Posts Tagged ‘teaching Shakespeare’

Macbeth at the RSC

May 20, 2018

I taught the Scottish play more times than I care to remember at school, and had to take school parties to see a number of mediocre performances usually specifically produced for school audiences. Certainly none of these was memorable, and I had come to not really like the play; I’d never had any feeling of its end being tragic. And so when it appeared on the programme to my Shakespeare week this year I was in two minds: a play I wasn’t really enamoured of, but also the possibility that a performance at Stratford by the RSC would be a good and memorable one and therefore perhaps bring about a change in my response…

Re-reading the play before the performance, for the first time in a number of years, I was struck particularly by the density of the language, and its stunning poetry. Yes, I’d been aware of it, but it’s not possible to make too much of it teaching to teenagers, and so I suppose I had backgrounded it.

The performance was stunning and I was gripped from the start and throughout. Christopher Ecclestone played Macbeth brilliantly, and there was a real sense of rapport between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which there absolutely must be for the play to hold you, since it lacks any other strong characters, and the degeneration of the relationship over time was evident, as was the sense of Macbeth gradually losing interest in life and everything he had won through association with the powers of evil.

It was a modern dress production, and this did not intrude on my appreciation. The weird sisters were played by children, young girls in pyjamas holding dolls, and this was a very effective approach. I’ve always felt that the witches are very difficult to do convincingly for a modern audience, and the over-playing of wizened hags with daft voices dancing around cauldrons has always left me cold. Here, there was simply mist, a slight edginess to the girls’ voices through some technical trick, and a spookiness through the use of dolls: the whole trope of children and childlessness that permeates the play was thus foregrounded.

Another enhancement, or directorial decision, if you like, involved the development of the role of the porter, who was dressed like a school caretaker, and who, after his speech – another that is difficult to pull of well – lurked sinisterly at the side of the stage for the rest of the play, almost a chorus figure, doing various small things that commented or reinforced the action of the drama, at times appearing almost Brechtian.

The banquet scene worked well, the long table used effectively for a number of scenes, and even the dreary scene between Malcolm and Macduff in England was given a pace and focus that made it work. Macduff receiving the news of the deaths of his family was a very powerful tragic moment.

Macbeth is a relatively short play, and the pace and coherence of the production made it powerful and effective, and I left the theatre glad that I had finally seen a performance worth seeing and that had done justice to the play.

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Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

February 18, 2018

411nnDMdwyL._AC_US218_This is another of Shakespeare’s plays that I haven’t been back to since I retired. I’ve seen a couple of very good performances in the past, though I don’t remember a great deal about them, so it will be interesting to see what the RSC do with the play when I see it in May.

Romeo and Juliet is a play I always enjoyed teaching in school, and always found appropriate at GCSE level; it was a bit more difficult when – back in the dim and distant past – it was set for the SAT tests of loathed memory, because some of the humour was tricky to explain to 13 year-olds. But the subject-matter – young love – and the vulgarity, bawdiness or obscenity of the group of lads who are Romeo’s mates, call it what you like, went down well with classes a couple of years older. It was realistic in terms of how young people often talked and joked, and I firmly believe it’s not a teacher’s job to censor: whatever needed explaining was explained and I would laugh along with the class. There is a fine line, though, between clarifying, and dwelling unnecessarily on the obscene…

Several things struck me with this re-reading, particularly the development in Shakespeare’s work in the dozen or so years between the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and his later love tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m currently writing about. Compared with the latter play, Romeo and Juliet can feel rather primitive, with its several prologues prefiguring each act, what feels like excessive use of rhyme, a certain lack of subtlety in some of the characterisation, and all the over-the-top wailing and moaning by the Nurse…

These are two love tragedies worth seeing alongside one another, though: young lovers and mature lovers; both pairs die, tragically, because they feel they have nothing left to live for; the teenagers are totally wrapped up in themselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world, but the older lovers are plagued by the interference of the outside world whichever way they turn. Young lovers swear sincere and undying love to each other, the mature ones play games with each other, go astray, but come back to each other in the end. Comparisons are endless, and perhaps enlighten our own experiences.

I find both plays utterly convincing in their totally different ways, and, of course, I shall call this another illustration of the dramatist’s genius. The passion, the haste, the exclusion of the outside world in the love of Romeo and Juliet perhaps reflects some of Shakespeare’s own life experience, which we know almost nothing about… and for me the crudity of the lads’ sexual banter – Mercutio and Benvolio particularly – creates the atmosphere that allows the youthful but definitely sexual passion of Romeo and Juliet to convince an audience (before we remember the boy actor who would have played Juliet, perhaps). My classes all seemed to enjoy studying the play and working out who was to blame for the tragedy – parents, usually, so no surprise there – and I found myself gradually growing to like Baz Luhrmann‘s film (which I initially loathed) for its fidelity to the original dramatist’s intentions. I’m looking forward to seeing the play again.

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.

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Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

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