Reapproaching Shakespeare in 3 Acts
by Phil Olson
The school year has been long and full of challenges. Sisyphean, even. Still, the fact that third quarter is almost over is genuinely surprising. How can an interminable year slip away so quickly? Part of the answer, at least for me, is the approach I’ve employed: I am planning as I go.
In the before times, I meticulously organized detailed units; I even published calendars that included daily plans for a month or two at a time. This year, my practice has been to sketch and communicate a broad overview at the beginning of the week, then plan specific experiences on a day-by-day basis. This is definitely more time consuming and fraught, and I don’t want to work in this mode forever, but--darn it!—it is effective. I remain close to the action, at the students’ level, and I can speed up and slowdown in response to their needs.
This practice has led to some important, much needed wins, and it has proven an especially powerful way to tackle the most challenging works I do with students. One example--Romeo and Juliet—(which I have been teaching since only men were allowed on stage), felt both meaningful and fresh.
I took a break from the Bard last year, as the idea of grappling with a challenging, middle-English play in distance-learning mode seemed too heavy. Teaching Shakespeare again this year has been part of the slow return to normalcy. A challenge, but a worthy, achievable one, and on our day-by-day journey, I made lots of adjustments.
Here’s what worked and why:
Act I: Two "Texts"
My freshpeople and I launched our Romeo and Juliet experience using minimally-annotated, paperback copies of the play. I knew I’d need to combine readings with various resources from my files (summaries, contextual pieces, vocabulary lists, and the like), but in doing so I discovered that the supplements became replacements. Not what I had wanted.
After doing some hunting I landed on an amazing alternative: the website myShakespeare. It offers an unabridged, “glossed” text (see below), as well as a host of useful tools linked in the margins, including modernizations of tough passages, explanations of allusions, identifications of literary techniques employed, and deep dives into “weird words.”
Additionally, and perhaps most awesomely, the site offers two different types of videos. In the first, actors perform important passages with minimal trappings; this foregrounds the actors’ talents, as they lean all the way into their characters and express Shakespeare’s lines in more than words. The second set of videos feature character interviews, in modern English, that weave in important aspects of scenes, explore the characters’ psychologies, and play up the humor.
For most of the play, students did their reading on screens using myShakespeare, while using the paperbacks to do things that screens make cumbersome, like revisiting passages during in-class discussions, citing lines within papers, and practicing dialogue.
Act II: Multiple Films
I remember studying Romeo and Juliet in my ninth-grade English class, and I can still picture my teacher stealthily making her way toward the TV (relatively tiny, and on a mobile cart, of course) to slide her folder in front of the screen at an especially interesting moment in Zeffirelli’s film version of Act 3, Scene 5 (the morning after the young lovers’ wedding night). Mayhem avoided. Master teacher!
Back then, watching the film was the “reward” for having endured the play, but today, I find it much more impactful to use several film versions and to weave them into the reading process. Films reinforce understanding, amplify interpretive possibilities, and invite critical thinking about all facets of a production. For contrast, I like to use three very different versions: The traditional Zeffirelli from 1968, the modern Luhrman from 1996, and a recording of a live, Broadway production directed by David Leveaux in 2014.
The “original” is corny, but retains its charm; the modernization is bold and over-the-top dramatic; and the Broadway version showcases the powers of live drama. In class, we had many passionate discussions about which production did things best, and most conversations led us back to the text.
Act III: Assessments
In addition to reading, discussing, journaling about, and watching the play, my students also engaged with several formal assessments, and my goal this year was to make them meaningful without being so heavy that they weighed down the experience (i.e. a paper about the history of iambic pentameter--here is a fun one—or a multiple choice test about who said what and when). Instead, my students made the most out of discussions; wrote short essays; did some not-so-serious sonneteering; and performed some passages in “table reading” fashion.
So, we made it through a Shakespearean play, despite the wintry-gray cloud that always hangs over quarter 3. Of course, along the way, we had some less-than-great days, several strategies fell flat, and not all students bought the notion of Shakespeare’s genius. The unit was messy and hard; teaching Shakespeare always is, it’s part of the experience. So, I’m taking the mess as a sign that we did it right, and concluding that, sometimes, improv beats a script.
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