120spacer.gif (56 bytes) On Teaching Shakespeare:

My Students Do "The Big Guy".

By Martin Aller-Stead
Toronto, Ont.


This year I am inviting my senior high students to explore a Shakespeare play with me. This is a really heavy request, for them, and at the beginning they certainly don't appreciate what I am doing.

"Sir, this is SO hard!" "Isn't he dead? I'm not readin' any guy who's dead." "Don't he know how to write good English?"

After WW III ends, and the books are handed out, the real fun begins. Say the names of the characters. Fleance. Banquo. Macbeth. Ross. "Hey, I knew a guy name Ross. Izat him?" Puck. (Provokes titters.) Titania. ("Hey, wasn't that a movie?")

Smack self on head. Why am I doing this? To them? To me? Good grief!

So we talk about Shakespeare, who couldn't spell well but spelt the way he spake. The fellow who was a keen observer of people, who could see inside our hearts. Who wrote about love and betrayal and greed and fear and lust and sex and salvation and condemnation. Each kid has an opinion about these character traits, and thinks they know someone with each. Shakespeare, who made up a huge number of the greatest put-downs and insults ever, and who could take us to our very best places as people.

Shakespeare gave his second-best bed to his wife, Anne Hathaway, when he died. It's in his will. The kids all want to know who got the best bed. (It would have been saved for guests, and would have gone with the house if it had to be sold.) They learn what "Good night, sleep tight" really means , and start to see these characters as a little bit like themselves after the scary bits and some of the mystery has been explained.

Reading the play has to be heard to be believed. We stumble over old constructions. We run into a vocabulary long, long lost. We struggle to find the bawd, the jokes, the veiled, (or not-so-veiled), threats. Who sings arias, who gives us the recitative? We find out that the comic parts all seem to be written for one set of comic skills, and gradually the students realise that Shakespeare was writing these plays for each of his friends and members of his play-troupe to have a part.

Act I gets well and truly murdered because there is no fluency. No sense of the swing of the play. The students are not able to join the dance: There is no movie in their collective heads, yet. So we play a little game. I say something like, "I want you all to do a drawing by yourself. It is a secret drawing. Listen to this little sketch, then draw." So I create a little scene, like this: "A wonderful person walks towards you and gives you a hug. You sit down." Then I invite the students to draw the thing or place where the people are sitting. Of course, no two are ever the same. Then I explain that Shakespeare is doing this to us all collectively as we read the play. There is no 'right' interpretation as to who looks like what, or how much space is needed for a fight, or a tussle of wits. I invite each student to make the play in their head, and try to share it. Stop the characters they make and tell us how they are dressed. What their whiskers look like, or the wimple on the head, or where the wings attach. After a while, though they don't realise it until I point out, Shakespeare is talking to them, and they are making him come alive once more, just as kids and adults do all over the world. This Shakespeare isn't scary; he's a grand painter of a complete world, in their heads.

Now my students can argue about whether or not it would have been better for Macbeth and his Lady to have suicided when they were talking about it. These students understand that poor Macbeth was driven by his need for approval from his wife, who, in their medieval times, would have made a much better ruler than her husband. The kids understand that women were the scapegoats for misunderstood occurrences in nature, often, and were condemned as witches, and what some of the sequellae of that history were, and continue to be.

Poor little grade 10s and 11s! Here they thought they couldn't do it, and were ready to give up before they started, on Robin Goodfellow, the Duke of Athens, Titania, Peaseblossom, Lysander and the rest. The kids were sure that Shakespeare knew nothing about love because he was so old. Romeo and Juliet are just caricatures, not full people. Now they understand that 'Q', in Star Trek, is nothing more than a new version of Puck. That the old story of love triangles, which so many of them find themselves in, is nothing new, and that it CAN be worked out. That a shot to the head does not solve all problems, sometimes no problems, but patience and generosity can overcome pig-headedness, cowardice and fear.

"Dat Lady Macwhatever … what a bitch! She was REAL bad!!" "Why didn't Macbeth just ignore her? Or force the witches to tell him what to do?" "Oberon is SUCH a dork. Why'd he steal the kid? He knew it would just piss off Titania. What a moron!" "Bottom is so silly. What an ass." (Pun not understood by speaker.) "I've been the victim of bad timing … that's how I lost my last girl/boy friend."

At the end of the course, most of them will pass the exams and go on with their lives, forgetting almost everything about Shakespeare, most of the characters and the funny old language. But they will all have learnt they can do something they did not believe possible; that they are smart enough to overcome their own fear of failure. Spelling does change, and they are not alone.

If we read the play as a drama or a story, my students and I can make these people real in our heads; friends we will never lose because there is a little Puck in us all, everyone can be generous and kind, and love wins in the end if it tries hard enough to listen.

- Martin Aller-Stead

You may also contact me directly at martin@aller-stead.com