05 FEBRUARY 2014

A More Active Approach to Shakespeare

A More Active Approach to Shakespeare

"Shakespeare famously included very few explicit stage directions, preferring instead hidden, or structural clues"

I have taught English Literature for 15 years. In that time I have taught it for different qualifications, including GCSE, IGCSE, A level, IB (MYP and Diploma), and also across all secondary school year groups (in the UK that’s 11 - 18), in state and independent schools, and, inevitably, to a very wide ability range. I have also observed Shakespeare being taught in a number of schools in the UK, in Europe, and in the USA, and have lost count of the number of school trips I have taken to see his plays performed (I won’t forget ‘Henry V’ performed like a football match, complete with Enger-land chants from the actors, nor a performance of ‘King Lear’ which, for some reason, insisted on some of the actors being dressed in nappies).

Shakespeare survives everything actors, directors, students and teachers subject him to: his texts continue to be popular not because successive policy makers insist that it is our children’s ‘birthright’ to study them, but because they resonate in the classroom. I have rarely heard a student ask why, after all these years, we are compelled to read long, complex plays from the sixteenth century (when I begin teaching Shakespeare I begin by showing them Kate Tempest’s wonderful poem, which articulates very well why Shakespeare still speaks to us today, whatever the context).

And yet, and yet...the majority of those lessons I have seen - and no doubt a sizeable number of those I have taught - are far removed from how Shakespeare should be experienced. Because of time constraints, and examination requirements, much of Shakespeare (in an English Literature classroom at least) is taught as a ‘flat’ text: the students sit down, read, discuss, write...and then do the same again. Come their examinations, come the coursework assessment, they will be evaluated not on how they have performed Shakespeare’s words, nor even how the plays can be staged, but on how they have analysed the language. That’s where the marks are, and that is where the time is spent.

In itself this is not a bad thing: close language analysis, which allows the students to write about characterisation, theme, structure, and other aspects of the text, is vital if they are to develop as confident students of the subject, and to not do this will not only affect their grades but also disadvantage them should they wish to study the subject at university.

But if you want to unsettle an English teacher, utter words such as ‘stagecraft’ or a phrase like ‘let’s move the desks back’, and watch those otherwise assured teachers, comfortable with a dog-eared text in their hands, flinch a little when a more active approach to teaching the Bard is suggested. It’s not that they don’t want to do it...it’s just, well, you know...time, deadlines, the class don’t like it...think of the noise...it’ll be chaos. There are always reasons for not exploring Shakespeare actively, but there are equally good reasons for doing so.

Central to Rex Gibson’s work is an active approach to teaching Shakespeare, and this continues to underpin the new editions of the series. On each left hand side of the text teachers will find useful (and, we hope, doable) tasks which will allow them to continue to focus on language, but also engage with the texts in a more active - and meaningful - way. Rex Gibson passionately believed that students not only enjoy studying Shakespeare more if they physically grapple with the text, moving around a space, employing different tools and strategies, but, importantly, they will also understand the text more as well.

Getting the pupils up and out of their seats to work in groups without any focus or guidance is often a waste of everyone’s time, and in my experience (and, believe me, I know) can actually inhibit understanding and enjoyment. The teacher and the students need to know what the outcome should be, how long they should spend on it, and how best to achieve it, but there should also be the opportunity to explore, experiment, and reflect.

Shakespeare famously included very few explicit stage directions, preferring instead hidden, or structural clues, which could guide the actor and allow greater freedom for interpretation. Getting students to understand this, and making sure they spot them, greatly deepens their understanding of the playwright’s craft.

Shakespeare uses a lot of repetition in his longer speeches, and he does this for a number of different reasons. If you taught these speeches without an understanding of stagecraft you would certainly be able to deconstruct them, and write effectively about the imagery, momentum, key themes and the development of character, in the play. However, if you ask the students to think about how these speeches might work on stage you begin to deepen their understanding of the mechanics of writing.

How might this work in practice? Let me give you two examples: one from a tragedy, and one from a comedy.

In ‘Macbeth’ (Act 3 Scene 1 49 - 73) the eponymous hero contemplates the security of his power: he is becoming increasingly paranoid - and ruthless - and in this soliloquy convinces himself that his closest friend, Banquo, must die. We see Macbeth’s character darken before our eyes but, crucially, we also see the plot thicken. In Shakespeare’s Globe, which might have held in excess of 1500 people for one performance (and with little in the way of noise control) it would have been easy for an actor’s words to be lost on stage if he did not move around.

The problem with this is that if the actor said part of his speech at the front of the stage those in the wings, or in the higher tiers, might miss it. The answer? Repetition. But of course repeating something word-for-word could be boring, and so what Shakespeare often does is say the same thing three times (getting the actor to divide up his audience into three sections, with one part of the speech to each). We can divide this speech into three parts: lines 49-58, 58-65, and 65-73. Each section essentially says the same thing, but in a different way; and of course the genius here is that in constructing a speech in this way Shakespeare not only allows each section of the audience to follow the plot, but, taken as a whole, the speech develops an increasingly complex character.

Challenging the students to think about the many practical challenges faced by Shakespeare and his cast of actors often results in a better understanding of the writer’s intentions. Take, for example, the famous masked dance scene in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (Act 2 Scene 1). If studied simply as a flat text, with the desks resolutely unmoved, none of the problems the actors (and audience) would have faced would be much in evidence. But if you get the students to act it out they quickly have to think about a number of different things: if the actors are masked, how do we know who they are? If there is music playing, how can we hear the words (and what sort of music should it be)? And with so many couples dancing, how does the audience focus on one pair and hear what they say? With time, guidance (from Shakespeare as well as the teacher) they will find answers, and in doing so they will better know what he (literally and figuratively) wanted to place centre stage.

Allowing the students to act such scenes out, to take them apart, to see how these sections hold together, to write notes for the actors as they move around the stage, provides them with quick and useful insights into Shakespeare’s writing technique. Yes, he was a writer of genius (they often admit), but here they see that he was clever as well (not always the same thing of course), and knew about audiences, and how things worked in a crowded, noisy theatre. Sometimes something this simple can instill a valuable sense of respect between student and author. And that is not to be underestimated in a modern classroom.

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