with his work, we can safely guess that he probably didn’t intend it to be read alone, in private, in one’s home, only to be discussed for its historical context and its so-called “deeper meaning” in a classroom later on.

And yet, this was largely how I was teaching Hamlet to my students for the past seven years.

All that was about to change…

Read Part 2: Moving Beyond Explaining (Part 2)