In love with 'Shakespeare in Love'
When I was at university I nearly got thrown off the Honours degree course I was doing in Drama when I handed in an assignment I called Othello - The Soap Opera! There was much tutting and clucking from some as I had done a rather brash comparison of the plot structures of Shakespeare's plays to those of a modern day TV soap.
I had examined how there were, to my mind, many similarities to be found. I could not understand the sense of minor outrage this caused and felt a bit ostracized for my having dared to suggest anything more than absolute reverence for the Bard.
Yet I was not being disrespectful. I had always loved and had felt such resonance with his words even as a boy at high school. I thought that by comparing the plot of Othello to that of a modern day soap had helped to give me a context. This assisted me in understanding the play more and to uncover the continued relevance the themes still had hundreds of years after they were written. As they say, the more things change the more they stay the same.
I felt vindicated a few years later, when a visiting Australian academic presented a paper at the university theatre festival entitled, believe it or not, 'Shakespeare -The Soap Opera!'
As a younger man at university and then as a young actor, I was fortunate to appear in some wonderful Shakespeare productions mostly in the comedic roles.
I even had to play the lute as the character Amiens in As you like it. Although I could play the guitar, the lute was quite different. I ended up singing 'Under the Greenwood tree' as sweetly and loudly as I could to cover up the odd sounds that were coming out as I tried to strum the strings of the lute.
Link to some real lute playing
I provide a youtube link at the end of this post to some beautiful music from Shakespeare's times being played on the lute. It is so lovely and it created a wonderful atmosphere in my language workshops as the students and I explored Shakespeare this week.
Shakespeare in Cape Town
Another highlight for me was working at the beautiful Maynardville open air theatre in Cape Town. The theatre is set among the trees of the Maynardville park with Table Mountain as a backdrop. It's a great night out for audiences, many of whom picnic on the lawns prior to going to watch the performance of one of Shakespeare's plays. It's really worth a visit if ever you are in Cape Town during the summer season.
I mention all this so as to try and find a context for my approach to introducing Shakespeare to foreign language students. That's the second or third time I have mentioned the word 'context' in this post, and as I write this it seems to me to be the crux of the matter.
Giving students the context of new vocabulary underpins most language teaching methods and I think the same applies to introducing them to Shakespeare too.
There is a wonderful documentary series called The King and the Playwright which shows how Shakespeare was often reflecting on the politics of the time, but from a 'once removed' position by setting his some of his plays in Italy. This so as to be not too close for comfort to the political controversies of current affairs in England at the time.
As I watched the series that described the real life political intrigues that were going on at the time, the plays felt even more pertinent to me. In modern times they remain brilliant reflections on the topical issues of political power struggles and our search for meanings and significance in life. The more we can assist students to find relevant contexts in which to frame their understandings of the texts and with which they can identify, the more they will come alive for both them and for us as teachers.
By way of example, here's s a link to an article that you could copy and paste onto a word document for students to read more about the political context of the tragedy of Macbeth and which is also relevant for his other plays. I make a hand out of this article when exploring Shakespeare in my language classes
Another question would be, 'How can one make Shakespeare understandable for foreign language students?'
Again, I think it comes down to creating relevant contexts. The more you can put Shakespeare into pertinent contexts for the students and ourselves, the more both we and the students will enjoy exploring the texts.
I use by way of example Hamlet's famous 'To be or not to be' soliloquy. A soliloquy is the word we use to describe a speech where the character talks to himself or thinks out loud.
I first discuss with the students what we might all know about the setting and plot of the play. I then say that we are about to read a speech in which Hamlet considers whether it's worth carrying on with life.
Young Prince Hamlet has been having a really rough time of it. His mother has married the murderer of his father and his girl friend is going crazy and he now wants to take revenge. Knowing that, it's little wonder that Shakespeare has written him a speech in which he examines whether life is worth living any longer.
A read through like actors do at the start of rehearsals.
I tell the students to not worry too much about the meaning of all the words at this stage and mention that even English speaking actors would need to research a lot of the language that was used at that time in preparation for the role. I ask them to focus more on the sweep of the language and how hearing and speaking it makes them feel. I then given them a modern version of the same speech which we also read through .
It's brilliant to watch the student's confidence grow as we discover the beauty of Shakespeare's texts together and how relevant the themes remain today and how evocative the images are that they conjure up. This despite our perhaps not fully understanding each and every word.
I found a site called 'No sweat Shakespeare' which has excellent resources and modern versions of his texts. Once again I copy the texts onto a word document and credit the source to make a hand out.
(See resource links below)
Here's Hamlet's famous soliloquy and the modern text version from the site. As you can see it's filled with excellent vocabulary and themes to explore.
To Be Or Not To Be - Hamlet, Act 3 Sc 1
To be, or not to be, that is the question--
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep--
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
The question is: is it better to be alive or dead?
Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that
luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?
Dying, sleeping, that’s all dying is, a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us. That’s an achievement to wish for.
To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream.
Ah, but there’s the catch: in death’s sleep who knows what kind of dreams might come, after we’ve put the noise and commotion of life behind us. That’s certainly something to worry about.That’s the consideration that makes us stretch out our sufferings so long.
There is a really good article on the British Council site which gives you an overview of how and why to introduce Shakespeare to foreign language students. I agree with the writer Jo Bertrand when she writes by way of introduction,
'By depriving our EFL teens of Shakespeare we are depriving them of some of the most riveting, contemporary stories ever to be told in the English language. In your EFL classroom don’t skip it – exploit it! '
According to the Shakespeare online site (link at end of post)
The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare. He invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.
All the world's a stage, and that includes the classroom!
Teachers are also responsible for almost all productions aspects of their classes from script (hand outs) through to other support material such music, pictures, slides and even props. One can view each class as a mini-production in many ways. I will write more on this in a future blog. Suffice for now to say that I think that a teacher also plays the role of a theatre director to a large extent too.
Improvised Shakespeare - How to sound like the Bard!
We finished the class yesterday with an improvised comedy game that we came up with in which one gets a chance to sound like Shakespeare. It dawned on me during the class that one could take an everyday scenario for instance ordering food at a restaurant and to indicate you are famished you might say 'I am hungry, I could eat a horse'
If one were to then start describing the horse in detail one then starts sounding like Shakespearean texts by adding adjectives and exaggerating the comparison. In this instance, 'I am as hungry as a hungriest horse that has run a thousand miles without a break, nor water, nor hay for what seems an endless time!'
There was much hilarity as the students came up with their own comparisons. One was pretending that the food was not acceptable, 'that not even a rat would eat it.' I then encouraged them to describe the rat. We laughed as the students added further adjectives and descriptions, 'That not even the hungriest, thinnest rat who had not eaten for an eternity, no longer than that, not even this poor starving creature would eat it'
We decided that if one made comparisons to an animal, a flower, or anything in nature like the weather, it started to sound very dramatic and Shakespearean. It's a concept that I would like to explore and develop further in future classes and was great fun to do in class.
I took this pic of my morning advanced class last week in London with the statue of Shakespeare looking down on us. I am sure that as we celebrate the 450th anniversary of his birth he would have been so pleased to hear his words being spoken with such beautiful accents in our language classes by students from all around the world.
English Lute Music 1550 -1630
For teachers and students one can download a brief story of Shakespeare's life, combining fact with theory. Follow him from his birth through his school years, early marriage, the theatre years in London to his return home to Stratford. This document is designed as a resource for teachers which can be adapted to use with your students.
See more at http://www.rsc.org.uk/education/online-resources/ and do visit the excellent teacher's packs available at http://www.rsc.org.uk/education/online-resources/shakespeare-teachers-pack.aspx
The article about why we should use Shakespeare in TEFL classes can be seen at http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/shakespeare-teens
An excellent lesson from the British Council site on Hamlet with worksheets lesson plan can be downloaded at https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/hamlets-soliloquy
A list of some of the the words Shakespeare coined, hyperlinked to the play and scene from which they come can be found at http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordsinvented.html
Quotes from Shakespeare in categories can be found at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/w/william_shakespeare.html#j3vBhCz6q6LYw57s.99
No sweat Shakespeare site can be found at http://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/quotes/hamlet-to-be-or-not-to-be/
What did Shakespeare look like? Fascinating look at various portraits of the Bard at http://www.artsology.com/shakespeare_portraits.php
For brilliant teaching online resources follow Teaching English – British Councill – British Council and if you are learning English visit and like LearnEnglish – British Council
If you like it would also be great if you could like my facebook page at Learning English with Lawrence
You can also subscribe to this blog by using the link in the right hand column of this page.
The Hollow Crown - The complete series
From executive producer Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) comes a stunning adaptation
of four of Shakespeare’s most celebrated history plays: Richard II, Henry IV (Part 1 and Part 2),
and Henry V.
Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons (The Borgias), Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers), and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) in his award-winning role as Richard II star in this epic tale of three kings, their battle for survival, and the rise and fall of a dynasty.