16 June 2017
Accessing and Interpreting Shakespeare’s Language
It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
William Shakespeare has become renowned for the beauty of his language and for the ways in which his characters express universal emotions. His plays have stood the test of time because the stories within them are so compelling, so resonant. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps Romeo and Juliet has the greatest popular appeal. I first taught this play 20 years ago, in the year I trained to be a teacher. I have taught the play many times since; this year, I am teaching the play again, to students in Year 9. I love the play. I also love the challenge of enabling students to gradually appreciate and interpret Shakespeare’s lyrical language.
This year at SIS, an important pedagogical focus has been the improvement of reading skills, through the age range and across the curriculum. We have explored ways in which we can help students to access and interpret texts. When studying Shakespeare, there is the additional difficulty of mediating between students and texts written in a form of English that is 400 years old. We do not simply wish that students understand the literal meanings of language use – we also want them to interpret and explain layers of meaning.
A highly influential educationalist and Shakespeare aficionado, Rex Gibson, advocated active approaches to the study of Shakespeare’s plays; he said that in doing so we treat the plays in the way that they were intended, that physical appreciation leads to a deeper, empathic understanding of themes and characters. One of Gibson’s preferred techniques was the use of tableaux, or collective freeze-frames, to illustrate pivotal points in a scene or to dramatise key quotations. This is a strategy I have used to quickly introduce the most important quotations in a scene, in a series of ‘10-second tableaux’. For example, an excerpt from Romeo’s words at the head of this article inspired a diverse range of tableaux, which then stimulated further discussion of possible interpretations of feelings expressed at the opening to Act 3, Scene 5, an emotionally charged scene in the play. Tableaux can also be used to answer questions allocated to different groups (for example, “what is Juliet’s greatest fear in this scene?”).
Another simple but effective dramatic approach I have tried is the ‘sculpting’ of characters by other group members. Accompanied by quotations for the character, this technique allows students to represent the attributed character physically within a scene and select quotations that best represent the character. Importantly, such a technique is collaborative and allows refinement of interpretations through discussion. The allocation of parts of scenes to groups to enact, with the nomination of a director in each group also allows this. Occasionally, identification with characters can be prepared by setting modern-day role-plays as a preface to reading the text (for example, two teenage gang members swagger around and try to antagonise members of a different gang).
In addition to physically experiencing the action of the play, it’s also useful for students to consider interpretations by different actors, directors or theatre groups. Discussion and analysis can be stimulated by ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions that get students to think deeply about the effects of directors’ choices, actors’ representations and Shakespeare’s language – for example: “why might Luhrmann have chosen to leave out parts of the original scene and what are the effects?” Or: “how is Tybalt portrayed in the two versions of the play and how do these differences affect our feelings about the character?”
So the language of the classroom enables a deepening of understanding of the effects of Shakespeare’s language. Effective questioning – by teachers and students – assists thoughtful, sensitive interpretations.
In a different Shakespeare play, The Tempest, Caliban tells Prospero: “You taught me language and my profit on it is I know how to curse.” This quotation illustrates Shakespeare’s understanding of the power of language and it emphasises the responsibilities we have as teachers for using language for positive, constructive effects upon our learners.