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Archive for the ‘Shakespeare Lit’ Category

Novels can help engage students not only with Shakespeare’s language (as we discussed in Tuesday’s blog post about That Shakespeare Kid) but also with his characters and stories.

With spring break coming up, maybe your students will be interested in a little light reading that also keeps them thinking about the Bard.

Reading the Folger Shakespeare edition of Hamlet. Photo by Chris Hartlove.

Drawing on some suggestions that first appeared in Folger Magazine, here are a few of the books out there:

The Dream of Perpetual Motion

By Dexter Palmer

“Prospero, Miranda, and other characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest resurface in this darkly imaginative novel set in a steampunk universe. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is the story of islands—both paradises and prisons—and the hero’s dream of redemption through impossible love.”

Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs

By Ron Koertge

“In this charming and clever sequel to Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, fourteen-year-old protagonist Kevin Boland explores baseball and poetry with equal enthusiasm. A novel in verse form, the book reads like the journal entries of a sharp and observant teen—funny, self-reflective, and disarmingly honest.”

The Fool’s Girl

By Celia Rees

“Forced to flee Illyria in disguise with only her fool for company, young Violetta embarks on a dangerous mission to regain her kingdom. This historical tale weaves together plot twists from Twelfth Night with vivid scenes from Shakespeare’s London into an engaging tale of a gutsy heroine’s quest for justice.”

Here are two blog posts from our archives with even more book suggestions:

Extra Credit: Romeo & Juliet

Extra Credit: Hamlet

Tell us: What books do you recommend to your students? What are some of your favorite Shakespeare-inspired novels for teens?

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That Shakespeare KidWe have teachers ask us all the time how to introduce Shakespeare’s language in a way that’s engaging to students.

One possible approach: young adult novels that weave the Bard’s words along with the kind of dialogue familiar to students.

“That Shakespeare Kid,” by Folger Education’s senior consultant Michael LoMonico, presents just this combination.

Fourteen-year-old Emma narrates the story of her friend Peter, who, after a bump to the head, finds himself able to speak only by using the words of Shakespeare.

What a pickle!

This excerpt picks up the story the day after the accident, when Emma sees Peter at the bus stop and finds his conversation much altered:

—————————————————————————————————————

I went right over to Peter. “Hey,” I said. “I was so worried about you. Are you feeling better today?”

Peter hesitated a while and before he could stop himself, he found himself saying, “Methinks I see these things with parted eye.

“What are you talking about? I said.

But soft, methinks I scent the morning air,” he said.

“Huh? Start making sense,” I said.

All the world is cheered by the sun,” Peter answered.

“Very funny,” I said. “Methinks you’re an idiot.”

Go Rot!” said Peter.

“What’s with you and this stupid way of talking?” I asked.

I never was so bethumped with words,” said Peter. “Tis my occupation to be plain.”

“Listen, Peter,” I said. “You’re really starting to get on my nerves.”

Alack,” was all he said.

Just then the bus pulled up.

“Well, methinks that I’ll be sitting as far away from you as I can on the bus. You’re really creeping me out.”

Peter avoided all conversations on the bus, which wasn’t very hard because, as I said, except for me, he really didn’t have many friends. I always thought Peter was a bit odd, and I found his oddness kind of fun. But that morning I just wasn’t in the mood for this latest goofiness, so I sat next to my friend Melanie, and Peter sat in the back seat—alone.

He wasn’t quite sure why he was speaking so funny, he told me later. “My thinking seems pretty normal,” he thought to himself. “But each time I open my mouth, these strange words come out. Until I figure this out, I better try to say as little as possible.”

Peter got into school with the decision to keep quiet until he could figure out why he could no longer speak a simple sentence. He just shook his head when Mr. Scott, his math teacher, asked him if he did his homework. Of course he had done his homework, but he knew if he had said yes, he’d blurt out something like, “Shall we go draw our numbers and set on?” He did the same thing in Social Studies because if Ms. Delaney asked him a question, he might say, “To be or not to be. That is the question.

He wasn’t the kind of student to just sit in the back and keep quiet, so he felt frustrated all morning. He was sitting alone in study hall when I came in and sat across from him. “You don’t look too good,” I said. “Are you feeling alright?”

I am not merry.”

“Well that’s OK, but I hope you’re still not talking that dumb way you were this morning.  I don’t know what you were trying to prove.”

Why ‘tis good to be sad and say nothing.”

“Huh? Not again,” I said. “Why are you acting so lame? What do you have to be sad about?”

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. I have this while with leaden thoughts been pressed.

“So you don’t know why you’re talking so funny and you don’t know why you’re depressed,” I said. “Well if you ask me, start talking like a normal person and see if that helps.”

“Say, why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

I shook my head and walked away, despite Peter’s desperate cry, “Anon!”

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After spending so much time in the original texts of Romeo and Juliet this month to compare them to the Fellowes’s adaptation (billed in ads as “Shakespeare’s,” hence the frustration), I went home to my very large shelf of Shakespearean adaptations to remind myself of some great examples of how that text has been explored in different ways. As I did with Macbeth and Hamlet in the past, I’ll reserve a separate upcoming post for movies based on the star-cross’d lovers, and reserve this post for books.

Shakespeare himself was an adapter, re-writing the timeless legend of the doomed lovers from several sources. In Shakespeare’s Storybook, Patrick Ryan shares many possible inspirations that Shakespeare may have used, including Romeus and Juliet translated from the French by Arthur Brooke and Il Novellino by Salernitano Masuccio, among others. He didn’t claim the story, he re-told it in a way his audience would appreciate in his own words and put his own name on his work. What about Shakespeare’s work makes it so ripe for adaptation, but still somehow overshadows the adapters themselves?

romeo's exIt’s wonderful to read a familiar story from someone else’s point of view. One of my favorite novels about this play is Romeo’s Ex by Lisa Fielder. Creatively, Fielder explores the life of the character who sets much of the action in motion and yet is never seen onstage in Shakespeare’s play. Rosaline, a Capulet herself, is not interested in the love-struck Romeo, and is even less interested in her family’s dangerous quarrels with the Montagues. If your students could write the story from another character’s point of view, who would they pick?

warm bodiesWhen You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle is a young adult novel set in the present day which asks if Romeo and Juliet were really right for each other at all, or if they were always going to lead to their own destruction. What does it mean to be “star-cross’d?” Then there’s the futuristic Warm Bodies which gives the love story a new twist with one side of the warring factions being zombies. What is it about human (or zombie) nature that makes us so prone to hating the “others?”

AfterlivesSeveral other novels like Robin Maxwell’s O, Juliet and Juliet by Ann Fortier take on more contextual Italian history and explore what could have doomed the pair in their own time. Still others, like Saving Juliet by Suzanne Selfors and The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper approach both Shakespeare’s play and the Juliet legend from the perspectives of teens and consider our desire to change the tragic course of events. There is also a chapter devoted to Romeo and Juliet in the non-fiction  Shakespearean Afterlives by John O’Connor that explores the ongoing cultural perception of the couple, and our immediate instinct to compare any romantic boy or tragic girl to this particular pair.

This is, of course, just a small sampler of the many many books that take on Romeo and Juliet as inspiration. I enjoyed reading them all (some more than others) since each new perspective gave me something new to think about in Shakespeare’s play. Do you have any favorite book adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, or have you read one of these books? Please tell us about it!

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We’ve told you plenty about our new favorite books: How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare and A Horse with Wings, both of which were featured presentations by the authors during our Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom this week. Now that you’re in “summer-mode,” though, maybe you’d prefer a little something more to explore your favorite Shakespearean characters or history? Something just for YOU. I’ve got you covered.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion shocked me with its insight and emotional impact. Post-Zombie Apocalypse, the world is pretty much divided between the struggling surviving humans and the remaining zombies. One zombie, R, (he can’t remember his whole name), experiences moments from the life of one of his victims after eating his brain, and finds himself changing in ways no one expected. He protects a human teenager, Julie, and together they find a way to adapt to the new world in which they live. The danger from both sides is still very weighty, but these future star-cross’d partners have hope on their side. The bonus to this book is that there has already been a good-looking movie adaptation to compare!

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Very rarely do I see novel adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies. Lisa Klein’s Love Disguised isn’t necessarily an adaptation of one comedy, rather it is an imagined set of circumstances in Shakespeare’s young life which exposes him to all of the elements and characters he can use and re-use later when writing the comedies. Spunky female heroines, cross-dressing, twins, wrecks, inn-yards, mechanicals, bad luck, and even the legal system play a part in inspiring the future bard. The author knows her stuff, and has such fun with this premise that reading the book flies!

ImageSpeaking of potential inspiration in Shakespeare’s lifetime, Kathryn Johnson’s The Gentleman Poet uses the historical account of the shipwrecked Sea Venture, which had been en route to America in 1607 and went down in the Bermudas. Miraculously, most of the passengers and crew survived and were able to rebuild well enough to hobble to Jamestown about a year later. The news captivated Shakespeare’s England, and may have inspired The Tempest. While this is a fictional account, the details of island life are unbelievably true.

ImageFor a stretch, I also recommend the insightful, and maybe disturbing, account of a family falling apart from the perspective of the family dog in Matt Haig’s The Labrador Pact. With shades of Shakespeare’s Henriad, Prince the dog tries to resist temptation and remain the true, devoted family member he believes he was destined to be by birth and training.

I also highly recommend a couple of audiobooks (also available in print) which provided me with hours of entertainment and wonderful education:

Macbeth by A.J. Hartley, David Hewson narrated by Alan Cumming – the subject matter is very dark, but if you’re experiencing a heat wave, this chilling account of the Scot’s events will cool you right off. (By the way, has anyone gotten to see Cumming’s turn on Broadway in the almost-one-man conceptual staging of Macbeth? How was it?!)

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell narrated by Charles Keating – Henry V’s great war is the subject of this novel, and the author does not shy from the horrors of war in the 15th century. However, like The Gentleman Poet, this book builds on the history of the era to create an inspirational human experience worthy of Shakespeare’s pen.

Enjoy your summer, and let us know what you’re reading!

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On more than one occasion, students in my Shakespeare class have told me that studying Shakespeare has made them better writers. That thought pleases and intrigues me, and it also inspired me to offer my students a writing challenge. I asked each one to write in a genre of his/her own choosing and to allow Shakespeare—somehow—to be a part of the piece. And then I went looking for Shakespeare, both inside and outside of their lines.

One of my students, a promising young writer, quickly picked up the challenge and shared the following poem. I think the results are stunning, and I wanted to introduce both the poem and the poet, Emily Shue, to you.

You are the downfall to my stage romance.
Prince charming gone bad—
curly locks shorn with the same blade you held to my wrist,
blue eyes burned out and dull,
illustrious color faded into a smoky abyss.
You are a maiden’s handkerchief, fluttering in the wind of my ragged breath—
Othello as he sat atop his golden haired bride
and pushed air from her lungs with a feather pillow,
blood pounding in his head.
Or Romeo, parrying and thrusting silver throated song through the thick summer night
as his blade sliced Mercutio’s stomach,
spilling from his gaping wound scorpions that scuttled up along black letters
and stung the reader’s tear ducts.
You are both houses sitting silent and somber on the hilltop as mourning comes—
the kind with a “u.”
You are cardboard boxes peeling apart in the pouring rain—
Claudio at his own wedding,
ripping spiderlegs of lace from his bride’s dress and beating hate into her heart.
Lady Macbeth in the cold dungeon of her mind
where is the candle out out candle blood blood candle blood
while waxen figures and crimson kings sashayed and kicked
and wiggled their fingers,
dancing along her throat until she tied up a rope and went sailing in the rafters.

Several years ago, I attended a lecture by Stephen Greenblatt at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. At the conclusion of his lecture, one of the students asked Dr. Greenblatt if he thought that Shakespeare expected people to continue to read his plays and sonnets hundreds of years later. Greenblatt immediately replied, “Yes, but not in the way you might think.” According to Greenblatt, Shakespeare probably expected people to borrow from his works just as Shakespeare had borrowed from other sources. I believe that Emily has honored that expectation in her poem, but now I am left with something new to ponder. Did Shakespeare expect people to consider him their writing teacher as well?

Sue Biondo-Hench is a teacher at Carlisle High School in Pennsylvania. She helped establish the Central Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and founded the Carlisle Shakespeare Troupe. Sue edited the Romeo and Juliet unit of Shakespeare Set Free: Volume 1.   Her lesson plans have been used by secondary school English teachers around the world. She is one of Folger’s Master Teachers, leading curriculum sessions at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, and presenting performance-based Shakespeare teaching workshops at many National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conventions and English Speaking Union of the United States offices across the country.

Emily Shue was awarded both a Silver and a Gold Key from the Scholastic Writing Awards for her poetry submissions.

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I loved summer reading lists. Not that I loved being assigned homework over the summer, but it was a list of books I was now considered “ready” to read! The Hobbit after 5th grade, Shabanu into 8th, Jane Eyre into 9th… I was introduced (or re-introduced) to some excellent literature, which I could take with me to dance camp or the pool and enjoy. I don’t recall ever being assigned any Shakespeare, but it definitely couldn’t have hurt!

I still like to make my own summer reading lists, just of books I think I’ve put off for too long – I’ve already finished one, and look forward to spending time with the rest! It can’t hurt, even now, to try something new, or re-visit an old favorite. My list is below – what’s yours?

Do any of your classroom summer reading lists include a play by or a novel based on Shakespeare’s life or works? Let us know!


Prospero Lost,
by L Jagi Lamplighter – 400 years after the events on Prospero’s Island, his first daughter, Miranda, struggles to maintain the family business of ensuring the magical forces of the world remain in check. She discovers that he has gone missing and that she and her remaining younger siblings are in great danger and must venture out with Mab, the embodied spirit of the north wind, to warn and protect them – and the world.

Something Wicked, A Horatio Wilkes Mystery by Alan M Gratz – (YA) having put the previous summer’s events in Denmark, TN behind him, Horatio spends time with his childhood friend Mac at the Scottish Highland Festival on Birnham mountain. But Mac’s new girlfriend, Beth, is trying just a little too hard to motivate him into competing in the Highland Games when his grandfather, Duncan, is murdered in his tent. Horatio must solve the crime and keep his friends safe – if those two goals can be compatible at all.

Shakespearean Afterlives, by John O’Connor – (Non-Fiction) Inspired by the life Shakespeare’s characters have taken on in modern consciousness, O’Connor traces the histories of 10 characters from their first performance to the way they’re mentioned colloquially today. A stunningly intricate read, and real proof that there is relevance in all of Shakespeare’s work today.

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Recently the internet was abuzz with excitement over a secretly produced film of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Whedon. Mostly, probably, because it’s one of the most well-loved nerds ever directing a cast of a few more of the most well-loved nerds.

I excitedly shared this information with my High School Fellowship mentees the day the news broke. I bounced in my seat, my eyes wide with excitement as I told them that Whedon had directed, and would release (eventually), a new setting for Much Ado on film.

Their blank looks knocked the wind right out of me. They had read Much Ado, they had had animated discussions about the play, and even more heated discussions about a local production they’d seen. They had written essays, become attached to characters, drawn out their own themes and morals from it. Nothing.

Maybe I had focused too much on the aspect that Whedon was directing. After all, they were far to young for Buffy or Angel when it was out, and hardly anyone’s seen Firefly unless you were told about it first. “A new adaptation of Much Ado on film, though, guys! That’s got to be cool,” I pressed, hoping that they’d get interested. Still nada.

Now, HSFP students have – as we like to say – drunk the Shakespeare kool-aid. If they can’t get excited about a new film version of a play, will students who’ve never seen it?

So I suppose that’s my question for you, educators. What gets your students excited about Shakespeare outside of the classroom? New film versions by well-loved directors? Shakespeare lines set to hip hop? Novels (or graphic novels) inspired by Shakespeare? Local live performances? There’s a plethora of ways Shakespeare is presented in the modern world, but who is it reaching?

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November has been “National Novel Writing Month,” since 1999, and it’s still gaining ground. The concept is that every day in November is spent working on a rough draft of a full-length novel – producing about 1699 words per day. It’s intense, but the site above offers pep talks, word count badges, and other incentives to keep writers working! The idea isn’t to come out with a totally polished product, but to exercise the writing muscles and get ideas on paper.

At the encouragement of a few friends who are participating for the first time, I am going to give it a shot. I love stories told by background or imagined characters in a Shakespeare play, and was inspired by my last-minute Halloween costume: the “what if” character of Hellebore (aka Horribelle), the product of Bottom and Titania’s crazy midsummer night (or, “I had donkey ears and fairy wings and am a Shakespearean nerd”). This comes, too, after years of reading and adoring fiction based on Shakespeare, so hopefully a few good things have rubbed off.

Anyone over the age of 13 is welcome to join NaNoWriMo’s site, but your younger students could still participate offline! Do your students have creative writing assignments for your class?  Would they be interested in re-imagining a Shakespeare play as a short story or novel (or new play)? Below are some of my favorite adaptations for young adults, which might inspire them to get to writing!

Falling for Hamlet, by Michelle Ray (High School only!)
The Third Witch, by Rebecca Reisert
The Turquoise Ring, by Grace Tiffany
Caliban’s Hour, by Tad Williams
Romeo’s Ex, by Lisa Fielder 

Good Night, Desdemona (Good Morning, Juliet), by Ann-Marie MacDonald (play)

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Shakespeare is one of the most recognized figures in literature, and his works have been adapted and adapted and adapted over and over and over again for the last 400 years by people interested in exploring the stories and characters in new ways.

And that is exactly what Shakespeare did, as well.

However, Shakespeare didn’t title his work as Romeo and Juliet, inspired by Ovid, or Richard III with liberties from Holinshed’s Chronicles. His work was completely his own invention as far as the language and the way the story fell anew. He’s even been called on his artistic license!

Well, at least on Horrible Histories.

What’s still so interesting to me about how we adapt Shakespeare’s works for modern readers, filmgoers, and audiences is we often do use the original author’s name as a selling point, or blatantly use his (or his play’s) name in the title for recognition. This isn’t all the time, but it’s plenty enough.

If Shakespeare felt comfortable claiming his own work as his own, why aren’t we as secure in letting him go from our adaptations of him?

UPDATE: An article by Lev AC Rosen on his new book All Men of Genius which borrows from Twelfth Night as well as The Importance of Being Earnest - on why he chose those as inspiration and how it helped him as a writer:

” (I’m not trying to impress theatre people, after all – just trying to write a good book). I like to think that while there are a few obvious correlations between characters in my book and those in the plays, all my characters are unique, but the tone and flavor of the book definitely comes from the source material. “

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students perform MACBETH at the 2010 Secondary School Festival

They’re everywhere: No Fear Shakespeare, Simply Shakespeare, Translated Shakespeare. There are teachers who truly believe that their students can’t understand Shakespeare’s 400 year-old words, and turn to updated adaptations which give students the gist of the story, but none of the original poetry.

I used to be ok with it. I thought that as long as a side-by-side translation still printed the original text, students were still going to read and see and maybe even learn Shakespeare’s words. Then I flipped through one and discovered all of the poetry, all of the power, all of the original intent of the words gone. One of the awesome things about Shakespeare’s deliberate word choices is that certain words can mean so many things.

“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”
“Being King is worthless to me,unless I can feel safe and secure as King”
“To be king is nothing, unless I am safely king”

Part of the fun, at least for me, is in interpreting the many ways Shakespeare could have meant the word nothing. Not to mention enjoying the poetry of the repetition of to be… thus and feel that flow within the words. When you translate Shakespeare’s word choices into a definitive interpretation, you are saying that that is the only meaning for that line, and cutting off any discussion about what it could mean to individuals.

This comes up today because of a recent article in which a teacher in NY uses his own updated adaptations of Shakespeare’s text to teach his special education students. He asks them which version they prefer, his own or Shakespeare’s, and they all say his own.

It is my opinion, and I want to stress that it is my own – and Folger Education staff will chime in with their own, that if you offer students an “easier” option, you are telling them that they are not going to understand Shakespeare. You are putting that barrier there and telling them that Shakespeare is a distant and unreadable icon of an outdated language, and that it is no longer useful to study his original texts.

I am the biggest advocate of adaptation in this office – novels, movies, plays and musicals, modern-dress, silent - anything that takes inspiration from Shakespeare I want to know about and explore. But to teach an adaptation as if it were Shakespeare is not how adaptation should be used. It should be used to explore the ideas presented in the originals and discuss them in fresh ways – not to replace the originals in the classroom.

We have seen ESL/ELL students, elementary students, special education students, students of all ages and disciplines perform, understand, and enjoy  Shakespeare’s original words on our very own stage for decades. Where does this idea come from that the language cannot be understood or taught? Please share your opinions in the comments.

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