Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Teaching King Lear in Times of Grief

It was the start of term 2 in 2016 and I was preparing the Grade 12 students for our study of King Lear. We read an excerpt from The Little Prince. It was meant to introduce big questions around blindness, appearance, and reality. We used the line, ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ I had the students complete a personal reflection on this quotation and from this, we were going to connect it to Lear and Gloucester and their flaws throughout the play.

Sometimes, however, things do not go according to plan. Within a week, our whole school community plummeted into sorrow and grief after the tragic deaths of two students. It was sudden and it derailed us. Time stopped for a week and after that, we weren’t certain how to begin again.

I grappled with the idea of resuming the study of King Lear, a tragedy, and one full of grief and loss. How do you move forward when the Student Council President, a young man who exemplified kindness and empathy, is no longer with us? I recall thinking that, if any piece of literature could encapsulate those feelings, it would be Shakespeare. I had a frank conversation with my students about the dilemma I faced, but we all agreed that facing the play was the best way to proceed.

We went back to The Little Prince. One of the students wrote about The Fox (who delivered the aforementioned line) and the idea of friendship. He stated, “If I try to describe him here, it is to make sure I shall not forget him. To forget a friend is sad. Not everyone has had a friend. And if I forget him, I may become like the grown-ups who are no longer interested in anything but figures…” It was powerful and truthful.

Our study of King Lear that term proved to be the most emotional study of a play I’ve taught. If I’ve learned anything at all, it is the power of Shakespeare to tap into the human in all of us. Every term since, I have started with Shakespeare and the human condition. It becomes an exercise in exploring the nature of human beings – our vices and follies, our kindness and compassion, our ways of dealing with fear, grief, loss, and revenge, and our ability to understand ourselves.

This year, we started our study of Hamlet with these kinds of lenses, lenses that carried us through a year of reading and discussing literature. It was not surprising to me that students were able to find continuities between Shakespeare’s work and, for instance, a novel from 2000. It was a powerful and authentic moment.