Inevitably, when it comes to reading Shakespeare, the question is always this: Ms. Burgess, why are we reading Shakespeare, and why are you making us read it in his language?
My answer varies, but the prevailing theme in my answer is that it is okay for something to be hard. It is okay that students struggle sometimes. Learning to work through something that is unfamiliar and difficult teaches important skills and reinforces valuable lessons in commitment and perseverance. While the language is unfamiliar and awkward for students, it reinforces the purpose of the play — to perform for an audience without access to the written word. Reading Shakespeare’s words as he intended highlights the craft of the language itself–the new words and phrases that come directly from him into our speech today–and how his words were heard by an actual Elizabethan audience in 1595.
Teaching students to not only read, but to appreciate Shakespeare’s work is not only a challenge for them, but represents a teaching challenge for me as well. If I can get students to remember the plots, characters, and important moments from the plays, but also to be able to analyze and work through the many difficult literary devices and formulas employed by Shakespeare, I know, when faced with other difficult readings or assignments, students will be able to make connections to problem-solving strategies in reading Shakespeare and maybe even to the content itself.
Our goal here at MPA is to make sure students are encountering Shakespeare in the Middle School and Upper School in a variety of ways: from acting out A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 6th grade, to reading Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice in 7th and 8th grades, to writing love sonnets and reading Hamlet and Macbeth in the Upper School. These works are simply examples of the numerous possibilities! With Shakespeare, the connections we can make within our curriculum are endless.
To me, Shakespeare is too important to dilute or to ignore. His work, though written in a hard to imagine world, is as relevant today as it was 400 years ago. The qualities of his characters, their triumphs and sufferings, speak to us even now. We, too, struggle with pride, the pitfalls of love, social expectations, and our own self-awareness just as Hamlet, Portia, Shylock, and Macbeth did. And just as our society today struggles with discrimination and prejudice toward others, so, too, did Venice, Verona, Scotland, and Denmark. Hearing Hamlet struggle to make sense of his place in the world, or Shylock asking why he was treated so differently than everyone else, lets the students experience that same language, the same sounds as an audience in 1598. These experiences help students make connections, to see a reflection of themselves, emphasizing the timelessness of Shakespeare and their own place in our world.
We’ll continue to make Shakespeare important here at MPA, introducing students to new plays and poems which continue to challenge them in new and exciting ways. Studying Shakespeare reminds them that it is okay to take a bit of time to work through something so difficult–even for me, their teacher.