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Posts Tagged ‘Introducing Shakespeare’

By Kevin Costa

Whenever I begin a Shakespeare play with my students in my two-year course, The Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies at McDonogh School, I get the class working on text from just about Day One. I don’t spend a lot of time setting up with talk about Shakespeare’s life or with the history of the period — there’s plenty of time for that later, if at all.

Owiso Odera (Othello) and Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago), Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Owiso Odera (Othello) and Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago), Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

When I first started this course, I would choose the play we’d cover for two years, but this fall I took a different approach. My students and I looked through the Complete Works, and we read bits and pieces of plays that I thought they might like. This year, I think we may have looked at the moment in Othello where Iago helps convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful (3.3). Then we also read through the two scenes in Measure for Measure where Angelo propositions Isabella to sleep with him (2.2 & 2.4).

If you have a choice of play from which to chose, this is a compelling way to have students own their experience from the get-go. In other words, get students hooked by offering some of a play’s “greatest hits.” Once they have a taste of something they like, they’ll certainly want more since a well-chosen scene can really awaken their curiosity for the whole work.

If you don’t have a choice in play, that’s no problem at all. Here are some ideas for some of the most-taught titles.

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Folger Library Exterior: Bas relief: Julius Caesar

by Gina Voskov

One of the courses I teach at my school is 6th grade Humanities, and next up in our year’s curriculum plan is learning about Ancient Greece and Rome. I’m excited about getting the kids up and out of their seats for this class, and the best way I can do that is by getting them to interact with Shakespeare.

For this unit, I’ll be giving them some Julius Caesar, the Cinna the Poet scene in particular. This scene never fails to get all kids speaking, thinking, and moving. It’s also just about the easiest scene in the books with respect to language–there’s none of that stuff that turns so many kids away–the thee‘s and thine‘s and whatnot. I love giving this scene to groups of kids at the start of the year because it’s a great way to build community. But now that we are 3/4ths of the way through the year, I’m going to open our unit with performance. This scene will definitely have them asking questions about history, which is what we teachers hope for, right? (more…)

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As you probably know, April 23 is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, and the Folger Education staff wants to get everyone involved in the celebration. So we are hosting a Balcony Scene Flash Mob Festival. It’s simple. It’s fun.  And it will get a lot of people speaking Shakespeare.

UNCWe hope to get groups from all across the country to take part.

So please join us! (more…)

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A while back I wrote Shakespeare in Other Words citing the reasons teachers should avoid using “No Fear” or “Made Easy” or any other parallel text edition in their classroom. Needless to say, it generated over 40 comments, including some from an author of “The Shakespeare Novels.”

But now I realize that simply dismissing those books wasn’t enough. What should teachers do, who not only find it difficult to teach the real stuff, but who may struggle with the language themselves? So here are a few suggestions:

  1. Since students can access the No Fear versions online for free, why not suggest or even encourage them to read them at home. And then read and teach the real text in class.
  2. Start with “baby steps.”
  3. Begin with a 15 Minute Play. There are eight of them on the Folger site.
  4. Pull out 30 juicy lines from the play you’ll be studying, put each line on a 3×5 note card, and give one to each student. Then they find a partner, come up with a scene using only the words on the cards, and perform the scene for the class.
  5. Instead of Made Easy texts, create a Made Shorter text. Using the Folger Digital Texts, copy a scene, paste it into a Word file, and edit it to a version that your students can handle.
  6. If you want to teach Iambic Pentameter, watch the video called Living Iambic Pentameter, but DO NOT SHOW IT TO YOUR CLASS. Instead, do your own version in class. No kid wants to watch other kids having fun.

Those are just a few ways to get past the fear and teach Shakespeare for Real. Post your comments below with other suggestions.

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Image~by Emily DenBleyker

The Taming of the Shrew came first, when I was 7 or 8 – a community theatre production in their tiny theatre in the middle of a cornfield. Then, when I was 9 and bored with the 4th grade reading list, my teacher gave me special permission to read Romeo and Juliet for a book report. My mom and I read it together: first the story from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, then the actual play, side by side on the couch, trading roles, talking through each scene, playing with the language.

My mother started buying every Shakespeare DVD she could find – filmed theatre productions, movies, specials about Shakespeare – and we would watch them together on quiet nights. I would watch them by myself in my free time or while I was doing homework, internalizing Juliet’s “Wherefore art thou,” and Beatrice’s “What fire is in mine ears?”

I’ve spent this semester as an intern in the Education Division of the Folger, and I’m finding myself more in love with these words than ever before – both how and what they say. It would be cliché to extol the magnificence of Shakespeare’s metaphors and the intricacies of his characterizations, but what I’m marveling over are the lessons and truths he could convey.

At the Secondary School Festival, I saw students who had found the sweetness in the lines years before and I saw students discovering the language for the first time. No matter how new they were to this crazy world we call the theatre, they learned what it feels like to stand in front of a few hundred people and say centuries-old lines that still apply to today. The costumes and the details are a little different, but these stories are told everyday in real life: people lie, fall in love, pretend to be something they’re not.

The biggest thing I’ve learned these past few months is this: to be able to teach these lessons, we have to learn them ourselves. Not literally – I’m not advocating usurping your brother’s dukedom just so you can learn how it feels to be reunited.  In the broader sense, if you look for Shakespeare’s stories in everyday life, you will find them. The words will come alive on the page and your life will be that much more dramatic (in a good way).

Emily DenBleyker is a junior at Gordon College in Massachusetts. She is spending this semester in Washington DC with the American Studies Program and interning with the Education Division of the Folger Shakespeare Library. After graduating next May, Emily hopes to work in theatre education. Or literature. Or film criticism. Or marketing. 

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There may be snow on the ground, but Spring is in the air at the Folger.  As the Cherry Blossoms in Washington prepare to bloom, so do our local budding Bards as they prepare for the student festivals right around the corner. While the high school students will stomp the boards in just a couple of weeks at our annual Secondary School Festival, their younger comrades in the elementary grades will give them a run for their money in mid-May during our 34th Annual Children’s Festival. The work of all of these youngsters in their grappling of the text, their connections to the intricate characters and relationships in Shakespeare’s plays is sometimes inconceivable and without a doubt exciting.

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On the heels of our Children’s Festival is the equally exciting Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom. So for all of those who would like to know what this work looks like, now is your chance to join the movement. We are excited to host both local and national educators as we experience the incredible work being done with primary level students and Shakespeare.

As we share our stories, we’ll also experience and hear the stories behind two newly published books that should be welcomed additions to your Shakespeare for kids library.

Internationally acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You) joins us as our keynote speaker. Adding author to his long list of accomplishments, Ken will talk and give a demonstration from his newly published book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare (available June 11). We’ll also be joined by Daeshin Kim, writer and composer of the picture book and CD, A Horse with Wings: Songs for Children Sung by Characters from Shakespeare. Hear about Daeshin’s journey to re-creating the stories of Shakespeare’s characters through music and the voice of a child.

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To see a full list of our conference presenters and to register, check out http://www.folger.edu/eec.

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Why are there so many “modern” versions of Shakespeare’s plays?

There are plenty of great books that don’t need translated versions. We don’t look for easier versions of Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, or Fitzgerald (or at least, I hope we don’t.) But re-doing Shakespeare seems to be a favorite sport of publishers.

In a way, we can trace it back to Nahum Tate in the 1680’s and Thomas Bowdler in 1818, but they had totally different agendas than today’s creators. Tate wanted happy endings and Bowdler wanted to clean up the naughty bits.[I'll talk about them in my next post.]

We at the Folger have a standard answer when someone asks us what we think of “modern” versions of Shakespeare’s texts:

“IF YOU’RE NOT GOING TO USE SHAKESPEARE’S WORDS, DON’T DO SHAKESPEARE.”

Why dumb down all those beautiful words and images for the sake of making it easier? We’ve found that if you’re teaching Shakespeare in an active, performance-based approach, the language becomes less of on obstacle.

It’s the words that matter. Here’s an example of a passage from R&J which I’ve written with an interlinear version with the No Fear version:


Shakespeare: Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

No Fear: Oh, she shows the torches how to burn bright!

Shakespeare: It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

No Fear: She stands out against the darkness

Shakespeare: Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear,

No Fear: like a jeweled earring hanging against the cheek of an African.

Shakespeare: Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.

No Fear: Her beauty is too good for this world; she’s too beautiful to die and be buried.

Shakespeare:  So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.

No Fear: She outshines the other women like a white dove in the middle of a flock of crows.

Shakespeare: The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,

No Fear: When this dance is over, I’ll see where she stands

Shakespeare: And, touching hers, make blessèd my rude hand.

No Fear: and then I’ll touch her hand with my rough and ugly one.

Shakespeare: Did my heart love till now?

No Fear: Did my heart ever love anyone before this moment?

Shakespeare: Forswear it, sight!

No Fear: My eyes were liars, then

Shakespeare: For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

No Fear: because I never saw true beauty before tonight.

See the difference? Post your comments below as to the effect of the translation.

I almost hesitate to mention more of these, but they are worth discussing here. The following are for the print empaired student:

But back to print. Here are the candidates:

  • Kent Richmond has created what he calls “verse translations” of several plays and shows why his versions are superior to what he calls the “dumbed down prose versions.”  Here’s his translation of the Prologue from R&J.
  • No Fear Shakespeare is part of Spark Notes. Here’s their parallel-text version of the same Prologue.
  • Barrons have moved on from their Shakespeare Made Easy series with the death of  their author, Alan Durband. They now have a series called Simply Shakespeare which seems equally bad.
  • There’s also a series of Shakespeare Novels by Paul Illidge.  Here’s the opening line from Macbeth: “A summer storm moves on over the barren and deserted countryside of Scotland during the Middle Ages, leaving the rain-soaked fields cloaked in clouds of fog.” Oh my.

I won’t get into the manga and graphic versions of the plays, most of which retain the original language and are quite good.

One of my students recently said to me, “You have some strong opinions.” Yes, I do, but if you feel that there’s room for these translations in your class, I encourage you to post your comments below.

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