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Archive for the ‘Discussion Questions’ Category

3-KL6_windIn our most recent blog post, we featured a unit plan from our Shakespeare in American Life website about patriarchy in King Lear (onstage right now at Folger Theatre) and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Today, we return to Shakespeare in American Life for a look at some fascinating comments about King Lear by Janet Reno, who served as the U.S. Attorney General from 1993 to 2001.

Reno recalls how she organized a group reading of King Lear at the Department of Justice, and she offers insight about Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition.

We’ll give you a small taste with these powerful words:

I don’t know of anybody that has so combined the power to express his thoughts as magnificently as Shakespeare, about human nature and all the challenges and the pitfalls that we face. I think he is for us all, I think he is for us all throughout the ages. I think every person can find something within the lines that Shakespeare wrote that applies to him.

These audio clips can serve as a jumping off point for a class discussion about how Shakespeare’s words affect us today, even at the higher levels of government.

Listen: Reading Lear at the Justice Department

Listen: Shakespeare and the Human Condition

 

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We know that Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays – though not all of them are taught in our classrooms. We love teaching the recognizable and easily-found HamletMidsummer, Othello, and Macbeth, but there are so many to choose from if you have the time and the inclination to dig deeper. In this week’s Teacher to Teacher videos, teachers like you make the case for the plays they enjoy teaching:

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You may remember Gina Voskov’s impassioned post on this very blog, “Fighting With Truth,” in which she described her students’ affinity for learning Shakespeare and her comparison of Titus Andronicus to modern events and other authors. Hear more from Gina in her video, below. 

 

Then, of course, there’s something to be said for a play that can generate fantastic discussions. One of Shakespeare’s more modernly controversial plays, The Merchant of Venice, provides us with ambiguous characters and tough questions. Four of our teachers chose this play, but Dr. Robert Thompson sums it up nicely:

 

Finally, you may already be teaching King Lear, but we love what Gabriel Fernandez has to say about how personally relatable this play is for everyone. It appeals to our love of fairy tales, but does not give us the resolution we want. What can we learn from that?

 

What is your favorite play to teach? Why so? Let us know in the comments!

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Opening weekend has come and gone for Julian Fellowes’s new version of Romeo and Juliet in cinemas, and the numbers were not good.

I wouldn’t bring this up again so soon, but for a quote from Fellowes which appeared in an article from BBC News last week:

“When people say we should have filmed the original, I don’t attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on.

“I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.”

My mind ground to a halt reading that. I went quite speechless (except for the occasional squeak or screech or indignant huff.) Is he serious? The NY Times tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, preceding this quote thusly: “With tongue presumably in cheek or perhaps just a foot deep in mouth,” but still I reel at this presumption. How grossly can you underestimate your audience?

A richly furnished Cambridge education is not what’s needed to revel in understanding of Shakespeare’s verses. It’s exposure to the language itself: put into action, spoken aloud, seen in performance, played with.

It seems, so far, that at least some reviewers agree that this pandering approach isn’t working:

“why not encourage the tween audience to rise to the language rather than hide the words from them?”
~ The Village Voice

“If this “Romeo & Juliet” were better, fierier or juicier, far less polite and rather more unhinged, it would be easier to ignore Mr. Fellowes’s ideas about the intelligence of his audience.”
~ The NY Times

“The Fellowes defence is that he’s writing for a new generation, who need the play livened up a bit. In the shonky hands of Italian director Carlo Carlei, his dutiful pastiche has quite the opposite effect.”
~The Telegraph

And yet – I still wouldn’t have so much ire towards this if Fellowes had simply owned  his adaptation and felt sufficiently comfortable to put his name in front of the title instead of Shakespeare’s. Sure, Shakespeare’s name sells, but don’t the names Romeo and Juliet have a little selling-power of their own? Why rely on the writer you’ve cut from the project? Shakespeare was an adapter, as I’ve mentioned before. So why hide behind him if you’re only going to push him out of the way because you think people are too stupid to understand his words?

What do you think? Were any of you one of the few who saw this film over its opening weekend? Do you plan to see it before it closes?

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Yesterday I stumbled upon this video from Australia’s ABC in 2011 about Shakespeare and his hip relevance to today’s audience. Excited, I started the video, and felt my face twist into a confused squint.

AU Shakespeare in Schools

A lot of their statements are great! Shakespeare was a great writer. His plays have survived for centuries. His language can be difficult because it’s very stylized, and once you “click in” it rolls more easily. However, they sort of veer off the point when they’re talking about these things for a modern audience. The stories are a part of what keeps Shakespeare alive, but the stories were all (or mostly) taken from other sources. Shakespeare’s language has survived, as well. It’s not just because we can make Romeo “emo” that we relate to the characters today, it’s because they are saying things that we think and feel as well.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged] is a really fantastic show, but it – on its own – is not “Shakespeare.” I do love that show, and it adds an element of fun that students would respond to – but it’s not the only way to make Shakespeare fun!

What do you think? Why do you think Shakespeare is relevant, and how do your students find connections to his plays?

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Every year the schools participating in our local outreach programs, Shakespeare Steps Out  and Shakespeare for a New Generation, have to select one of Shakespeare’s plays to perform at their respective Festivals. There are always the big populars: Midsummer, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet – but sometimes the teachers are looking for something a little different, or something they can tie into other parts of their lessons throughout the year.

But how to choose?

Student Players, Secondary Schools Festival 2013

Student Players, Secondary Schools Festival 2013

Lucretia wrote a fantastic post for us on this topic in 2010. One of the things she’s seen teachers do in the past is give their students examples of a few plays and lets them decide which they’d like to focus on. Additionally, using our 15-minute plays would also give them an idea of the language and plot! Here’s an excerpt from our Romeo and Juliet:

There, at this party, is where Romeo first sees Juliet. (6. O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!) They dance. They kiss. She says, (7. You kiss by the book.) Only at the end of the party do they learn that the other is from their own family’s hated enemy.  It’s too late, they are in love with each other. Romeo sneaks away from his friends, climbs the wall into the Capulet’s orchard, and sees Juliet at her window (8. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?) Juliet, not knowing Romeo is nearby, says (9. O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?)  They confess their love to each other, but Juliet is called inside. Romeo says, (10. Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?) Juliet says, (11. If that thy bent of love be honorable, Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow.) They enlist the help of Juliet’s Nurse to send messages and Friar Lawrence to marry them.

Lucretia also gathered some great advice from veteran festival participant Sharon Rosenblatt of Gesher Jewish Day School:

When I select a play, I try to use one that has as much of these elements [outrageous humor, black magic, blood and lots of great sword fights] as possible. I also consider, of course, the number of students with which I have to work. Midsummer is great for a large cast. Macbeth is wonderful; the ghosts, madness, blood and sword fights make it fun to perform. I have recently added Twelfth Night to my selection…the idea of boys being girls and girls being boys gives everyone a great laugh and a real sense of Shakespeare.

Ms. Rosenblatt also offers up three insights from working on Shakespeare with her students over the years.

1) The plays are very confusing at first, but the more you work with them the more they understand. The more they understand the better the performance becomes. 2) Encourage everyone to take a part- the bigger, the better. It never fails that those reluctant students who selected very minor roles always regret their decision. 3) Don’t panic or become discouraged. These kids will knock you out; just give them this opportunity and step back!!

What are your favorite plays to focus on in class? Would your choices be different if you were (or weren’t) planning to perform them?

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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.

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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!

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