Zach Appelman (Henry V) in Henry V, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.
By Kevin J. Costa
This past June, I attended the Michael Chekhov Association’s annual International Conference and Workshop in New London, CT. MICHA is an international organization that offers, among other things, intensive actor training each summer for people interested in Chekhov’s psycho-physical approach to the art of acting.
While Chekhov’s approach owes considerable debt to the theories of Constantin Stanislavski — as just about all approaches do from the 20th and 21st centuries — Chekhov’s crucial innovation was to explore the necessary link between outer, physical training of the body and its ability to develop a rich inner-life for the actor.
At the center of all this work is the notion of “the gesture” (most importantly, what Chekhov called the “Psychological Gesture”) and what work on gesture can allow us to discover as artistic possibilities in ourselves.
This got me thinking, of course, to the often physical approach Folger Education encourages teachers and students to practice when studying Shakespeare. Whether creating frozen pictures, embodying images with movement, or putting on whole scenes, students around the world who study Shakespeare through performance and through kinesthetic means have an awful lot in common with Michael Chekhov’s students.
And they also discover, quite readily, that it leads to compelling intellectual discoveries about complex texts. Why, then, is physical engagement with text important — important beyond merely giving lip-service to the fact that these are plays? (more…)
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Folger Theater will soon start rehearsals for Henry V. The Folger Education team meets ahead of the rehearsal kick-off to brainstorm ideas for the study guide. We create a study guide for each of the Shakespeare plays that gets produced at the Folger and archive them on our study guide web page for teachers to use (minus the production specific material). We look at the lines of inquiry we want to pursue — any question that may come up when thinking about the play. And we consider what students should know about the world of the play, as well as themes presented in the play that may connect to students’ lives. Then we look at other works of art that we can connect to the play and think about activities that teachers can use to engage their students with the play before they come to see it. It’s actually a lot of fun — we laugh a lot, and there is a great deal of energy in the room as we bounce ideas off of one another. Anyway, we met today to begin planning for the guide to Henry V, and it occurred to me after our meeting that it would be great if teachers had the opportunity to work collaboratively on planning units of study, not just for teaching Shakespeare, but for teaching any work of literature. Are there any groups of teachers, or school districts that plan units together? If so, how do you arrange to meet? What’s the process you follow? For which plays have you prepared units of study?
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Shakespeare’s England was not overseen by a democratic government. Monarchs ruled for life, and successors were chosen based on royal bloodlines or who won which war. Despite this, Shakespeare knew that the public’s perception of a monarch went a long way towards the success of their reign. He gave his characters the power of language to persuade and control others. Many of his characters are gifted rhetoricians – they use language and the power of their words to bring other people around to their side.
Mark Antony – uses the power of rhetoric to turn a huge Roman mob against Brutus and Cassius.
Henry V – uses the power of speech to boost his small English army’s morale as they seige France’s much larger forces.
Richard III – uses the power of words to manipulate his court and to become king.
Iago – uses the power of language to manipulate Othello’s view of his wife and lieutenant Cassio.
Hamlet – uses the power of words to turn right and wrong actions around in his head until he decides what to do.
It’s interesting to see, too, how the Roman elections look in Shakespeare’s plays. Brother is pitted against brother in Act 1 Scene 1 of Titus Andronicus to win the seat of emperor Coriolanus spends the first half of his play looking to win the popular vote after proving himself in war, and the people’s vote elects the Triumvirate of Marc Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus in the war against Brutus and Cassius following Julius Caesar’s death.
The election lights usually fall on the person best able to win the people with their words in these situations. (Though the people technically elected Titus after his success in war against the Goths and he puts in a good word for the former emperor’s eldest son Saturninus instead of taking seat himself.)
We’ve been sharing lesson plans on the power of persuasive speech on our shiny new Facebook Page today to explore these characters’ impact on popular and singular opinion. As a democratic nation, today eligible voters are using their individual voices to collectively elect the nation’s leader for the next four years. Were we won by words, words, words? How do our nation’s leaders compare to Shakespeare’s (both historical and literary)?
Comment below, or Like us on Facebook to tell us more!
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By Carol Kelly
Arguably there are two memorable film productions of Henry V. Thefirst appeared in 1944 and was directed and produced by Laurence Olivier who also took the title role. The film was produced during World War 2 and sets a patriotic, even jingoistic note, with the beleaguered English troops on the eve of the battle clearly reminiscent of Dunkirk. Deliberate omissions (such as Henry’s order to kill all the prisoners) paint the English as brave and courageous, overcoming the odds to defeat the arrogant French. Given the critical moment in European history, the use of this play as wartime propaganda is clear and understandable.
The second film starred and was directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1989. This version, while still presenting Henry as a brave leader of his troops, reveals the harsh and gruesome side of warfare. Branagh sets the battles on rainsoaked fields and plays down the comedic moments to create a consistently dark, brutal and gritty atmosphere. Due to the nature of film, Branagh is able to use flashbacks to include insights into Henry’s personal journey from fun-loving adolescent to responsible Prince and leader of men.
The current production of the play currently in performance at the Globe in London offers a slightly different take. Although the patriotic element is still evident, the production presents a nuanced depiction of all the ambiguities of human nature that Shakespeare loved to explore. The horror and the honor are both present but they are depicted alongside each other with subtlety and humor. The Chorus, delivered by a serving woman, sets the tone that we are part of her story and the audience is drawn into the drama as it unfolds. The rallying cry unites a diverse nation of Welsh, Irish and Scots, aristocrats and rogues alike, against a common enemy but more importantly behind their King. The call to arms has some element of reluctant resignation but is powerful and so personal that I felt that had Henry marched out of the theatre, half the audience would have marched with him! Perhaps this can be attributed in part to Jubilee fever, combined with the spike in national pride brought about by the celebrations of London 2012!
The centerpiece of the call to arms is the St. Crispin Day speech and the delivery of this speech is key to the interpretation of the play. As such, it is a perfect place to introduce young students to Shakespeare’s language. Experimenting with subtext, tone, and inflection when speaking these words aloud and on their feet will allow students to appreciate the power of language, to discover layers of meaning and most importantly, to appreciate the glorious poetry. How did the past film productions speak to their own moment? Which interpretation rings true for students today? How do students living in a country fighting a distant war react to such a call? What would their own production look like?
Find out more about how performance-based teaching can bring Shakespeare’s words to life at www.folger.edu
Carol Kelly is Folger Education’s Festivals and Programs Manager. She arranges workshops for teachers around the country, and organizes our Secondary School Festival each spring, as well as our appearances at National Conferences like NCTE.
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A victorious yet broken King
One quote we hear from students over and over again is “Shakespeare doesn’t relate to my life.” In a sense, they could be right: Shakespeare wrote his plays 400 years ago, often about subject matter even older than that! However, the topics he explored inside of the action are what keep us coming back. Quoted out of context, Shakespeare’s words could be used to argue for or against many topics we are still debating today.
For example, many (if not all) of the history plays involve war – not only the glories of it, but also the pitfalls. This duality is expressed visually in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film of Henry V. Laurence Olivier’s film version of the same play was meant to inspire young soldiers. Our world has known much of war since Shakespeare’s day, and with on-the-scene news reports, we are more aware than ever of what war can do to a country and its people.
A glorious, triumphant warrior King
HERE is a link to the Shakespeare Searched entries for the term “War,” and HERE for “Peace.” Tell your class that you are a king who is having trouble deciding whether or not to go to war with another country. Divide the class into two groups – one for and one against war – and ask them to debate using quotes from Shakespeare to convince you to either go to war, or to remain a peaceful state. Let them use one class period to prepare, and another to hold the debate. When the debate is over, discuss which of the quotes used were most convincing for both sides, and try to find the context for them.
For example, during the debate a student on the Pro side could address you:
“Away, and glister like the god of war,
When he intendeth to become the field:
Show boldness and aspiring confidence.”
~King John Act 5 scene 1
They will find arguments for both sides under each word’s search. Discuss, if there’s time, how context affects the argument of the quote.
What other topics might students debate with Shakespeare?
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