Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

What Performing Shakespeare’s Language Taught Me (Part II)

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.

In the second post in this 2019 Lily McKee Fellow series, Maylis Quesnel, a student at Richard Montgomery High School in Maryland, shares how studying the language of Henry IV, Part I helped her rethink the world around her.

You never realize how difficult it is to talk until you have to think about it. That’s why I never said a word during most of the seminars I participated in as a Lily McKee Fellow. It’s not that I wasn’t interested—on the contrary; I am guilty of too much interest. I think it is what babies feel when they are born: everything is wonderfully bright and loud and spinning around but their mouths are too young to express what those firing neurons are learning.

In the fall of 2019, I was born as my worldview underwent a dizzying metamorphosis. Studying the language of Henry IV, Part I led me to reconsider the historical method, reflect on the relationship between calculus and writing a literary commentary, examine the parallels between A Room of One’s Own and Marxism, pinpoint common values in all cultures, rethink the making and purpose of art, and question the existence of mercy in human nature.

I was given an Earl of Worcester monologue for our performance. I practiced hard, engaging every part of my body that I knew how to control. There was language from a page being put into my mouth, and as my brain absorbed it, the language connected to everything I learned in the seminars. The language became a doorway into an imaginary person, Worcester, made of nothing but language yet as real and human as myself. Behind the language is another person, William, and William is the four-hundred-year-old legend we call Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is the language, which I incarnated in my seventeen-year-old body. I am the language; I am Shakespeare; I am the Earl of Worcester (until the monologue ends).

Do the words I say make me who I am?

When I walked home after each of the sessions, what I learned at the Folger trailed behind me like a fishing line. I felt life pulling at me through the sun-setting air: people in business casual chatting in pairs, people in jogging suits running with dogs, people without a home preparing for a cold night at Union Station. Everything began to fit: that First Folio I saw exists as real as the power of rhetoric and the white eyes of the man preaching curse words by the crosswalk.

I am speechless.

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