Studying Shakespeare

‘Boldness be my friend’ Cymbeline

Recently I was asked to undertake some work with students who were studying Shakespeare for a Literature essay. I asked for a copy of their key scenes and was handed a wad of photocopies. This  took me straight back to my early teaching career in the 1990s. I’m all for retro, vintage, etc. but I prefer to see these trends applied to soft furnishings or fashion. I was reminded yet again of one of the ways in which we still repeatedly fail our students: resources. An overly small font and lines packed tightly together form something that could be compared to the very web Iago wished to use in order to catch his fly, Cassio.

How are young people supposed to engage with this?

Why do we produce all these amazing PowerPoints and worksheets and then give students poor quality copies of the very text they are supposed to analyse and evaluate? These are just a couple of the questions I considered whilst doing some work for OUP’s new RSC School Shakespeare series. We wanted to find a way for students across a wide ability and age range to access Shakespeare’s plays – and perhaps even enjoy them!

Looking at the finished product today, the first thing I notice is the clear layout and beautifully spaced text. At an exhibition last week my husband pointed out to me that empty spaces and silences are just as important as visuals and sounds. This spaciously arranged version of the text seems to prove that point.

Exploring characters

Often, students are misled by the names of characters in Shakespeare. I once taught a boy who was desperate for a part to read. When Romeo spoke his line, ‘Nay, Mercutio’ he immediately yelled, “I wanna be Nay!”. This kind of confusion is unlikely to occur where the name of each speaker is carefully arranged in a different font colour and style as it is in these texts. By contrast, each facing page offers a fantastic density of image and activity which really do bring the text to life.

Exploring a production 

I think that the exciting physical theatre and stage techniques could generate some wonderfully bold teaching. I love ideas like using chairs and ‘blocking’ exercises to explore the action and emotions of the play. As a teacher of English rather than Drama, I have always been nervous of such ‘cavorting’ around the room. With hindsight I wonder if this was only because my experience of such activities had been fragmented and ill-informed. Their inclusion meant I had a number of lightbulb moments as I considered the lines from the perspective of a rehearsing actor. Better still, these kinds of exercise are provided in addition to more conventional discussion and essay writing activities which are also present. These will be vital in preparing students for future examinations. 

The images are taken from a range of productions but they are not scattered through the text. There is one on each facing page making this feel almost like a graphic (or photographic) version of the play and providing a brilliant stimulus for discussion, understanding and interpretation. One student recently explained to me very earnestly that Lawrence Fishburne was Othello. He had no notion that there could be other versions of the play. He insisted that there was just the one film called Othello. This text would certainly put paid to that common misconception.

Exploring context 

When I first started teaching I didn’t find it easy to explore or apply context in class. These editions contain regular context activities that I think will enable students to make those vital links. They help to explain how certain events, behaviours and words are so powerful when they are given their due relevance and application to time and circumstance. I’m sure these kinds of context prompts will be just as helpful to inexperienced (and experienced!) teachers as well.

We would love to hear about the ways in which you introduce Shakespeare’s plays to KS3 students. Do you have any tried and tested methods? Are there any particular resources you find useful? How do you make Shakespeare engaging and relevant to young people today?

Jill CarterJill Carter is an Advanced Skills Teacher and former Leader of English and has been teaching for 23 years. Jill currently works part-time as an English teacher and GCSE Interventionist, as well as authoring for Oxford University Press.

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