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Excessive esteem is the real tragedy

comment | Published in TES magazine on 3 May, 2013 | By: Mary Bousted

Take Shakespeare off the pedestal and really sink your teeth into the drama, Mary Bousted says

The trouble with teaching Shakespeare is not the distance between our contemporary use of language and Shakespeare's Elizabethan English. Nor is it the complex (and often, frankly, ridiculous) plots of his plays. No, the trouble with teaching Shakespeare is that the Bard is given far too much respect.

English teachers cannot help but pass on their reverence for the greatest English playwright to their students. For them, the play's the thing, and they make sure their students know it. Is it any wonder that so many students grit their teeth, learn the lines and, when the exam is over, remember Shakespeare only as something that had to be endured in pursuit of an exam pass?

It shouldn't be like this. An Elizabethan theatre needed to attract audiences of as many as 2,000 spectators a day (about 1 per cent of London's population), about 200 times a year. New plays were constantly needed to keep audiences coming. Much of Shakespeare's playwriting was clearly done under great pressure: his plots are taken from historical sources or are "borrowed" from other plays. As writer Bill Bryson notes in his excellent biography: "Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories, so long as someone else had told them first."

Despite all the short cuts, what Shakespeare does, and where his genius resides, is to take mundane, plodding material and transform it into compelling drama. At his best, Shakespeare articulates just what it is to be human and to feel joy, despair, jealousy and hate. Nor does Shakespeare stoop to easy stereotypes. His blackest villains momentarily show signs of remorse or recognition of their evil. His heroes are flawed, and in the tragedies it is their flaws that lead to their downfall.

Entice your audience

The tricks of Shakespeare's trade attracted audiences to his plays and made them want to come again. These tricks are used today in soap operas around the world, with their mix of high drama, tragedy and comedy. Students will approach Shakespeare more confidently if they are able to make connections between what they already know and the unfamiliar world that they are about to enter. So don't start at the beginning. Taking inspiration from film trailers, give novice Shakespeare readers a taste of the most highly dramatic scenes in the play.

Shakespeare sometimes warmed up slowly and beginnings were not always his forte. Macbeth is a prime example. The wounded Sergeant's speech, reporting the course of the battle and Macbeth's heroic role in it, is virtually incomprehensible to new Shakespeare scholars. Let their first encounter with the play be at a high point of drama: Macbeth's return to his wife after his murder of King Duncan. With only one stage direction, Shakespeare reveals, through their staccato exchanges and frantic questions, the terror felt by both characters: "My husband!/I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?/I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did not you speak?/When?/Now/As I descended?/Ay/Hark! Who lies i the second chamber?/Donalbain/This is a sorry sight (looking on his hands)/A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight."

What has happened? What is the "sorry sight"? What can we deduce about the relationship between Macbeth and his wife? At this point all opinions are valid and horizons for reading the play are set. Each student will have a hypothesis; they need to know more to find out if they are right. They can now start to read the play, without apprehension but with whetted appetites.

Begin Romeo and Juliet at the moment before Tybalt's death. All the concerns of the play coalesce in this scene: the hatred between the Capulets and the Montagues, Tybalt's viciousness, Romeo's desire for reconciliation after his marriage to Juliet. This is a pivotal moment, where the play moves from romance to tragedy. Mercutio's untimely death and his curse - "A plague o both your houses!/They have made worms' meat of me" - leads to the fatal brawl between Romeo and Tybalt, ending with Romeo's anguished cry, "O, I am fortune's fool!"

How long had this feud been going on? What is behind Romeo's desire to make peace with Tybalt? Then switch to the scene of the Capulet ball and Romeo's exclamation when he sees Juliet for the first time: "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!"

Love, sex, violence, revenge. What could be more exciting?

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of UK education union the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

RELATED RESOURCES

Students turn sleuths in JW's Shakespeare treasure hunt. bit.ly/supersleuths

Introduce students to London's Globe theatre in a lesson from mhession. bit.ly/globeintro

Try a PowerPoint presentation on Shakespeare's linguistic technique from TES English. bit.ly/shakespearestechnique

Who said it: Shakespeare or Batman? Demystify the language of Shakespeare with MissEmmiski's fun activity. bit.ly/batmanorshakespeare

Check out this TESLive poetry workshop hosted by Dr Anjna Chouhan of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. bit.ly/shakespeareworkshop.


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