Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2013

Shakespeare’s plays are considered by many to be the pinnacle of high art – lovely language with high philosophy and idealized characters. But not everyone is ideal, and many words and turns of phrases are… well… not exactly dinner-table talk. 

Shakespeare was writing to be entertaining, and his Elizabethan audience was just as entertained by uncouth humor as our own modern audience – except now instead of playing on words about being “hung,” we now see Will Ferrell’s butt. Where today we have websites dedicated to parsing out each offensive moment in each movie or television show for our protection from smut, what could Shakespeare be censored for?

The government of Shakespeare’s time wasn’t so concerned about jokes with bad taste (though those jokes do abound!), but were rather more concerned with political uprisings and religious offenses. During Shakespeare’s own lifetime, playwrights were especially susceptible to suspicion from above as their words entertained masses of people, and could plant the seeds of an idea subtly. Every new play had to be approved for performance by the Master of the Revels, who looked the pieces over for any possible sedition. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were often questioned for their work, and sometimes it had very awful consequences. You can read more about 16th century censorship at PBS’s In Search of Shakespeare site.

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. London, 1632. Folger Shakespeare Library.

William Shakespeare. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. London, 1632. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Over time, different audiences have determined what is offensive to them in Shakespeare’s work. A second folio of 1632 in the Folger collection, seen here, bears the work of a censor for the Holy Office in Spain, Guillermo Sanchez. In the name of religious piety, Sanchez blotted out whole swaths of Shakespeare’s language, and cut Measure for Measure out of the book in its entirety. Nahum Tate rewrote a happy ending for King Lear in 1681 that wasn’t altered in performances for almost 200 years.

Outside of the realm of censorship, but just as famous for its alteration, David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor, rewrote the end of Romeo and Juliet so that Juliet awakes just after Romeo drinks the poison so that they briefly see each other alive before their final demise. You can see a comparison of these scenes in performance on the mobile tour video for the Folger’s next exhibit, Here is a Play Fitted.

Victorian audiences were so appalled by apparent homosexual overtones in the sonnets, that they dismissed the idea that Shakespeare even wrote them. Oscar Wilde, persecuted at that time for much the same reason, wrote a short story in which characters go mad over many years examining the sonnets for hidden meanings, The Portrait of Mr. W. HOthello has a long history of criticism, as well, being called “disgusting” by US  president John Quincy Adams for its depiction of a mixed-race couple. The Folger’s former exhibit, Shakespeare in American Life examines the experience of African Americans with Shakespeare.

Even today, there are just some things a modern audience would rather not see or hear when it comes to Shakespeare. We don’t want to see filthy humor mixed in with the glorious art – but some of the best art comes from being a mix like that, and Shakespeare was a true master of this mix of elements that both comfort and disquiet us – for whatever reason. Measure for Measure is still a difficult play to produce – after all, its plot hinges on a Puritanical political figure attempting to force a nun to sleep with him. As Michele Osherow said, this play and those like it are closer to modern drama in that it makes us ask harder questions of ourselves and our world – and that’s not always a comfortable experience, be we queens or commoners.

Read Full Post »

One of the things we regularly like to see is students taking command of Shakespeare’s language as they say it. Showing us what the words mean to them, and making the character saying these words their own.

William Shakespeare's Flying Circus, 2011. Photo by Duy Tran.

William Shakespeare’s Flying Circus, 2011. Photo by Duy Tran.

That doesn’t always mean seeing a whole play exactly as Shakespeare wrote it. We’ve seen ownership take many forms in our festival – including schools that pull quotes or scenes from the entire canon to tell their own story with them. Perhaps they collected scenes about friendship to explore the theme; or used quotes with keywords to re-tell another story. One particularly memorable festival group once parodied the entire Twilight saga using only lines from Shakespeare for a very funny 20 minutes. The year before that, they performed scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus the same way. And they were using Shakespeare’s language!

Below are two YouTubers doing much the same thing: Hank Green (singer, songwriter, vlogbrother), wrote a song using only insults from Shakespeare’s texts, and the channel Chicken Shop Shakespeare takes bite-size bits of Shakespeare’s words and performs them in their own world. (Their very first video, Romeo lamenting his banishment, was filmed in a fast-food chicken place.) These artists have taken Shakespeare’s words and made something of their own from them, and it’s awesome.

 

Have you done any projects like this with your students? Share them with us! We loved it when teachers sent in videos of their kids making Shakespeare their own for our “Shakespeare Remix” during our first Electronic Field Trip!

Read Full Post »

This afternoon we sat in on the design presentations for Folger Theatre‘s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet. From a practical point of view, we need to see how the Theatre space will be changed so that we can adjust for our programs which take place onstage; but from the perspective of a fan of Shakespeare, it’s so exciting to see – each time – how this company at this point in time takes on a familiar play to tell a new story.

For example, director Aaron Posner says that his inspiration for this production came out of a conversation with his wife, actress Erin Weaver (who will be playing Juliet, and will also be joining us for our Romeo and Juliet set free workshop), in which they discussed the moment in which Juliet decides not to face the consequences, not to run away, but to end her life, instead. It’s nice to say that it’s the culmination of the story of a whirlwind romance in which two people were never meant for anyone but each other and her decision not to go on without him is romantic as well as sad – but, says Posner, “that’s not a story I can relate to.” Exploring, instead, what kind of world shapes Juliet in this direction and makes her choice not only one borne of love, but also of necessity, tells a different story than we might be used to as an audience.

“It’s a hard play to cut,” Posner added, since the language is so good and everything seems important to the story. The words are so familiar – they’ve been said hundreds of thousands of times – but each inflection and each decision made by Aaron and his cast of actors will tell a different story from each production that came before it. That’s something truly wonderful about Shakespeare in performance, anywhere in performance – In classrooms or theaters, amateurs to professionals – each person brings something new to the table to tell a new story with the same words.

Have you seen this play in performance recently, or read it with your students? What sort of discoveries did you make? Did anything change the way you perceive the play for good?

Read Full Post »

Earlier this week we were approached by a performing group who was going to use Romeo and Juliet for the first time with their young audience. They were concerned with how to tell the end of the story without being too disturbing or too blase – getting the lesson across without traumatizing their audience.

We’ve been giving the tragedies to elementary-aged kids for a good long while, but it was still an interesting question to ponder. Lucretia Anderson put in her two cents: “They were desperate teens who did something awful to themselves resulting in a huge tragic loss for both families. This should teach students that coming together and eradicating hate is the way to go. We usually say that they “took their own lives” instead of saying they “committed suicide” or “killed themselves.” Romeo takes poison, Juliet stabs herself with a dagger. The elementary kids can handle it.

Ultimately, each teacher or presenter is familiar enough with their own audience of students that they know what they’ll be able to handle. But is there a line to toe, and where is it?

The research bug got me again, so I looked at a few examples of books for kids that depicted the lovers’ final acts. Read on for these examples, below, but how do you talk about fictional tragedy in your classroom?

Graham Hamilton, Nicole Lowrance, Romeo and Juliet, Folger Theatre, 2005.

Graham Hamilton, Nicole Lowrance, Romeo and Juliet, Folger Theatre, 2005.

~Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

Here Romeo took his last leave of his lady’s lips, kissing them; and here he shook the burden of his cross stars [sic] from his weary body, swallowing the poison which the apothecary had sold him, whose operation was fatal and real, not like the dissembling potion Juliet had swallowed, the effect of which was now nearly expiring, and she about to awake, to complain that Romeo had not kept his time, or that he had come too soon.

…but when Juliet saw the cup closed in her true love’s hands, she guessed that poison had been the cause of his end, and she would have swallowed the dregs if any had been left, and she kissed his still warm lips to try if any poison yet did hang upon them: they [sic] hearing a nearer noise of people coming, she quickly unsheathed a dagger which she wore, and stabbing herself, died by her true Romeo’s side.

~Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield
He knelt beside her and made his sad farewell.

“Eyes, look your last. Arms, take your last embrace! And lips, O you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss a dateless bargain to engrossing Death.” Then, with a sudden joyfulness he cried, “Here’s to my love!” and drank the apothecary’s poison; and so, in an instant, ended for ever the parting from his love.

Longingly she kissed Romeo’s lips in the hope that some poison still remained on them. There was none; so she took his dagger and pressed it lovingly into her heart.

~Romeo and Juliet for Kids by Lois Burnett
He held her close in a final embrace.
Romeo found the poison and held it high,
“Here’s to my love. Thus with a kiss I die!”

The Friar left her in the tomb below,
And she knelt one last time by her Romeo.
What’s here? A cup, closed in my true love’s hand?
Poison, my lord! This is not what we planned!”
She drank from the bottle, but it was dry,
“One friendly drop to me you deny?

Juliet stabbed herself, and life defied,
Then fell to the ground by Romeo’s side.

~The Random House Book of Shakespeare Stories, [liberally] retold by Andrew Matthews

With a cry, Romeo rushed to her side and covered her face with kisses and tears. “I cannot live without you,” he whispered. “I want your beauty to be the last thing my eyes see. We could not be together in life, my sweet love, but in death nothing shall part us!”

Romeo drew the cork from the poison bottle and raised it to his lips. He felt the vile liquid sting his throat. Then darkness swallowed him.

For a time, there was no sound except the spluttering of the torch. Then Juliet began to breathe. She opened her eyes and saw Romeo dead at her side with the empty poison bottle in his hand. At first, she thought she was dreaming. But when she reached out to touch Romeo’s face and smelled the bitter scent of the poison, she knew the nightmare was real. Friar Laurence’s plan had gone terribly wrong. She cradled Romeo in her arms and rocked him, weeping into his hair. “If you had only waited a little longer!” she whispered. She kissed Romeo again and again, desperately hoping that there was enough poison on his lips to kill her too.

Then she saw the torchlight gleam on the dagger at Romeo’s belt. She drew the weapon and pressed the point to her heart. “Now, dagger, take me to my love!” she said, and pushed with all her strength.

~The Best-Loved Plays of Shakespeare, from Star Bright Books

The death of Romeo
Romeo opens Juliet’s tomb. He gazes lovingly at his bride.

“…Ah, dear Juliet, Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe that unsubstantial death is amorous and that the lean abhorred monster keeps thee here in dark to be his paramour?”

Romeo then prepares himself to die.

“Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And lips, O you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss…”

He drinks the poison and dies.

Juliet Awakes
Just as Juliet wakes up, the Friar arrives. He sees the bodies of Paris and Romeo. He tells Juliet they must fly away at once. When Juliet sees that Romeo is dead, she refuses to leave. She sees that he has taken poison. ‘O, churl! Drink all and left no friendly drop to help me after?’ she says. She kisses his lips. Then she takes up Romeo’s dagger to stab herself.

~Tales from Shakespeare, by Tina Packer

Romeo held the lantern over Juliet’s face. “O my love! My wife! Death hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.” He kissed her cold lips, then lay beside her. “Here will I remain with worms that are thy chambermaids.” Romeo uncorked his poison. “Here’s to my love!” He closed his eyes and drained the bottle. The poison was quick. Romeo kissed Juliet again. “Thus, with a kiss, I die.”

Juliet knelt down. She found Romeo’s bottle and lifted it to her lips. “O, churl,” she said fondly. “Drunk all, and left no friendly drop to help me after? I will kiss thy lips. Perhaps some poison yet doth hang on them.”

The voices outside grew louder.

Juliet drew Romeo’s knife and aimed it at her heart. “Oh happy dagger! This is thy sheath. There rust and let me die.” With a swift motion, she stabbed herself and collapsed beside her husband.

Read Full Post »

~by Emily DenBleyker

I am not a teacher. I dropped my education major my first semester of college, and I have never looked back. And yet, somehow, in the funny way that life seems to happen to us, I ended up scheduled to teach a writing class for 8-10 year-olds at the day camp where I worked as an assistant.

“Ok,” I thought. “This won’t be too bad. I know how to write. I’ve been with these kids all summer. I’ll just pull out what I know and it’ll be great.”

What I know is Shakespeare.

So day three of the class was dubbed “Literary Flourish Day: Metaphor, Imagery, and Meter.” The day before, I had been trying to explain “showing versus telling” to the students, and these elements are good examples of how to do that. And what better writer to use an example than the master of showing?

We started with metaphor, using Romeo’s “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright./It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/As a rich jewel in and Ethiop’s ear.” We worked through all the language and figured out what it meant, and we discussed how we knew how beautiful Juliet was to Romeo, without him ever using the word “beautiful.” Then the students drew a picture of Juliet – how they saw Juliet through Romeo’s description of her. Most of them picked up on the image of an earring and had Juliet wearing large hoops; some of them even picked a time period and made “’80s Juliet,” in neon and teased hair.

For imagery, we used The Seven Ages of Man, from As You Like It. I wrote each age on a giant notepad, and again, we worked through it and visualized each stage, picking out the characteristics of the age, both physical and emotional. Then each student (luckily, there were 7 that day) picked an age and acted it out. Their favorite image, undeniably, was the infant, “mewling and puking.” They all pretended to mewl and puke for about 10 minutes.

Lastly, we tackled rhythm. We talked about rhythm in music, and then we turned to Macbeth, using some of the “Double, double, toil and trouble” rap to show it in literature. Then the students made metrical lists of their favorite things and presented them to the class.

I am not a teacher. But being able to show these children how beautiful life can be, on the page and the stage, made me so thankful for the teachers we do have: those with a passion to take the beautiful things we’ve been given and introduce them to the next generation, passing wisdom and the value of aesthetics down through the ages.

People hundreds of years ago recognized the value of Shakespeare’s words, the relevancy they carry even to 8-10 year olds, so let’s continue that tradition. Share the lessons you’ve learned from Macbeth and the Henrys, from Cordelia and Miranda. Show them the richness of words, the images they can conjure, and the meaning they can give to life. We can all be teachers. Some people just get paid for it.

And for the record, when I asked the students at the end of the week what their favorite activity had been, a good majority of them said, “Learning about that Shakespeare William guy.”

Emily DenBleyker was the spring 2013 Folger Education intern. She is now a senior at Gordon College, completing degrees in music and communications. Her roommates tolerate her rants on the beauty of words, if only because she edits their papers.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 653 other followers