Friday, October 23, 2015

Reading Shakespeare

Shakespeare, man of mystery. Enough is known through public record to know that the man existed. However, any personal detail is unknown, to the point that there isn't technically proof that Shakespeare wrote the plays we read today. I personally adhere to the camp that he did write them, that we owe his friends a debt of gratitude for putting his works together in the First Folio. Why complicate things? Besides, the bigger matter is the plays themselves. Works of art that literally created a sizable portion of our English language and have lasted hundreds of years because of their eloquence and humanity. Read any Shakespeare plot line, examine the themes, and you will see present day humanity playing out before your eyes. Homo sapiens haven't changed as much as we'd like to think over the centuries.

Why all the fuss about Shakespeare on the blog today? Well, I've read multiple Shakespeare works over the years, but in my past ten years as a teacher, Romeo and Juliet is the only one that has popped up in my curriculum. I know it well and it's easy to teach because, thanks to pop culture and the nature of teenagers, everyone already knows it for the most part. This year AP Literature brings me to teaching other works, like Hamlet and Othello, and new experiences in the teaching of Shakespeare.

Ah Hamlet, emo before emo was a thing. An emotional wreck, spilling his guts and emotional distress soliloquy after soliloquy, Hamlet at first reminds me of whiny Romeo. Of course, Hamlet has good reason (Romeo not so much). In short, his father, the king, has passed away; his uncle marries his mom a month later, denying Hamlet his dreams; a rival country is planning an attack on Denmark; his father's ghost is walking the castle watch tower with a secret; a dear one commits suicide; murder and general mayhem reveal themselves. It's a mess like only Shakespeare can create and put into motion through poetry. I'm enjoying it.

Of course, some of my students will tell you differently. Pulling apart Shakespeare can be intimidating. It's never been particularly intimidating for me, although I bought new copies of each play in No Fear Shakespeare editions, just in case. Haven't needed it yet though, so I started to wonder how it is Shakespeare clicks for me. I am a reader, which helps, but even I don't know the meaning of every little odd word and detail Shakespeare uses, so how is it I understand? It came to me in a teachable moment one day.

We'd reached Hamlet's first soliloquy (Act I, scene ii), read through and settled into a worksheet to pull it apart for meaning. Immediately they felt lost and didn't hesitate in saying so. At first I thought, what's there not to get, but proceeded to reread the beginning with them (lines 129-132 in my edition):

            "Oh that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
             Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
             Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
             His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!"

I realized as I read that I was only using one phrase and two other words of those four lines to translate in my head. So I told them to pick out the familiar words and string them together for meaning, ignoring all else. Conversation progressed something like this:

Me: What happens if your flesh melts? (Indiana Jones, Shakespeare beat you to it.)
Class: You'd be dead.
Me: What does "Everlasting" mean and why is it capitalized? Only proper nouns are capitalized.
Class: It means it's a name?
Me: Who is the only being we claim to be a forever being?
Class: God
Me: What does slaughter mean?
Class: To violently kill.
Me: And adding "self"?
Class: ohhhh...suicide!

And using those couple of items, they pieced together for me that Hamlet wants to die and would commit suicide, except his God has made it a sin to do so. It was a learning moment for them, figuring out how to read some of this craziness and it was a learning moment for me to be able to show them, when I hadn't been sure how to do so before. It doesn't make it easy still takes time to slow down and go through the lines, digging for previous knowledge and connecting those pieces together. But it's a starting point. They'll be reading Shakespeare next year and some of them in college even, so hopefully we've made a good start of it.

What about you readers? Any luck with Shakespeare?


  1. I remember reading As You Like It in Junior High and then performing in a play at the end of the year. I was Phebe...and I still do this day remember my lines..."Think not I loe him, though I ask for him: Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well."

    1. Wow, that's cool. It really stuck with you. That's what Shakespeare does!