Archives For Shakespeare

A startled Macbeth exclaims, “The Thane of Cawdor Lives! Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” (1.3.109) as he receives the news that verify the Witches’ prophesy. Shakespeare’s tragedy centers on this valiant warrior, a man whose “o’er riding ambition” brings death to those who surround or oppose him, and a man who brings on his own damnation.

Sound familiar? Well, yes. This is also the plot of the original Netflix production of House of Cards, an American remake of the successful British political mini-series based on a book by Michael Dobbs. In this series, Francis Underwood (Macbeth) played by Kevin Spacey is the calculating Majority Whip of the House of Representatives; Claire Underwood (Lady Macbeth) played by Robin Wright is his conniving wife. Director David Fincher’s mini-series is for educators only with a TV-MA rating, because, “This wicked political drama penetrates the shadowy world of greed, sex, and corruption in modern D.C.”  The plot similarities to Shakespeare’s play are not literal, but rather they are in the same desire for the golden round or, in the case of the television series, the American presidency.house of cards

Of course, I am not the first to point out these parallels; there are multiple reviewers, bloggers, commenters who have called attention to the Shakespearean qualities in characters and plot line. What I am finding particularly interesting is the inclusion of the many images from the play artfully placed in each episode. For example, Claire’s jarring encounter with the old woman in a graveyard while she was jogging is one. “You should not be here,” the hag appears suddenly warns Claire, “Show some respect here.” The incident resonates much like the specter of the witches, a constant presence in the play. Later, Claire’s $20 handout to a beggar outside a hotel is rejected. The beggar turns the bill into an origami bird, tossing it at Claire’s feet the following day. She leans down and collects up the bird, but that incident pulls Claire into a “spell” of origami folding. Later, Claire is seen neatly folding paper into small figures. The viewer wonders, what was the power of that beggar?

The crimes mount; the murder of a hapless politician, lured into a media trap set up by Francis, is underscored with images of dripping water from a leaky faucet. That same faucet is repaired by Claire, echoing Lady Macbeth’s chilling statement, “A little water clears us of this deed”(2.2.64) Another repeated theme connects Claire to the frightening Lady Macbeth who, in urging  Macbeth assassinate the king, declares that if she had a child, she would, ”have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you…” (1.7.16-17). Claire grows obsessed with her childless state, but when she confronts and makes contact with a pregnant adversary, the viewer can positively feel the fetus recoil in horror from the touch.

Additionally, the references to sleep merge the language of Shakespeare and the images from House of Cards. Yes, both Francis and Claire Underwood “sleep around”, but the sleep that is the “balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course” (2.2.36) is missing. Claire has nightmares, Francis is exhausted. “You look tired,” says she. “I am beat,” says he; they are weary and haunted.

Even the camerawork mimics the framework of the play. Francis delights in engaging the audience in his conspiracies, breaking the fourth wall by delivering his thoughts in folksy soliloquies. His first lines are delivered as he stares into the camera over the body of a dog that has been hit by a car, “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” He then strangles the dog.

When I teach the play Macbeth, I try to make the characters relevant to my students. I make comparisons to world dictators past and present, I mention mobsters and thugs, I bring up warlords.

I ask my students, “Do you think there are Macbeths today?”  “Yes,” they respond, sometimes calling on names from current events.

Unfortunately the rating on House of Cards prevents my sharing this slick contemporary series with my students despite how well the drama picks up the themes and images of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”.  Perhaps that is best; they are not prepared to evaluate this cynical treatment of democracy. The show is an illustration of a ruthless Macbeth, one that Shakespeare would have wanted, a frightening political operative of our time.

Of course, I received multiple links to the NY TimesMacbeth Mashup“from fellow English teachers, and yes, I thought that Claire Needell Hollander wrote a very funny piece. Yes, I believe students should be exposed to Shakespeare regularly, with or without the recommendations of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). But, Macbeth for seventh and eighth graders? No!  That is just wrong. Wrong on theme, wrong for content, and very wrong for 11 and 12 year olds.

Hollander began her feature article making a great point about classroom dynamics:

“We say the classroom, as if an ideal classroom exists that somehow resembles every other classroom in America. In reality, every classroom has its own dynamic, and every class I’ve ever taught looks different from every other class. Perhaps more important, they also sound different.”

She is right. A chemistry of personalities creates a different dynamic in every classroom. The age of those personalities is also a factor. As I read the piece, however, I grew more and more frustrated. Macbeth features witches, warfare, murder, and, like most Shakespeare plays, sexual language. The word “blood” is repeated 41 times over the course of the play. Even the play itself is cursed; actors will not say the name of the play in the theatre. Many critics consider this Shakespeare’s “darkest play”.

Hollander herself questioned the appropriateness of this play for middle school students. She writes:

Lady Macbeth

John Henry Fuseli/ Johann Heinrich Füssli, Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking. Musée du Louvre, Paris Date: 1784. Creative Commons. Lady Macbeth driven to madness and suicide because her guilt in participating in the murder of King Duncan which leads to the murder of the guards, Macduff’s family, Banquo, and others…the stuff that nightmares are made upon.

“The kids have copies of the play with a modern English version on one side, but this isn’t easy either.”

“Tears of hilarity. Maybe middle school is too young for “Macbeth.”

Maybe? Definitely! So, why choose Macbeth?

Apparently, Hollander was attempting to satisfy a recommendation for archaic language for the secondary level in the English Language Arts Common Core. This is explained in Appendix A Language Conventionality and Clarity:

Texts that rely on literal, clear, contemporary, and conversational language tend to be easier to read than texts that rely on figurative, ironic, ambiguous, purposefully misleading, archaic, or otherwise unfamiliar language (such as general academic and domain-specific vocabulary).

In other words, the CCSS state that students should be exposed to complex diction, and the CCSS has made specific recommendations for grade 8 including:

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1869)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyerby Mark Twain (1876)
  • “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1915)

Hollander could consider the how the wording in CCSS Reading Standard 8  should guide her in selecting material for her combined seventh and eighth graders:

Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.

So many students come to high school without the necessary content to understand many of Shakespeare’s allusions. Perhaps the students know little about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; why not Malory’s Morte d’Arthur? Or understanding the Pantheon of Greek Gods and Goddesses would be helpful; why not Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology?  Beowulf is usually taught in grade 10; the opening begins, “He was spawned in that slime, /Conceived by a pair of those monsters born/ Of Cain, murderous creatures banished/ By God, punished forever for the crime/ Of Abel’s death” (Raffel). Student should know this Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Students must come to high school prepared with the content needed to understand increasingly complex texts.

So why choose Macbeth? In fact, why choose Shakespeare at all? Ultimately, by not considering the recommendations of the CCSS to saturate students with the grade appropriate texts in our rich literary tradition, Hollander leaves them ill-prepared for Shakespeare at the high school level, when they are more mature to appreciate his themes.

So please, leave Macbeth, with his nihlism, his “...tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing” for older students.  Please leave Lady Macbeth with “…the smell of the blood still” where “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”, and leave Macbeth for high school. Besides, if Hollander is trying to meet the recommendations of the Common Core, she should leave Macbeth where the Common Core placed it, as a complex texts for 9th and 10th grades. The noisy mashup of Macbeth will still be crude and rowdy and demanding; but the students will be older, and these few additional years of maturity are necessary for dark tragedy in “the Scottish play”.

A series of links took me to a lesson plan  on the Edsitement! The Best of the Humanities on the Web site that is associated with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) . The lesson “Vengeful Verbs in Shakespeare’s Hamlet”  is entirely too disturbing. The opening lines of the lesson plan begin, “Shakespeare’s Hamlet  is an excellent source of instruction for students at the middle school level.”

My thoughts? Sorry. Middle school students, grades 6-8, should not read Hamlet. Teachers, leave that play for high school. Middle schools students need to read. They need to read many, many books.  They need young adult literature. They need to read for pleasure to build up their literary skills.

The lesson plan continues:

It [Hamlet] is a tale full of mystery and suspense and peppered with elements of the supernatural. Everyone loves a good ghost story! The popularity of the ghosts in the Harry Potter series and in The Graveyard Book attests to the appeal of the paranormal for this age group. These ghosts manifest as translucent spirits, yet they impact the physical world and certainly add life to the story line. Figments such as Rowling’s histrionic Moaning Myrtle and Gaiman’s mysterious Silas provide guidance for the young adults in their time of need.

My thoughts? Yes, these are the books they SHOULD be reading! Add the ghost stories Hereafter and Anna Dressed In Blood to the list of well written young adult novels. And yes, Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book are stories that will guide young adults in their time of need. But Hamlet?

Back to the lesson plan:

What better way to expose middle school students to a first taste of Shakespeare than from the angle of the ghost story? The first time Hamlet sees his father’s ghost (Hamlet, act 1, scene 5, lines 13–31) is one of the most dramatic moments in theatre and a prime opportunity to teach the often dry and boring subject of verbs.

My thoughts: Whaa…??? This lesson is turning a critical moment of drama into a lesson on verbs? This idea is dry and boring regardless of the content!

Finishing the description of the lesson plan:

Through the ghost of Hamlet’s father, students receive an introduction to the language of Shakespeare in a context they can understand. In this lesson, they will learn to distinguish generic verbs from vivid verbs by working with selected lines in Hamlet’s Ghost scene. Students will then test their knowledge of verbs through a crossword interactive puzzle.

My thoughts: A crossword puzzle. Yup. That will help them appreciate the play. I can hear the rattling from Stratford on Avon; Shakespeare’s bones are disturbed.

The objectives of the lesson are:

  • Students will be able to identify and define the verbs Shakespeare uses to convey the meaning of the scene
  • Students will exchange the verbs from the scene and replace with more vivid and more generic ones to see how that changes intention of the scene
  • Student will be assess their ability to define vivid and generic verbs used by Shakespeare by solving a crossword puzzle

Yes, readers, in this lesson students will replace Shakespeare’s language with bland or generic verbs using a worksheet.

WHY?

There is little consideration as to how all the language in this scene defines each character. No consideration of motive. No moral or ethical discussion about what the Ghost is asking Hamlet do.   The Harvard scholar Steven Greenblatt wrote an entire book, Hamlet in Purgatory,  wrestling with the central question offered in this scene, is the Ghost from Hell or Purgatory? But no, this lesson is on verbs.

Here are the lines: (Act I.V.13-31)

Father’s Ghost. I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love-
Hamlet. O God!
Father’s Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.
Hamlet. Murther?
Father’s Ghost. Murther most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

In this passage, the Ghost is very cagey about where he is coming from literally and figuratively. The Ghost plays the ultimate guilt card “If thou didst ever thy dear father love-” Hamlet anticipates the request and interjects a prayer “O God”. The Ghost then, you choose: a. asks, b. demands, c. commands the Prince, Hamlet, to revenge.

Another consideration as to the appropriateness of the use of Hamlet is the berating of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude sixteen lines later:

Father’s Ghost. Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts-
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!- won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be mov’d,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.

There are accusations of incest (a thought of Hamlet’s given voice by the Ghost), witchcraft, and adultery for Claudius. Gertrude acts with “lewdness” and “sates” herself in Claudius’s bed of figurative garbage. The Ghost cannot contain his fury at being replaced by Claudius; he has lost kingdom and queen and his fury spills over and exploits Hamlet’s depression. There is much here to discuss.

But for grades 6-8?  To replace the language of Shakespeare and make it “bland” to prove a distinction about verbs in Elizabethan English and today’s English? To measure the student understanding of the language with a crossword puzzle? Is it any wonder that with lessons like this one, many students come to a high school classroom “hating” Shakespeare? I have to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

There is something rotten on the Edsitement! site, and NCTE should be ashamed for endorsing this lesson. This lesson about verbs, not motivation or ethical dilemmas, disregards the dramatic tension of the scene and is wrong at any grade level!

What next? A lesson on the comma during Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me? /Come, let me clutch thee”?

There are  better lessons on heaven and earth for students in this age group then are dreamt of in this lesson plan!

NCTE must be aware that we have a nation of students who are not reading in part because many teachers kill the pleasure of a book. Hamlet is not the material that will bring middle school students a love of reading, and the literary analysis skills for these students in grades 6-8 are not sophisticated enough to bring them to an understanding of The Ghost’s manipulations. A grammar lesson plucked from a dramatic moment with a brilliant seduction by a spirit from beyond the grave is just so wrong.

This lesson is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!

David Brooks recently wrote a column in The NYTimesHonor Code (July 5, 2012),  describing a crisis in education for boys. He suggested that Shakespeare’s character Henry V would not have been a success if he had attended an American School. But how different really was Henry V’s education?  Consider that Shakespeare’s Henry V spends his youth in Henry IV Parts I and II as Prince Hal, an irresponsible squanderer of his good fortune.

Brooks lays out his premise that if little Prince Hal had been placed in an American school, and I am assuming he means an American public school, Hal’s boisterous level of pre-school/kindergarten physical play would mean that he would receive recommendations from “sly” teachers for medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As Prince Hal made his way through our American public school system, Brooks predicts that he would be deprived of the necessary physical outlets such as recess, so he would act out, he would be “rambunctious”. That would result in numerous suspensions for the vigorous heir.

Eventually, Brooks supposes, Prince Hal would “withdraw” and “decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage…by junior high, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.” Well, perhaps Brooks should look at Shakespeare’s storyline of Prince Hal who rejected the official British monarchy culture and disengaged for the pubs with his drinking buddies. His “grades” did plummet without the benefit of the American public school.

Prince Hal  had little interest in trying to please his father, he rejected the lessons of his tutors, and he found company with the gregarious Falstaff and other London low-life. In one memorable scene, he “lifts” the crown before his father had passed, a stage metaphor for his immaturity and unreadiness for the responsibilities of Kingship. His education was abysmal; his honor code was lacking.

After the death of the king, however, when Prince Hal becomes Henry V, he engages in a “hands-on” education, one which is gained at the expense of his former friends and at his discovery of the betrayal of allies whom he has executed. He is long past school age when his lack of military strategy catches him outnumbered after the Battle of Harfleur. All these experiences harden him for his ultimate victory at Agincourt, but not before he gets to deliver those wonderful lines from the St. Crispin Day speech, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”. Immediately after the battle, where 10,000 French soliders lay dead as compared to roughly 29 Englishmen, the more battle-hardened Henry V immediately turns around and (twice) orders his men to kill all the French prisoners (Act IV; sc iv).

According to Wikipedia, in March 2010, Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg participated in a mock trial of Henry V for the crimes associated with the legality of the invasion and the slaughter of  the French prisoners. The trial  used evidence from the  historical record and Shakespeare’s play:

“The outcome was originally to be determined by an audience vote, however, due to a draw it came down to a judges’ decision. The court was divided on Henry’s justification for war, but unanimously found him guilty on the killing of the prisoners after applying ‘the evolving standards of the maturing society’.”

Therefore, I am confident that Henry the V is the not the best model to describe an honor code.

All this makes me question Brooks’s intent for using Henry V to attack the public school system. While schools are not entirely responsible for the crisis where boys are falling according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, his comment that teachers would give “sly little hints dropped” about medicating students casts teachers as covert operators. Why pick on the teachers?

He does have legitimate reasons for concern about how boys are falling behind in education citing:

  • By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores.
  • Boys used to have an advantage in math and science, but that gap is nearly gone.
  • An article as far back as 2004 in the magazine Educational Leadership found that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s.

In laying out his argument, Brooks complains that,

“The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.”

Well, yes. Brooks has described the corporate business model that has driven education, the business model that educators have been trained to use to prepare students when they enter the “real world.” What employer does not want an employee with these qualities? Yet, there are many teachers who recognize this model is not ideal for the diversity in attitude and aptitude for their students. Sadly, many of the educational opportunities that engage disaffected boys and girls including art, music, sports, and after-school programs are the first cut in times of economic hardship.

Additionally, teachers are keenly aware that not all students fit a cultural ideal, so they use multiple teaching strategies (differentiation, student success plans, response to intervention, etc) to reengage the withdrawn student. Mr. Brooks might have discovered these had he attended a classroom session and seen teachers working with students like little Prince Hal. Instead, he lays the blame for the failure of boys in the school system solely on teachers when there are other stakeholders, namely parents, who are primarily responsible.

Brooks’s suggestion that teachers celebrate competition might not meet with a school administration’s approval if a school’s mission statement celebrates cooperation. His suggestion that teachers should honor military virtues over environmental virtues might raise some eyebrows of parents, and his disparate suggestion that teachers should ditch friendship circles in favor of boot camps indicates that he has experienced neither.

In Shakespeare’s play, on the night before the battle of Agincourt,  Henry V walks unnoticed through the camp; he is finally and painfully aware of the responsibilities he has to his men and to his country and says, ““What infinite heartsease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” As more pressures: economic, social, cultural and philosophical, are applied to the American public education system, teachers could paraphrase Henry V’s thoughts and say,  ““What infinite heartsease for those who criticize without being on the front lines in the classroom every day?”

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While my freshmen students knew Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, the details on the relationship of the “star-crossed lovers” were a little fuzzy.  Romeo and Juliet is often a student’s first introduction to Shakespeare for not so surprising reasons. The characters Romeo and Juliet  are young-she is 13 years old. They are in love. Their families stand in the way of their love. They must meet in secret. They defy the authority of their parents. Many of these elements appealed to my 9th grade students. But there were surprises everyday when we performed scenes from the play in class.

The biggest surprise for me was the willingness of my students to take on the difficult meter and vocabulary of Shakespeare in order to play one of the parts in the play. Hands would go up, “I want to be Mercutio!” or “Can I be the Messenger?” and “Can’t a guy play the Nurse?”

Of course, they were almost always terrible. Shakespeare’s verse is difficult to read “cold”.

Billy stumbled but persisted in his reading Benvolio’s  lines while we patiently waited:

The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepared,
Which, as he breathed defiance to my ears,
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal hiss’d him in scorn.

Each of the students stumbled over the strange vocabulary: prolixity, holp, God gi’ god-den, tetchy, sirrah, obsequy. Matthew wondered aloud why Capulet is always saying, “What? ho!” Michael regularly referred to the language of the play as Old English; he would not be convinced otherwise.

When we turned the page to Act Two, scene 3,  I saw Logan take big breath, visibly steeling himself to read Friar Lawrence’s lengthy speech. In Act Three Scene 5,  completely unaware of pace and more interested in finishing the scene before the bell rang, Malia raced through the Nurse’s teasing of Juliet. Not one of them (thankfully) really understood the allusions in Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech in Act One scene 5. Yet, everyday they entered the classroom asking, “Are we acting out the play today?”

We played the balcony scene three times in the large hallway on the stairs to the auditorium’s upper level seating. Students paired up to read a reduced script, so several Juliets had the chance to meet their Romeos that class period. Back in the classroom, I played the soundtrack to the Zefferelli film (“A Time for Us”) during Act Three scene 5 as Alexa asked her Romeo:

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

They memorized the Prologue; they wrote haikus to summarize each act to review the action of the play:

Act I:
Annoying Prologue
Romeo met Juliet,
Romeo loves her

Act II:
Balcony kisses,
They are married secretly,
The nurse keeps it quiet

Act III:
Tybalt is now dead,
Romeo must run away,
Juliet is scared

Act IV:
Juliet fakes death
Capulets are deeply hurt
Marriage is off

Act Five began last week, and the students were following the complicated plans of  Friar Lawrence and making predictions as to the plan’s success. There was a brief discussion about what an apothecary was in Shakespeare’s time, and the actual distance from Verona to Mantua, Italy. It was obvious, they all wanted the plan to work.

Then, Nick as Romeo entered Juliet’s “tomb” and  several lines later, he stepped over Chase who lay on the floor, slain as Paris.  Nick began his soliloquy with great seriousness. Holding the  dry erase marker, our stage prop for the vial, high in one hand, he read the verse aloud, “Here’s to my love! O true apothecary!/Thy drugs are quick.” He dramatically uncorked the marker, and then “drank”.  He gasped, ” Thus, with a kiss,” he leaned down to the sleeping Juliet, and quietly said,” I die.” Staggering, he fell to the ground.

Several students following along in the text, started and then sat in a palpable stunned realization.“He dies?”

“But Juliet’s still alive!”started as a murmur.

The chorus of voices grew louder. “He’s dead!” “She doesn’t know!”

There was a collective pause, followed by an audible, “This sucks.”

I was surprised. I thought they knew.

The final speech of the play begins, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings”; that speech captured the mood of my students. Of course they understood at some literal level that the play was a tragedy; this fact was clearly stated on the back cover of their text: This is the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. However, until that moment of Romeo’s willful self-destruction, followed by Juliet’s suicide, my students did not appreciate the  play’s heartbreaking conclusion.

I was surprised by the level of their reaction. Ours was not a polished performance, the staging was clumsy and the actors read the lines without understanding much of what was being said. However, they did feel for the characters, always willing to summarize what had just happened or wanting to give advice. Despite our failures to interpret the language, the result was that the play made them grow up a little.

No one should ever be surprised at the ability of this Shakespeare play-however rudimentary in performance- to engage an audience.

Advice to Hamlet, “The main point here is you over think everything. You get deeper and deeper into these brilliant plans, but without execution they truly mean nothing!”

“Hamlet, you yourself had said that to dwell on an act too long leaves one part good, and ‘three parts cowardice;’ please, Hamlet, PLEASE learn to follow your own advice,” pleads TJ in his advice to Hamlet.

The Advanced Placement English Literature students are posting their advice to characters from Hamlet by responding to “Stop the Action!” prompts on a blog. Students “advise” Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Ophelia in response to lines from the play. Students discuss whether the Ghost is from Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell; whether Hamlet is mad or acting mad; or choose between the soldier Fortinbras and the scholar Hamlet. Their online discussion is equitable and collaborative, and the format allows me the opportunity to assess student understanding of this play.

I organized the “Stop the Action, Hamlet” on the Google Blogger platform, an easy platform for posting comments or replies. I invited students by email to the site, and they needed only a minute or two to learn to navigate through the 10 prompts that I posted. The  “comment” feature on the Blogger dashboard was helpful in assessing their time stamped responses.

The advice my students gave to each character in the play makes for entertaining reading, but more importantly, each student  was able to share his or her ideas online in an academic manner that cannot be duplicated in class. Class discussions are notoriously short, limited in scope, or marginalize quiet students, unless they are moderated. The class period is limited in time, whereas online discussions can continue for weeks, 24/7 with students posting when they have time to focus. When my students blog online, they respond to each other thoughtfully, post citations to support their positions, and choose their words carefully. The blogging platform elvated the class discussion.

For example, Colleen’s first entry was on whether the Ghost is from Purgatory or from Hell:

“If the ghost was from heaven, I feel as if he would not ask Hamlet to commit such a foul crime. It is through hell that the Ghost is speaking like this. As the play continues on, the Ghost does not seem to leave his demon thoughts but rather continues to carry them out. It is clear that through these actions, the Ghost is from hell.”

Devin later responded to this post,

” I was re-reading the conversation that Hamlet had with the spirit, and another line I found interesting was when the Ghost says to Hamlet, ‘taint not thy mind.’ I think this is interesting because it suggests to the audience that the Ghost cares about Hamlet. If the Ghost was from Hell this wouldn’t make sense and if the Ghost was from Heaven he wouldn’t be there in the first place. The only compromise to this situation is if the Ghost was from Purgatory, then he could care about himself and Hamlet at the same time.”

Annie’s  post followed this argument when she posted a question for Shakespeare:

“Why if the controversy for the ghost is so divided between heaven and hell not bring up any religion? There are very few if any religious references except this whole ghost thing. ..I do think your choice to ignore religion is a reason for your timelessness. By discussing certain religious topics, you may only appeal to one audience. You doesn’t even hint as to what your own opinions are. Choosing not to discuss such controversial topics was a smart decision on your part, and is perhaps why you are so popular even today.”

Colette had advice for Gertrude and Claudius. To Gertrude, she posted, “Your son is clearly in pain and instead of stopping and trying to communicate personally with Hamlet, you’re taking Claudius’ advice to hire spies to keep ‘watch’ over Hamlet when in fact, that’s a mother’s duty. Your maternal switch is definitely shut off.” Her advice to Claudius was equally blunt, “Murder cannot simply be ‘washed’ away. Much like in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you [Claudius] are searching for a way to wash the blood red off of your hands. However, they are forever stained. No matter how much you clean your hands, they will forever be tarnished and filthy.”

TJ humorously advised Polonius indicting him on the line, “Beware/ Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, /Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee” (I.iii.69-71). “Hey, Polonius,” TJ writes, “remember when you were hiding behind that curtain? Remember when Hamlet pulled out a knife on you and you screamed for help instead of present yourself so that ‘the opposed may beware of thee?'”

Kelsey begged Laertes to walk away from Claudius, She recalled his line, “And yet ’tis almost ‘gainst my conscience,” and argued:

“What I want you to do right now, Laertes, is just stop and think. Why would Claudius actually want to help you? He is a manipulative man that just wants power…. Some advice- stop and let Claudius fall to his own fate! He already basically showed that he knew the cup was poisoned by calling out. He is guilty to everyone in the room. Let him take the downfall and WALK AWAY MAN! Gah! Your pride is not worth your life!….you will realize your mistake in about 30 lines in the play….just thought I would let you know…”

Finally, Sara posed a question for Shakespeare:

“As we continue reading through the play, we notice how Hamlet is struggling with avenging his father – yet, he knows he must complete the task of murdering his uncle, as his father had ordered. I leave you with this question – do you [Shakespeare] believe we were all born to complete a task? Does this apply to other plays ? Romeo and Juliet? Macbeth? King Lear?”

In addition, the Hamlet blogs are a means for me to directly address educational technology standards that have been developed by different educational organizations.
Using the standards for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, these blogs allow the students to:

  • Articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively through writing
  • Be open and responsive to new and diverse perspectives

Using the standards for NCREL(North Central Regional Educational Laboratory)/engage, the blogs promote:

  • Teaming and collaboration to create to solve problems and master content
  • Willingness to make mistakes, advocate unconventional positions, or take on challenging problems to enhance growth.

Finally, using ISTE ( International Society for Technology in Education) standards, the blogs provide an opportunity for students to:

  • Interact, collaborate and publish with peers, experts and others employing a variety of digital tools and media
  • Communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences
  • Apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternate solutions.

More importantly, the “Stop the Action” blogs have allowed my students to function much like Horatio in the play whose advice to Hamlet, “If your mind dislike any thing, obey it…” goes unheeded. The characters also do not heed the advice of my students, but my students have become proficient in their ability to “tell my story” of Hamlet.

In the film Looking for Richard, his tribute to Shakespeare’s historical play Richard III, Al Pacino asks a tourist standing on a street in Manhattan, “What do you know about Shakespeare?”

“Shakespeare? He’s our greatest export!” replies the Brit reaching into his wallet for a credit card. On the credit card was the Flower portrait of  Shakespeare as a security hologram. Rotating the card allowed the camera to pick up the image of Shakespeare, who appeared to be winking at the viewer.

Choose your favorite portrait for a T-shirt, mug, or I-phone cover!

As an export, Shakespeare sells. His image, in any one of three possible portraits, is plastered on mugs, teapots, coasters, coins, rugs, and notebooks. His verses are truncated to fit the length of garden stones, pens, bracelets, Ipad cases, and T-shirts.  I personally own six scarves with images from his plays or verses from his poems.

There are some more unusual, and certainly less dignified, items available as well for those bard-idolators:

Shakespeare Insult Gum-each box contains two gum balls and a wonderful Shakespearean insult;

Rubber Duckie Shakespeare: Celebriduck

A Shakespeare Celebriduck-Yes, Shakespeare has been turning into a quacking bard;

Shakespeare Tissue Box cover

A Shakespeare Tissue box cover-Tissue fly from his nose as fast as verses from his pen.

As a product, Shakespeare appeals to a niche market, but given the amount of Shakespeare paraphernalia on the web, that niche market must be very profitable.

Today marks Shakespeare’s 448th birthday. This past month, I have been sell-a-brating Shakespeare in each of my English classes.

Selling Shakespeare is one of the pleasures of teaching English at the high school level. This year, I have “sold” OthelloKing Lear, and Hamlet to the Advanced Placement English Literature class, and I am presently selling Macbeth to sophomores while at the same time selling Romeo and Juliet to freshmen.

Once students get past the Prologue; past witches meeting on a heath; past the Ghost’s appearance on the ramparts; past Act I, scene i;  I am on auto-pilot. English teachers accumulate Shakespeare materials in the form of lesson plans, essay prompts, quizzes, audio-tapes, film clips and activities that be pulled out at a moment’s notice. In addition, there are numerous clever resources or plans on the web to access. This past year, I added lesson plans from the websites that featured The Macbeth TangoRomeo and Juliet on Facebook, and  Stick Figure Hamlet.

Of course, the best way to sell Shakespeare to students is to have them attend a well-acted live performance . If there is no performance in the area, a DVD or video streamed production, and they are readily available on Netflix, Amazon, and PBS,  of one of the many adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays helps engage students. There are websites that list over 400 feature length films or TV shows that bear his name, so there are many options as to which versions might be used.

However, nothing can replace having students reading  and acting out the play in class. Without equivocation, all  students are initially  terrible at reading Shakespeare cold. Nevertheless, almost every student eventually wants  a chance to “strut and fret their hour upon the stage.” Even the brilliant Kenneth Branaugh, now instantly recognizable to my students as “that guy who plays all those characters” in film productions of Hamlet,Othello,  and Much Ado About Nothing, recalls in an interview how his first exposure to Shakespeare came in a class where everyone read from The Merchant of Venice. Kenneth remembered being terrified doing it, and that he “didn’t understand the language.” But having survived that experience, he quickly developed the acting bug.

All this exposure to Shakespeare in high school  does have an effect on his “brand” or name recognition. Recent reports estimate that Shakespeare’s brand is worth over $600 million, twice the amount of Elvis and Marilyn combined. According to the website Campaign Brief, Shakespeare is the best-selling author of all time, with book sales estimated between two and four billion. In contrast, J.K. Rowling’s unit sales are estimated to be less than 450 million. The company Brand Finance was commissioned to determine the commercial value of Shakespeare’s name. Tim Heberden, managing director of Brand Finance in Australia reported: “Not only do these figures make the Shakespeare brand one of the strongest in the world, but it also shows the potential commercial value the Shakespeare name has garnered.” His firm awarded Shakespeare a triple AAA rating noting that the brand could potentionally rise to 1 billion.

I believe that high school English teachers have had a direct hand in this industry. Shakespeare sells very well, because we have sold him very well. For us, the reward is spreading the poetry and drama of the bard, but for those who are literally selling Shakespeare, we have most certainly “put money in thy purse!”

Nothing beats a top-notch live performance for selling Shakespeare to students. While there are plenty of quality performances on DVD, streaming from  Netflix or the PBS website, or available piecemeal on Youtube, there is nothing quite like the collective heartbeat one experiences sitting in an audience. In live theatre, there is the moment of an audience-wide hypnosis; the palpable moment when the audience loses self-consciousness and synchronizes its breathing to watch and hear the play. The dramatist Shakespeare provided many opportunities for those moments.

Every year I try to organize a field trip so that my students have an opportunity to attend a live performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays.  Since our school is fortunate to be located an hour away from New Haven, CT, our students can attend matinees at Yale Repertory Theatre. For several years, I have arranged for field trips to see Shakespeare performed at the Yale Rep with Ruth Feldman, the Director of Education and Accessibility Services at the Yale School of Drama.  These plays are funded as part of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) initiative Shakespeare in American Communities:

“Yale Rep offers young people in the community two significant youth theater programs: WILL POWER! and the Dwight/Edgewood Project. WILL POWER! Arts-and-education initiative is designed to build on existing English and Theatre curricula for middle- and high- school educators and their students. The company continues as a leader for it community outreach and accessibility programs that promote audience diversity and participation. “

This year, 40 students attended Yale Rep’s production of The Winter’s Tale, one of the more difficult plays to teach, a “problem” play. On this particular trip, there were honors 9th graders who had been prepared for the production having used a prepared study guide sent in advance of the trip.  The 12th graders, in the throes of “senioritis”, came cold to the production.

No matter. The combination of elegant set and stage movement conveyed the plot-a jealous husband, a wronged wife, a betrayed friend in the opening scenes kept all students rapt. The famous stage direction, “exit pursued by a bear” was brilliantly executed with puppetry, and suddenly the audience was transported into the land of Bohemia with its rainfalls of tiny blossoms, colorful costumes, and infectious country dancing. One student leaned into me, “I would rather live in Bohemia,” she whispered.  The final stage trick of bringing the statue of Hermione to life was met with audible gasps-“She’s real?” The packed house of students cheered predictably louder for the “clowns”from the performance, and with nothing less than genuine admiration for the lead roles as the cast took their final bows. The Winter’s Tale was a hit!

Immediately after the performance, as they have for the entire WILL-POWER series, the cast and production team at Yale Rep offered a talk-back where students can ask questions for about 20 minutes after the show. Seeing the performers in street clothes, without costumes and make-up, sitting on the edge of the stage, tousled but charged up after the 3 hours of performing, is a bit unsettling…the illusion of theatre is laid bare. Awkwardly, for the first five minutes, students stammered out questions: How long did they rehearse? (8 weeks) How old are you (to a 10 year old actress)? Have you been on TV (yes)? Actors responded amiably enough.

Then, a teacher asked, “What was your first Shakespeare experience?” There was a momentary pause and then one actress offered her first memory of Shakespeare…a memory from  high school. “Shakespeare was supposed to be only for the smart kids, which really wasn’t fair,” she recounted, “He’s really for everyone, not just the smart kids.”  Another actor agreed, explaining that members of his class had acted out Shakespeare-very badly, stumbling over the words, but loving the experience. Then another actor spoke. “My mother took me to see Shakespeare when I was seven, so I was always around them[plays]. I grew up loving to watch the plays.” Another actor recounted his initial dislike of Shakespeare’s plays in high school,”I just didn’t get it,” but that an experience in college changed his mind, “Was this the same boring play? Yes! Why was it better now? I don’t know, maybe I was ready then.” Still another spoke of his love of the plays, his love of the language, and his ability “to speak the words really well because I understand them…which means that I have been able to stay employed!” One by one, each actor spoke of an initial Shakespeare experience, good or bad, and how each of them had been changed by that experience. There was such power in their personal stories, an English teacher could not have scripted better confessions. Their passion for Shakespeare and desire to pass that passion on to my students was inspiring; they were the better teachers!

A final question, posed again by an adult audience member, served  the play’s recap: “What was your favorite moment in the play?”she called out. The actors brightened and each took a turn, speaking about a favorite moment. One recounted a scene she could see from the wings, another a moment he shared on stage with another actor. The cast recapped the events of the play -out of sequence-the statue coming to life, the clown stealing the wallet, the dance, a set of choral lines shared between two actors, the moment when the newborn babe is brought before her dismissive father, and the magical transformation of the shepherd into Father Time. But it was the actor who spoke about the stage direction “pursued by a bear” that brought new understanding to one of my students as to how to look at one of Shakespeare’s seemingly improbable plot devices. “Why would Antigonus leave a baby alone on a beach unless he was trying to protect her?” asked the actor, ” Who would do that? Who would do that unless he was convinced he could save the baby? The bear chases him to his death, but the baby lives,” he continued, “I think amid so many acts of selfishness, this is one of the most selfless acts in the play.” Later, sitting at a local pizzeria, a student repeated his explanation word for word, “Seriously, who would leave a baby on a beach? Who would do that unless he was convinced…. That’s so true!”

Live theatre can engage students. Live Shakespeare -performed well-can enrich students. Talkbacks with actors and their experiences with Shakespeare can enlighten students. Perhaps one day my students may have the opportunity to share their first experience with Shakespeare. They may choose Yale Rep’s The Winter’s Tale.

"Ill met by Moonlight, proud Titania"

Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania,” reads Karl off the script. He looks confused, “I’m ill?” he looks puzzled. “Am I sick?”

“You’re not sick…We are having a fight!” responds an irritated Nicole, who is playing the fairy queen. She continues to read: “What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence:/I have forsworn his bed and company.”

“Whoa, looks like someone is sleeping on the couch tonight!” chimes in Sam from the audience.

Students in English II are acting out scenes from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in preparation for a field trip. Their response to the play is not unlike the response of Shakespeare’s original audiences; there is no high browed reverence here but rather a steady stream of commentary coming from the “groundlings” sitting in desks.

A fight between a fairy queen and a fairy king as part of a comedy by Shakespeare is a break from the too serious literature of adventure, war, and tragedy (Animal Farm, Night, Beowulf, All Quiet on the Western Front, Lord of the Flies) that is usually featured in the sophomore curriculum. For two weeks, the students are wrapping themselves in costume tulle, strapping on  wings, donning crowns while they stumble through the language of Elizabethan comedy. Their experience is not a singular one. Today, a student’s first introduction to the bard usually takes takes place in the classroom. On any given day, at any school hour in classrooms all over this country, students from elementary grades through high school are struggling with iambic pentameter in decoding Shakespeare’s poetic language. This indoctrination is part of a long standing American tradition.  Since the beginning of America’s history, Shakespeare has lived on American soil.

W. H. Harrington. Wreck of Sea Venture. Painting, 1981. Courtesy of Bermuda National Trust and Bermuda Maritime Museum.

Perhaps it was Shakespeare’s fascination with the new colonies in the Americas that initiated the relationship. His play, The Tempest, is loosely based on the 1609  wreck of the Sea Venture near the Bermudas on its way to Jamestown. Prospero and his daughter Miranda are shipwrecked on a island for many years. When visitors arrive after a storm to break their exile, Miranda marvels at the meeting by proclaiming “O brave new world/ that has such people in it.” In the play, Miranda’s line is ironic; she is unaware that several of these visitors were less than desirable types. However, for the British and people in the countries of Europe, the American colonies were the brave New World, full of hope and promise laced with a tantalizing dash of danger and adventure.  Americans reciprocated this compliment with a slavish devotion to Shakespeare that continues to this day.

This relationship between Americans and Shakespeare is detailed on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) website, “The earliest known staging of Shakespeare’s plays in the colonies was in 1750. By the time of the American Revolution, more than a dozen of his plays had been performed hundreds of times in thriving New England port cities and nascent towns and villages hewn from the wilderness.” By the 1830’s, Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting from France, wrote extensively about his travels in the United States (Democracy in America) noting, “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.”

Shakespeare was embraced by the Americans through their nation’s rapid expansion beyond the original 13 colonies, and the NEA states that “plays were produced in large and opulent theaters and on makeshift stages in saloons, churches, and hotels. From big cities on the East Coast to mining camps in the West, his plays were performed prominently and frequently.”  Mark Twain took advantage of American’s familiarity with the troupes of English actors who traveled to the colonies, and incorporated Shakespeare into his classic Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s Huck travels with a pair of con men who practice the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and the sword fight from Richard III on the raft while they botch Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Twain counted on his audience’s acquaintance with Shakespeare’s texts in order to set up this parody.

Interesting historical trivia about Shakespeare in America includes the casting of Lieut. Ulysses S. Grant on the eve of the Mexican War into the role of Desdemona from the play Othello. Apparently he never performed, lacking “the proper sentiment”, and a female was recruited at the last minute to replace him. Edwin Booth, the elder bother of John Wilkes Booth, toured the Western United States during the Gold Rush, and enjoyed enormous acclaim performing plays by Shakespeare. Apparently, the best theaters in the East were not as profitable as performing in the raucous camps where theater tickets were paid for in gold nuggets and bags of gold dust. Edwin is also credited with saving the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, on a train platform the same year his brother John Wilkes assassinated Lincoln in 1865.

Contemporary Americans have a deep love for Shakespeare by producing his plays in theaters and in film with more frequency than any other playwright. Almost every state has a theater dedicated to exclusively performing Shakespeare’s plays.  Films of his plays, most recently The Tempest starring Helen Mirren as as a female Prospero, or with remakes of his material. The Taming of the Shrew was memorably relocated to an urban high school in Ten Things I Hate about You with Julia Stiles as the intractable Kate, a film that remains popular with American audiences. The Common Core Standards in Language Arts require his plays be taught in classrooms at the high school level. All this attention explains why students willingly (or unwillingly) wrap themselves in costume tulle, wear wings, don crowns and stumble through the language of Elizabethan drama. Like Kyle and Nicole, they may fight in the roles of the Fairy King and Fairy Queen, or they may analyze the reasons  Macbeth usurps the throne. They may research the origins for Henry the V’s “Band of Brothers” speech, or  memorize the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. Because watching, performing, and learning Shakespeare is an American classroom tradition.

One statement from the article by Alan Jacobs titled “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on July 31, 2011, grabbed my attention: “No novel or play or long poem will offer its full rewards to someone who consumes it in small chunks and crumbs. The attention it demands is the deep kind.”

I wonder if the authors of novels, plays, or long poems write with the intent of the reader receiving “full rewards”? What does “full rewards” mean anyway? I assume from the publication The Chronicle of Higher Education that Jacobs is talking about literature of the canon usually taught in at the college or college-prep level. At these levels, does “full rewards” mean the analysis, deconstruction and/or the synthesis of literature? Is the examination of his or her literature the goal of an author? I believe Jacobs cannot qualify what he means by “full rewards” because that quality cannot be standardized. I am also not convinced authors are seeking readers who read for “full rewards”. I think authors are seeking readers-all readers-any readers. Authors write for an audience.

There are audiences of middle and high school students who are required to read novels, plays, and long poems. The length and complexity of many of these works (ex: Catcher in the Rye, The Giver, Huckleberry Finn, All Quiet on the Western Front, Great Expectations, Of Mice and Men, The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, Death of a Salesman) in a curriculum means that units dedicated to a text can go for several weeks as teachers try to develop the kind of deep attention in their students for the “full rewards” that Jacob admires. For example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth takes a minimum of four weeks to teach. Consequently, by the end of the unit, everyone wants to kill Macbeth: characters, students and teacher alike. Yet, in those four weeks of intense study, students still will have not received the “full rewards” of the play according to Jacobs; they will have only grazed the surface of the tragedy in the “small chunks and crumbs” afforded by the school day calendar. Honestly, Shakespeare must roll in his grave over the plodding of innumerable classes trudging endlessly “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…”. Was “full rewards” Shakespeare’s intent?

The goal of education should be to develop reading skills so that students should read successfully. Once students read successfully, measured by understanding the author’s message and appreciating the author’s style, then students may choose to read what they like, perhaps even what they love.

Teachers, myself included, tend to “over-teach” literature. Kelly Gallagher discusses the “over-teaching” of texts in his book Readicide, and poses the following question, “When you curl up with a book, do you do so with the idea of state mandated multiple choice tests? Do you pause at the end of every chapter so you can spend an hour answering a worksheet with mind-numbing answers?” He continues that adult readers would “never buy a book at Barnes and Noble if it came with mandated chapter by chapter exams….And we [adults] would never feel compelled to read if we [adults] had to complete a project after every book.” Gallagher maintains that these are the practices that are killing the love of reading; so, it is no wonder Jacobs can make the statement that the love of reading has been the pursuit of a limited number of adults.

I will concede that Jacobs does have a point, the “deep attention” that leads to his meaning of “full rewards” may be impossible to implement in a typical middle school/high school setting, but I would also venture that authors are not as concerned with “full rewards” as they are with communicating a message to an audience. By week two of Macbeth, most, if not all, students recognize that Macbeth has brought about his own tragic fall, that his wife is riddled with guilt, and the kingdom they have usurped cannot last. Shakespeare’s enduring legacy is his ability to communicate to a universal audience; “full rewards” may not necessary for students to appreciate the play, although “full rewards” could be an individual pursuit of a student who makes that choice.

Alan Jacobs’ theory of wringing the “full rewards” from a text is the reason middle school and high school students cannot be taught to love reading. Such teaching is fragmented and frustratingly slow for the teacher and student in school. Jacobs also recognizes that the love of reading has always been built on the choice of the reader; he discusses his own progress as an adult to develop his deep attention to reading. In contrast, Kelly Gallagher offers strategies to limit “over-teaching” and provide student choice earlier at the middle and high school level that may allow students to develop a love of reading on their own much earlier rather than later to develop “deep attention” to reading as adults. Love of reading should not be an out-of-school experience.