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Archive for the ‘Shakespeare Lit’ Category

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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~by Carol Kelly

What makes a good blog entry? An interesting subject? Controversial subject matter? A radical viewpoint? Or is it just witnessing the powerful influence a blog can exert?

In preparing a blog entry in response to How Shakespeare Changed Everything, by Stephen Marche I found a series of fascinating blog entries in response to an online review that appeared to be almost as long as and more interesting than the book itself! I have rarely seen such an entertaining series of exchanges.

Many of those responding, immediately accepted the reviewer’s opinion that the book was shallow, indulged in generalizations and was poorly written. Many appreciated the reviewer saving them the trouble of reading it and immediately put it to the bottom of their “To read” pile. Wow that is wielding some power!!! Others said they enjoyed reading the review, which I have to admit was entertaining and those that had read the book for themselves enjoyed sharing bits that they hated too. Poor Stephen Marche!

However there is no such thing as bad publicity and reading a bad  review can in fact makes the book itself irresistible! After having had his book torn apart online, I felt a bit sorry for Stephen Marche and considered that it would be a disservice not to at least read some of the book and I also found other reviews that offered a more balanced perspective. But I am left wondering  how many people are now using book blogs to shape their reading choices and do those writing them realize the power they wield?

See the scathing review for yourself

Carol Kelly is the Festivals and Workshops Coordinator of the Folger Education Division.

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