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..