Saturday, April 10, 2010

Teaching Shakespeare: The Interview Series

I've been interviewing a variety of individuals in the fields of education and Shakespeare for the development of my Shakespeare program (under the guidance of Dr. Celest Woo), and I've found their experiences and insights to be incredibly illuminating. I'd like to share them with you here!

The first interview in the series is between myself and Dr. Corey Abate. Enjoy!


Please describe your background with Shakespeare, and with education.
I hold a Ph.D. in Shakespeare from NYU and have been teaching Shakespeare among many other authors for almost 15 years now.  I have published articles on Shakespeare and other Early Modern authors, and chair the Columbia Shakespeare Seminar at Columbia Univ.

At what age do you think it's appropriate to teach Shakespeare to students?
I think children should be exposed to Shakespeare at an early age, but with the understanding that they really won't begin to understand his plays until middle school (possibly) and high school (definitely).  For example, I think grammar school kids can study a unit on him, his life, and perhaps build a Globe Theatre, but they shouldn't be assigned a play.  Middle school kids can get Julius Caesar if it's connected to something going on in history class, and certainly they can be taught Romeo and Juliet because they know the story and it's about teen rebellion.  But to teach Shakespeare with the goal of really having the students understand more than the basics, I don't think it can begin until they are 14 or 15.

What about Shakespearean study do you think causes resistance in high school aged students?
I don't think students are provided any help or enough help with learning how to read his language.  It's like learning a foreign language in a lot of ways, so I provide my students with rules:  pay attention to repeated words and phrases because they are the most important, try to pick out the words they recognize and ignore words that are unfamiliar, etc.  Also, another reason they have trouble is due to pacing.  With my freshmen, for example, we study an Act a week.  My seniors we go a bit faster --two Acts a week-- but the point is that they need time to read it and to go over it in class.  Finally, all teachers should build time into the unit to show it being performed.  Not an entire movie perhaps, but enough snatches here and there so they can hear how the language sounds coming out of the mouth of someone who knows how to properly breathe the lines.  Something else that makes it difficult is if the teacher insists on going over every line.  That doesn't help either.

Are there practical/ administrative challenges that exist when teaching Shakespeare to high schoolers?
I think the timing issue as I mentioned above, and also resources:  if a teacher can't get hold of a movie then that will be difficult to show them the words being performed.  (That, by the way, is another difficulty:  the students are reading a script, something which is meant to be seen.  So there is an onus put on their imaginations to imagine how a line is read or what the stage directions should be, etc.)

What are your thoughts on plot-driven Shakespeare education (with shortened and translated text) vs. text-and-language-driven curriculum for high school students?
Translated texts are not Shakespeare.  No teacher should ever use them.  If they don't have time to study Shakespeare over 5 or 6 weeks, then they should only study part of an original play in the time they have and show a movie for the rest of it.  But shortened or translated texts are never the answer.  How will that help the students develop strategies for when the time comes --as it inevitably will-- for them to study Shakespeare for real?

Do you think certain Shakespearean plays are better suited for high school students? Less suited? Which ones, and why?
I think the more relevant a Shakespeare play is to the age group the better they will follow along.  That is why I teach Merchant of Venice, for example, to 9th graders because it is a way to talk about familial obedience and prejudice (not to mention letter writing, which is something kids do dozens of times a day with all of the texting that now occurs!).  Seniors understand Hamlet and Othello keenly because of the issues involving relationships and death in the former and reputation and sex in the latter, while Middle Schoolers can get enough out of Romeo and Juliet to make it worthwhile.  Plays that should be avoided are the ones that are too fantastical (Midsummer) or rely too much on the visual gag (Comedy of Errors) for their imaginations to process while the other half of their brain is just trying to follow the words. 

Do you think that drama should be incorporated into the study of Shakespeare? Should the texts be acted out and/ or read aloud?
Yes!  Certain passages must be acted out.  That is the only way, for example, for students to really see how Portia inverts expected gender roles when she gives Bassanio a ring.  The students don't need to dress up or anything like that, but they do need to try and figure out how to make the lines sound meaningful.  I also act out the entire final scene of Othello with my seniors because the stage directions say that Othello himself is disarmed not once but twice.  If this is so, then how is he able to stab himself?  Seniors need to visualize the scene as they grapple to answer that one.

Could you share some "best practices" you've encountered when presenting Shakespeare to young people?
I hope you don't mind, but I pasted into this message a part of a paper I presented on this very topic, which is providing students with help to understand Shakespeare.  I think besides all that I have mentioned above--slowly going through the text but not reading every single line, reading aloud, watching certain scenes in movies-- I would also add that the teacher should provide some notes on the board as well.

For example, when I teach /Othello/, which is always a crowd pleaser, I begin my discussion of Act 4 by writing on the board:  "what does it mean to be a good wife in this play?" with the word "good" appearing in quotation marks.  By that point, you will recall, Emilia and Desdemona are changing places, as Desdemona becomes more obedient as the play progresses while Emilia becomes more forthright and assertive.  Indeed, without her brave speech act in the final scene in which she presages her own death, the truth concerning the handkerchief would never be known:  "Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak./ 'Tis proper I obey him, but not now./ Perchance, Iago, I will ne'er go home."[i] <#_edn1>  Of course, my discussion question is also a trick, because both women wind up dead.  So you could say that it doesn't matter what it means to be a good wife; it may be more accurate to say that if your husband /believes/ that you are not a good wife, you die.


[i] <#_ednref1> /Othello/, ed. Russ McDonald (New York:  Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001).  All quotations of the play will refer to this edition.

I provide four tips for how to read Shakespeare:  1) repetition is your friend:  if something is important, Shakespeare will repeat it so you can apprehend while reading that it is important.  2) I encourage students to get gists of passages and speeches and not try to understand every joke and every metaphor.  3) I remind them that it is modern English, after all, just an early version of it, which means that they should be able to pick out words they recognize and make meaning from them.  This observation leads to perhaps my most important piece of advice, which is 4) don't overcomplicate.  Don't think that just because it's Shakespeare it must be impenetrable.  I use as my example Antonio's speech that opens /The Merchant of Venice/:

                                  In sooth I know not why I am so sad.

                                  It wearies me, you say it wearies you;

                                  But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

                                  What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,

                                  I am to learn;

                                  And such a want-wit of sadness makes of me

                                  That I have much ado to know myself.[i] <#_edn1>

If students skip over the words "sooth" and "want-wit" as sounding too weirdly Shakespearean, they should still have no trouble discerning that this character is sad for reasons unknown to everyone, even himself, and that everyone finds it irksome.  Period.