A few days ago, I was sitting in a dentist’s chair furtively reading a biography of William Shakespeare. I was embarrassed when the assistant noticed. Who reads about Shakespeare in a dentist’s office on Winter Break? She went on to talk about her own love of this great English playwright and poet. She told me she had a teacher in her senior year of high school (1997) who opened up the world of Shakespeare for her.
Our enthusiastic conversation confirmed what I already knew: the difference between people who love Shakespeare and people who don’t… is a teacher. It was true for me. In the eighth grade, my English teacher was a British-born Israeli named Judith Morcades. It was her contagious love of Shakespeare that gave me my membership into the “Shakespeare Club.” Because of teachers like Ms. Morcades, Shakespeare is not intimidating; Shakespeare is joy.
Stephan Greenblatt, a Shakespeare scholar at Harvard, begins his wonderful award-winning book, Will in the World, with these words, “Let us imagine…” I love this. Shakespeare scholars work with a finite number of facts. The facts are arranged and rearranged and gently folded into informed imagination. This is how we recover, rebuild, and restore Shakespeare’s world to better understand the man who wrote the plays.
I lead into Shakespeare with an economics unit. We’ll start before Shakespeare was born. In the hustle and bustle of Medieval trade on London Bridge, at the Market Fair that Chaucer’s pilgrims might have seen at Canterbury Cathedral, and at a Medieval Feast like the one that might have been prepared at Macbeth’s castle, we’ll learn the vocabulary of economics.
We will read the folktales that Shakespeare might have heard and we’ll recite the street rhymes of tradesmen that Shakespeare might have known by heart. We’ll sing songs that he may have sung, and dance to music to which he might have danced. We’ll research his theater, his clothes, his food. We will get to know the characters in his plays, and then we will be the characters in his plays. We will imagine his life.. Shakespeare would forgive us this. He was all about the imagination. His theater, The Globe, was a treasure house for the imagination.
Every now and then a scholar hypothesizes that Shakespeare did not write the plays we think he did. I’ve read the theories, but for my purposes the plays were written by the son of a glover who was known to his friends as Will. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
This is the best way I know to invite my students into the Shakespeare Club.. You come, too. Let us imagine..
You invited Mariah into the Shakespeare club in 2nd grade, and she’s still there. We still have the video she and a few other students did of a scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”–and she can still recite the speech she recited then.
Annie, what a treasure you are to have parents of children who are now in college (Mariah) remember the wonder of Room 204 and how it has and continues to impact their lives!
The children (and their parents) are the treasures, and Faithe and Libby– you are examples of that! Mariah is one of the students that continues to be an inspiration for the Shakespeare Unit (it is constantly evolving). I’m glad there is still a video of that year’s Helena and Hermia. They were amazing.
For me it was junior year in college. In the English department at Hampden-Sydney it was well known that the required two semesters of Shakespeare were usually like torture. I had been through Beowulf in Old English, and survived, but could I handle this? On top of all the rumors, the class was 8:00 A.M Monday, Wednesday, and Friday! Well to make a long story short, the professor was very passionate about his subject, and I soon found the characters, drama, and humor to be enchanting. By the middle of first semester I was setting my alarm for 6:00 so I would be sure to finish the reading and get to class on time. I wonder if my roomates heard me laughing out loud early in the morning as I read. I got “A”‘s in both classes, and have loved Shakespeare ever since. I am so excited for Robert!
During my first year teaching English, Blackfriar’s Playhouse produced Much Ado About Nothing. Silas went with me, a couple of parents, and 10 very trusting teenagers on an outlaw-style unofficial fieldtrip one Friday night. He even got to be part of the hilarity of it by sitting in one of the on-stage chairs. Niether Silas nor my students “spoke Shakespeare’s language,” but we all laughed. Not surprisingly, some of the actors often remember me as that chaperone when I return. Not sure if that’s good or bad….!
I think the greatest surprise for me when I entered the Shakespeare Club was that there is so much humor in the plays. I’m not usre many people who have not read it realize this. The plays were written to be seen by audiences of all levels, so there is some low humor as well as some that takes a minute to understand. This is funny stuff!
I love the humor, too. And I LOVE the Blackfriars Playhouse. We are so lucky to have the American Shakespeare Center right here in Virginia (Staunton). They are putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream right now!
I think I’ll take Silas to see A Midsummer Night’s dream on January 23rd. Anyone else who’d like to road trip it for the evening, let’s do it!
Interesting that “the difference between people who love Shakespeare and people who don’t… is a teacher.”
My 10th grade English teacher, Ms. McMahon, LOVED her some Lady Macbeth! 🙂 She threw her shawl over her head like a cape, and paced — regaling us with tales of how she RACED down a spiral staircase on some stage once while in that role.
I sat there, thinking her a self-absorbed drama freak and wondering when I could go to lunch. That’s the truth. And I’m ashamed to admit it.
“You come, too” is an invitation I welcome, because I’m not there. 🙂 Help me please. I’m Shakespeare impaired.
I love how you seem to make literature come to life for your students! I did not enjoy Shakespeare in high school and have avoided taking any Shakespeare courses during college (though I am an English major). My high school teacher had students take turns reading sections of the plays (how boring!). I hope that when I begin my teaching career I can make as much of an impact on my students as you apparently have on yours.