Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

What Performing Shakespeare’s Language Taught Me (blog series)

Each year, through the generous support of the Lily St. John McKee Memorial Fund, Folger Shakespeare Library welcomes a cohort of high school juniors and seniors into the home of the world’s largest Shakespeare collection to work with leading scholars and artists, conduct original research in the Folger collection, and perform scenes from Shakespeare for a public audience. They represent a wide range of schools, cultures, and interests, and they form a community of learners that leaves a mark on this place. Over and over again, McKee Fellows say that their time with the Folger Shakespeare Library transforms them.

Over the next few weeks, as we prepare to post the online application for the 2020 Lily McKee High School Fellows Program, we invite you to listen to the voices of this year’s McKee Fellows and glimpse into what this program might offer young people whom you know.

In this post, Zoe Landau, a student at the Maret School in Washington, DC, shares how Shakespeare, and Falstaff, helped her find the courage to push past her fears and embrace the unknown.

People often laugh when I say I enjoy reading and learning Shakespeare’s language. They don’t believe that I could be so passionate about something that’s generally considered to be dense, complicated, and outdated. But if they had spent the time that I did at the Folger Shakespeare Library, they would feel the opposite. Before the Folger, I thought history plays were much less interesting than comedies and tragedies. I had never imagined that I could put myself in the mindset of a British prince. Then, as a McKee Fellow, I got to know Prince Hal and his associates over the course of a few months, culminating in a performance in which I played Falstaff. Far from being stumped by the turns of phrase, I learned to navigate them and apply them to my own life. Though I am not a mischievous heir to the throne of England, an old drunken knight, or a rebel fighting his cousin, I easily related to each of these characters by reading their thoughts, somehow so similar to mine. When we read Prince Hal’s speech in which he says he will “imitate the sun” (1.2.204), I experienced a moment of clarity: anyone who has ever started a race slower, or gotten a question wrong on purpose, in order to deliver a happy surprise when their friends or teachers find out they’re better or smarter than they seemed at first, understands what Hal is communicating here. The deft webs of words that Shakespeare wove allowed me to get in the head of one of his players. This is the magic of Shakespeare that I learned at the Folger. The specificity of the language and situations does not detract from the universality of the ideas. In fact, I would argue that it’s the specificity that makes the ideas relatable. When I was performing as Falstaff, I wasn’t just a highschooler playing Falstaff; I ​was ​Falstaff. Shakespeare’s language made that possible, necessary even. Though I myself was not involved in a scheme to steal money headed to the king’s exchequer (or, as Falstaff shouts, “to the king’s tavern,” 2.2.58-59), it was impossible not to become Falstaff in that moment. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language lies in its ability to turn me into Falstaff; to turn anyone into anyone else, simply through words. Furthermore, in memorizing the lines and delivering them with a sword in my hand, I lost all my fear of Shakespeare’s English. Whatever wariness remained, whatever hesitation to plunge myself into the world of 16th and 17th century slang, disappeared when I stood on the stage with my friends. I will never forget the absolute joy that came from feeling that I was one with the text. Performing Shakespeare’s language taught me that first impressions are misleading, and that even though I might not feel connected to the text right away, if I stay with it, I’ll find out that it fits perfectly into my life.

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