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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Understanding Shakespeare

The man himself
Greetings and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and this blog is my own little piece of the internet to talk about all things theater.

I was troubled the other day when I saw a fairly new edition of a Shakespeare textbook of the play Romeo and Juliet. If you opened it up, on even number pages you found Shakespeare's text.  On the odd, adjacent page, you had Shakespeare's text translated into more colloquial English. At the risk of sounding like an old timer, the Shakespeare editions I approve of are either the Oxford or the Norton's (with an edge to the Norton's).  Yes, this contains footnotes, but it never attempts to "translate" a text that is already written in English! I can't help but think that teaching kids from such a "we've done all the work for you" text will only guarantee that the students will NEVER have an appreciation or an understanding of Shakespeare. To me, this method of teaching makes about as much sense as assigning the Cliff Notes for Great Expectations instead of the novel itself.

Needless to say, this makes me sad. And I'm sure Orwell is somewhere in the Afterlife weeping.

Perhaps this is controversial, and I certainly don't want to offend hard-working English teachers across the country, but, quite frankly, I don't believe high schools, by and large, teach Shakespeare very well.  There is a certain myth of terror when a student approaches Shakespeare--- "I'll never understand it!," and, in my experience, little is done to shatter this myth for students.  And it boils down to this one thing:


This is all well and good, and, indeed, Shakespeare's plays are literature.  The problem arises that Shakespeare is taught in the same way English teachers teach novels that are great literature.  And therein we find the problem.


Yes, these days, I can sit down and read a play by Shakespeare simply for literary enjoyment, because I've been reading his plays for years and have an understanding of them.  I never may have had this understanding, however, if it hadn't been for my high school English teacher Dawn MacPherson Allen.  When we read Shakespeare in her class, she took the class time to have us read them out loud.  And not just a portion of them out loud.  We read them out loud start to finish.

Shakespeare, like all playwrights, wrote his plays to be performed.  His language is meant to pass through an actor's tongue.  It was written to be visual and physical, and, ultimately, provoke feeling from the audience, whether it be laughter or tears.

Analyzing Shakespeare's plays in terms of literary techniques and such is certainly valuable toward an understanding of the text, but, in my humble opinion, the best way to understand Shakespeare's work is to study it as an actor and a director would study it.  Want to get a grasp on Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech?  Tackle it as an actor would.  How does it relate to me?  How would I act if my father had died, and my mother married my uncle shortly thereafter?  How would I feel if everyone I thought I could trust suddenly seems to be playing me?  What are the big "as ifs" in my own life that help me see what Hamlet is going through?

And then, by the very action of speaking the language (that, yes, is ENGLISH), with a focus on trying to perform it, a student will begin to internalize the language, and the more they practice, the more the language feels like an extension of their own.

No, not every student in an English class is destined to be a great classical actor, but that's no the point.  After all, not every student in an English class is destined to be a great literary scholar, either. The point is to expose Shakespeare's writing to students in the way it was meant to be consumed.  As a play.  Will some students still understand it better than others?  Certainly.  But my guess is that at least more students will be ACTIVELY ENGAGED in figuring him out, instead of letting some watered down text tell them what Shakespeare is trying to say.  AND THIS IS WHAT WE WANT. Students learning to figure out what great works of literature and great works of theater mean to them.

I humbly submit that Shakespeare should not only be taught by English teachers, but by Drama teachers.  I also humbly submit that everyone who wants to be a high school English teacher should be required to take an acting in Shakespeare class for college credit.  (Of course, I think all teachers should have to take an acting class or two anyway, but that's for another blog post.)

Thank you, Mrs. Allen, for teaching me to appreciate Shakespeare by reading him out loud. You've made my world a much richer place because of it.


  1. This post happens to come just as I am knee-deep in Act 3 of Romeo and Juliet with my freshmen. I totally agree. We read out loud, we jump up to reenact the tragic duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, and we have great fun in playing around with how their lines would be worded today. Because, as I remind them, the title characters were teens - impulsive, dramatic, occasionally arrogant teens who behave exactly like teens today do. This opens the context to them and helps to demystify the play. It's great fun.

    1. I'm glad to hear it! Putting a Shakespeare play on its feet has always helped me to understand and relate to the language, and demystify it all. Congratulations for keeping your teens engaged, and thank you for helping to create new Shakespeare fans!