My Students Do "The Big
By Martin Aller-Stead
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
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
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
"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
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