Archives For Shakespeare

Watching a HD live broadcast of a Shakespeare play is a surprisingly intimate experience, even on the big movie screen. The camera zooms in and out capturing the details on set pieces, on costumes, and on the facial expressions of the actors, even capturing a wrinkle or two.
There was a wrinkle or two in the audience as well watching the encore screening of London’s National Theatre production of Hamlet last Thursday night in Fairfield, Connecticut. National Theatre Live is the “groundbreaking initiative to broadcast theatre live from the stage to cinemas around the world,” via satellite to over 2000 venues in more than 40 countries.
Academy Award® nominee Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role of Shakespeare’s great tragedy in the National Theatre Live broadcast: http://ntlive.com/hamlet

Academy Award® nominee Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role of Shakespeare’s great tragedy in the National Theatre Live broadcast: http://ntlive.com/hamlet

The live and encore screenings of Hamlet allowed audiences in the United States access to one of the hottest tickets in London this season.  The reason? Benedict Cumberbatch was playing the title role. Cumberbatch has made a name for himself in the PBS series  Sherlock (2010) and in The Imitation Game (2014) which earned him a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

At 39 years old, Cumberbatch played a bellicose, mid-aged Hamlet.
But while  Cumberbatch was the reason for the crowd, this audience had more in common with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. While the character of Gertrude could have been a child bride (12-15 years old), the youngest she could be is in her early 30s.
Hamlet is at minimum 12-16 years old, an age indicated in the Q1 or “First Quarto” the short early text of the play. The Gravedigger provides information that Yorick’s skull has been in the ground a dozen years since old Hamlet overcame Fortinbras, and that Yorick used to carry young Hamlet on his back.
But in a later version of the text (Q2)  the Gravedigger says that he has been in his profession since the day that Hamlet’s father defeated Old Fortinbras, on “the very day that young Hamlet was born.” He later adds that “I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.”That would mean that Hamlet could be at minimum 30 years old, placing Gertrude at over 60 years old.
Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude

Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude

In this production, Gertrude was played by the actress Anastasia Hille as a woman in her late 50s. 10 years older than her co-star Cumberbatch, Hille was regal in each scene, graceful and lithe, her muscle tone noticeable in a brief appearance in a satin undergarment.

The audience clearly enjoyed the broadcast, hinting at familiarity with each scene. There was appreciation for some of the comic staging by the director Lyndsey Turner, including the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with military play toys as set pieces.
By Act III, there was an detectable level of anticipation for the closet scene, the scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius hiding behind the arras. From Hamlet’s entrance, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” the audience seemed to tighten, eager to hear how these two would play the scene: he the accuser and she the astonished.
As scripted, Polonius had no sooner hit the floor then Hamlet turned to accuse his mother of murder:
“…a bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.” (III.iv.27-28)
HD cameras closed in on Hille’s astonished Gertrude looking past the bleeding body on the floor and deeply into her son’s face for answers. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet continued in a frenzy, pointing to a portrait of his father on the wall and to the reproduction of his Uncle Claudius’s face on a cheap souvenir commemorative plate:
“Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.”(III.iv.54-55)
The tension from this exchange was palpable as Hamlet’s accusation spilled out into the air;
“….Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment:”(III.iv.67-70)
Translation? “Mom, you can’t possibly be swept off your feet–or make decisions based on sexual passion-you are too old!”
 
Audience response was immediate…a round of snorts and chuckles, that gave way to a few loud guffaws. This over 60 crowd, with its disproportionately high number of females in the audience, was having none of son Hamlet’s logic:
A mother’s heydey? Not over.
Gertrude tame? No way.
“What Hamlet doesn’t know,” they sniggered, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Was it the venue that let them feel more free to laugh?  Was it their way to express comfort with their sexuality? A response from a culture that celebrates “cougars” ? A reaction from the regular dose of TV ads promoting Viagra… for both sexes? I was struck at how this particular audience interpreted the line, disrupting the dramatic tension in so public a manner.
Their interruption was brief. Whatever empowered their response soon passed, and upon the entrance of the Ghost, the audience quieted.  The play continued without interruption, and by the end of Act V, the stage was littered with bodies.
This Hamlet in HD beamed by satellite to audiences around the world did not lose any of the emotional impact, and proves that regardless of how the production is presented, Shakespeare’s statement that “the play is the thing” is true for audiences. The National Theatre Live experience shared with aging baby boomers proves that who is in the audience matters as well.

Shakespeare would be 450 years old this year, April 2014. To celebrate this milestone the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust has a number of activities scheduled including performances and parades in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon the weekend of April 26/27:

Screenshot 2014-04-22 08.35.28

The birthday weekend brings together performers, artists, the local community and ambassadors from around the world in a vibrant celebration of the life and works of William Shakespeare. During the two day event, the town’s streets overflow with music, pageantry and drama and you are invited to enjoy a packed programme of special activities and great days out at the five Shakespeare houses.

Whatever activities they plan, I am sure Shakespeare would be honored to be the cause of merry-making and revelry. He would love to the be the cause of festivity; he would enjoy a celebratory bash. But the committee planning the events has been careful not to use the word “party.” That word would confuse Shakespeare because for all of his prowess as a dramatist and poet, Shakespeare does not know the word “party.”

In penning 37 plays and 154 sonnets Shakespeare is credited with contributing an estimated 1,700 words to the English language. In his verse, he used six different meanings to the word party. Using the Shakespeare Navigator, owned by Philip Weller, I researched how the word “party” was used in Shakespeare’s works:

party (n.) 1 side, faction, camp
party (n.) 2 litigant, disputant, side
party (n.) 3 side, part, function
party (n.) 4 participant, accessory, supporter
party (n.) 5 person, fellow
party (n.) 6 side, position, viewpoint

Note: none of these means “celebration.”

Perhaps this is not so much of a surprise since the word “party” as a noun was not used as an occasion for celebration until 1716, a century after Shakespeare’s death. The Online Etymology Dictionary records the first use of “party” as:

Sense of “gathering for social pleasure” is first found 1716, from general sense of persons gathered together (originally for some specific purpose, such as dinner party, hunting party).

“To Party,” the verb derived from the noun was not added until the Roaring 20’s”

“have a good time,” 1922, from party (n.)

Shakespeare was acquainted with the word “birthday” since it had been in use for at least two hundred years before he was writing:

birthday (n.) late 14c., from Old English byrddæg, “anniversary celebration of someone’s birth” (at first usually a king or saint); see birth (n.) + day. Meaning “day on which one is born” is from 1570s. 

He does note “birthdays” in plays:

Antony and Cleopatra: AC III.xiii.184.2 It is my birthday.
Julius Caesar: JC V.i.71 This is my birthday; 
Pericles: Per II.i.109 is It is her birthday, and there are princes and knights come
The Two Noble Kinsmen: TNK II.iv.36 You have honoured her fair birthday with your virtues,

Still Shakespeare chose other ways of expressing birth, as evidence by a particularly sad admission from Beatrice in Much Ado abut Nothing about the death of her mother in childbirth:

BEATRICE
334   No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there
335   was a star danced, and under that was I born. (2.1)

So, members of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, have a wonderful gala. Have a fabulous social gathering.  Celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, but please, do not party. 

Shakespeare does not know “party” that way.

There are several reasons the short discourse between Hamlet and a captain from Fortinbras’s army at the end of Act Four has become my favorite scene in the play Hamlet. There are 22 lines spoken between the Captain and Hamlet, but they contain questions about military service that reverberate today. Shakespeare’s fascination with the role of the soldier in society is evident in many of his plays, but rarely does he spotlight such blunt conversation between a character from the military and a member of the royal class.

In the following quick analysis of the scene, Hamlet is being packaged off to England accompanied by the hapless duo Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Even though he is Prince of Denmark, Hamlet can do nothing but witness what is happening; his Uncle Claudius is in charge of the kingdom.

hamlet96-4-4-1

Act IV. scene iv from Branagh’s “Hamlet”

Hamlet opens the exchange by asking the Captain what army is marching across Denmark.

HAMLET
Good sir, whose powers are these?
Captain
They are of Norway, sir.
HAMLET
How purposed, sir, I pray you?
Captain
Against some part of Poland.

To all observers, Fortinbras’s march through Denmark to Poland with an army is a potential threat to Denmark. Hamlet’s father had killed Fortinbras’s father in battle, and Fortinbras is one of the three sons looking to avenge a father in this tragedy.

HAMLET
Who commands them, sir?
Captain
The nephews to old Norway, Fortinbras.
HAMLET
Goes it against the main of Poland, sir,
Or for some frontier?

Hamlet is able to gather information as to Fortinbras’s intent, or at least the Captain’s orders. When the Captain speaks “truly,” he is unaware he is addressing royalty:

Captain
Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.

Here then, the Captain explains the soldier’s paradox. He has enlisted in the military, and in the military, he follows orders. The Captain knows the  “little patch of ground” is worthless to him personally, “To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it…” That same land, however, has value to those who command the army, to those who engage in kingdom building, and to those who care for, “no profit but the name.” All land is valuable to those who desire to expand their holdings. Yet  that same land is as valuable to those who own it, and Hamlet learns from the Captain that the Poles have dug in, preparing for Fortinbras’s coming attack:

HAMLET
Why, then the Polack never will defend it.
Captain
Yes, it is already garrison’d.

Shakespeare uses Fortinbras’s “man of action” to contrast Hamlet’s “man of thought” throughout the play. While Hamlet spends almost four acts fuming over his Uncle Claudius, Fortinbras amasses an army to claim or to regain land lost by his father. Of course the Poles will be defending their homeland, an understandable reason to risk their lives, but the Norwegian soldiers are not being attacked; they are the attackers. Hamlet’s last words to the Captain shows him considering an unnecessary war that will cost many soldiers lives:

HAMLET
Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.
Captain
God be wi’ you, sir.
Exit

In the soliloquy that follows, Hamlet wonders why soldiers would enlist in such a venture when they risk their lives for an unknown cause:

“…for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain?”

In offering this soliloquy, Shakespeare poses a universal question: Why does anyone become a soldier?

As the mother of two active duty Marine Corps officers, I think about this same question. I think about this question knowing that only .5% of Americans serve in today’s military as compared to 12% in World War II.

Shakespeare asks what “a fantasy and trick of fame” drives men and women to enlist and follow orders. Certainly full employment is a draw to the profession, but a military that enlists only for money is akin to a military of mercenaries. A report by the US Department of Defense issued by the American Forces Press Service points to another reason, that military service is a family tradition. In a 2011 survey, “79% percent of veterans surveyed reported that an immediate family member is serving or has served in the military. That compares to 61 percent among the civilian respondents.”

New York Times editorial (5/26/2013) Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart by Karl W. Eikenberry and David Kennedy, also points out the growing disconnect between the general population and those who serve. Eikenberry is a retired Lieutenant General and former United States commander in Afghanistan (2009-2001); Kennedy is an emeritus professor of history at Stanford. They discuss family legacy as the reason young men and women enlist:

“So many officers have sons and daughters serving that they speak, with pride and anxiety, about war as a “family business.” Here are the makings of a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged.”

I often hear praise heaped upon my sons because sometimes they are the only direct connection to the military for friends and associates. My extended family includes brothers, nephews, and brothers-in-laws who have also served in some branch of service. We could be part of the military caste that understands the concerns of Eikenberry and Kennedy who recount a maxim of George Washington:

“The  [US Military] all-volunteer force may be the most lethal and professional force in history, but it makes a mockery of George Washington’s maxim: When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen. Somehow, soldier and citizen must once again be brought to stand side by side.”

Shakespeare presents the plight of the soldier to an audience of citizens by having the Captain speak to the “citizen” Hamlet. As the Captain bluntly assesses the coming attack, Shakespeare creates empathy for the soldier from the citizens who hear him speak. They hear Hamlet “humbled” in his thanks. In this short scene, Shakespeare illustrates the importance of Washington’s maxim: the citizen must stand with the soldier.

There is, however, another reason this scene from Hamlet has a special significance for me. My older son served his first tour (of three) in Afghanistan in 2011. In our mail one day was a small cardboard box top from an MRE box that he had used as a postcard. He indicated he was doing well, healthy and well-fed, and he asked us to thank those who had sent packages to him. He had carefully printed as much as he could on the box top, as if his writing would be sufficient to assure us of his safety. He signed off with his scrawly signature, but at the bottom of the card in a tiny line of postscript he had penned the quote:

“We go to gain a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name.”

 

theatre-stage-81d434 copyShakespeare’s sonnets are little one-act plays.
I learned this one year when I was teaching drama to grades 9-12 and I discovered Will and WhimsySixteen Dramatically Illustrated Sonnets of Shakespeare by Alan Haehnel. The short comic/poignant skits in the collection are an excellent way for middle school and high school students to be exposed to the Bard’s 154 poems.
Consequently, when I began the study of sonnets with my Advanced Placement English Literature students, I thought they might benefit from a similar technique. In addition, I considered that this could be an opportunity for them to write a narrative as required by the Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.3
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

“Imagine a character in each sonnet is talking to you,” I explained, “you need to synthesize the ideas from the poem, and write that character’s story.”

Then, I handed out copies of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

On the bottom of the page I restated one simple direction, “Write the narrative.”

The results were unexpected. While my students are good at analyzing poems, I was unaware that a number of them are born storytellers. In their retellings, they captured the spirit, and sometimes the exact language, of the poem. They found ways to expand on the isolation and alienation of the speaker and incorporate the shift in the speaker’s attitude from despair to one of acceptance.

For example, Melissa used a pivotal moment in the lives of high school students…asking someone to go to the prom:

After weeks of preparation and endless nerves the day has come to ask her to come to prom with me!
I wrote her a poem listing all the things I liked about her and read it to her under the starlight sky just at sunset.
I ended the poem with “thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings.”
My nerves ran through my body and I felt like I was going to pass out.
YES! SHE SAID YES!
I take her off to dinner and we planned for the night of prom. My dreams have come true! I am going to my senior prom with the girl of my dreams!

In contrast, Makayla began her narrative from the point of view of a frighteningly depressed teenager who observes others in a community park. The young girl’s attention is eventually drawn to one elderly couple, and their tenderness towards each other brings about an “epiphany,” a realization:

I inhale a summer thriving breathe and release the darkness out of my body. I turn to walk down the once sullen Earth path now as a gateway to sweet heaven’s gate. I take my phone out of the bag and dial my boyfriend’s number to make things right and explain myself to him. I pass the two elderly couple and smile.
In return I get a friendly, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” and I respond, “Yes, yes ,it truly is, and I won’t beweep it again.”
As I near the running children, I pulled my bag off my shoulder and slipped it into a nearby trashcan. It’s time to change my state with kings.

Emma’s chose to use the point-of-view of an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in this poignant tale:

He doesn’t know that me is right underneath all of this forgotten memory. I’m right here, but I don’t know who I am. I bury my face in my wrinkled hands and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries. I can’t change. Curse my fate.
When I look up he’s standing over me. “Your appointment is at four.”
I swear I didn’t know. When I searched his face for recognition, I knew that he did not see me. He doesn’t know who I am and neither do I. He doesn’t understand that I can’t control my fate. But I am not my forgotten memory, I am his wife. That much, I know.

Finally, Jen’s story was humorous, told from the perspective of a jilted bride:

I’m sitting alone on altar steps in my once-worn Vera Wang wedding dress that’s as deflated now as I feel. My supposed-to-be husband left me for some California-toned, bottle-blond chick bustier than Dolly Parton. (Curses her and her awesome figure. I swear she was created by Russian scientists.) I all alone beweep my outcast state….

….That son-of-a-bitch should not be in my thoughts right now. Well, maybe he should considering he was a 10 thousand dollar mistake. Dammit I looked good in that dress.
Sullen Earth, why me?

What started out as an educated guess for an assignment on my part has yielded great results. Moreover, my students have written narratives based on  “this man’s art.”

“We loved writing these,” was their collective response.
Of course they did….hard to go wrong with Shakespeare as their mentor.

Continue Reading…

Shakepeare winkingPlanning on teaching literature in high school? I suggest a brush up on literary pitfalls….and work on developing a sense of humor because sooner or later, a student, (usually a boy) will come upon one of the following words in some great work of literature:

Screw.
Bang
Bosom.
Laid.
Nuts.

In context, these words have been carefully chosen by an author to express some lofty ideal.  Yet, to that student who is looking for any way to make the class more entertaining, these words can mean something else entirely.

No author has been more successful in creating linguistic traps than Shakespeare. There are the overt references, such as Lady Macbeth’s startling announcement to “Unsex me here..!” (I.5) in preparation to assassinate the visiting King Duncan.  There are the more subtle problems with the “hoary-headed frosts” in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Romeo and Juliet offers the most opportunity for student sniggering.

From the opening scuffle where, “My naked weapon is out”, a teacher must negotiate students through Lord Capulet’s Give me my long sword, ho“,  Mercutio’s  teasing  “Prick love for pricking,” or the Nurse’s explanation that Juliet “shall bear the burden soon at night.

“Is Shakespeare always this dirty?” I see the quizzical looks on their faces.
“Your parents are okay with this,” I reassure them, “Besides, this is required reading.”

The Bard does not have a monopoly on creating awkward moments with language in class. Students are capable of creating discomfort, intentionally or not.

Years ago, I taught an Animal Farm unit and delivered a lesson on George Orwell’s characters and their historical counterparts. I explained that Napoleon was Stalin, the dogs were his secret police, and Snowball was Trotsky. I mentioned in passing that Trotsky was considered an insurrectionist, and I paused to let the information sink in. Instead I heard the distinct sound of giggling from several of the boys in the back of the room.

“What is so funny?”I demanded.
“Nothing,” they stammered.
I should have stopped there, but I moved in to clarify.
“What do you think I said? Do you know what an insurrectionist is?”

There was a pause…
“When… it… goes down?” blurted out one of the offenders.

“No,” I was indignant…not to be stopped. “No, I said’ insurrection’…what did you think I …..”
Then it hit me.
Erection.
I doubled back.
“It’s someone who is trying to start an uprising…..”
That explanation was drowned out with guffaws.
Did I mention that a very good sense of humor is needed in with sophomores?

This past fall, I had posted charts around the rooms with questions associated with Oliver Twist.
As the students moved around the room I noticed students giggling when they got to one of the charts.
“Why would someone lie?” was the heading on the chart.
“To get laid,” was scribbled in small print.
I recognized that print.
That print belonged to Mitch. Mitch who stood all of 4’2″ and was 90 lbs, soaking wet.

Everyone had seen it, so I needed to address the problem quickly.
“Mitch,” I demanded, “is that an appropriate thing to write?”

“Sure, Ms. B,” he replied casually,”I could lie and say I’m dying…Like in the movie 50/50.
I had to admit he was using logic…to say nothing of his confidence.
He still erased the comment.

Next week, I plan to use an Advanced Placement Literature multiple choice prompt from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as practice for the upcoming AP exam.  I was rereading the passage to check its length and the matching questions when I came upon the line, “She began to curl her hair and long for balls.”

Oh, Jane. That’s going to definitely cause a stir!

 “for we are the only love-gods...”( Much Ado about Nothing: 2.1.386)

Every generation has them, the “love gods”, the cultural icons who capture our minds and our hearts.  They are musicians, actors, playwrights, authors, or poets.  They are artists with a stamp so firm on a culture that the mere mention of their names can call forth an image; artists, for example, like Shakespeare or maybe The Beatles. They are artists whose images need no text to explain who they are, like Shakespeare or maybe The Beatles.

These paperAnd because these artists have messages that transcend time there are educators who are committed to teaching their students how best to discover an artist’s message through a study of an artist’s craft. There are even educators so committed that they would spend an entire Saturday, (January 24, 2014) learning new strategies to help their students understand and respond to the messages of cultural icons. These are educators who spent the day at the Yale Repertory Willpower!Workshop centered on the upcoming production of These! Paper! Bullets!.

These! Paper! Bullets! is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy play Much Ado about Nothing, with the setting transported to London in the turbulent 1960s. The play’s adaptation is by Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award nominated writer Rolin Jones, and the promotional synopsis states:

Meet the Quartos. Ben, Claude, Balth, and Pedro. Their fans worship them. Scotland Yard fears them. And their former drummer will stop at nothing to destroy them. Can these fab four from Liverpool find true love in London and cut an album in seven nights? These Paper Bullets! is a rocking and rolling version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with a serious backbeat.

Many of the teachers attending this Saturday’s workshop will be bringing their classes in early April to the daytime productions of These! Paper! Bullets!, a series of performances offered through the WILLPOWER! program. This program is the brainchild of James Bundy, dean of the School of Drama and  artistic director of the Yale Rep. According to a 2013 Yale News article “‘WILL POWER!’ gives city students a ‘visceral’ introduction to theater,” Bundy’s concerns about having students see live theatre was the motivation for beginning the program 10 years ago since, “studies show that people who attend the theater before the age of 18 are much more likely to attend later in life.”  

The WILLPOWER! Workshop for educators is coordinated by Ruth M. Feldman, the Yale School of Drama’s director of education and accessibility services, and is usually offered several weeks before a production in order to improve classroom instruction and prepare student audiences for the play they will see.

Feldman’s jam-packed line up this particular Saturday included a preview of sets and costumes with the production’s director Jackson Gay. The costumes brought “aahs” from the audience who obviously appreciated the retro-look of white go-go boots on Twiggy-eque models. There were also musical snippets from the production’s musical collaborator, Green Day lead singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong.  Listening to clips of these original songs that echoed the sounds of the 60s, composed in tribute to the Fab Four, had all the heads in the room bopping up and down.
“Is there going to be a CD soundtrack?” one enthused teacher asked.

After the question/answer session with the director, Feldman packed off the teachers for a visit to the Yale University Art Gallery, a short brisk walk across the street, to participate in a thematically linked presentation on “adaptations” organized by Museum Educator Elizabeth Manekin and Elizabeth Williams, the John Walsh Fellow at the Yale University Art Gallery.  Teachers were briefed on the Pop Art movement as they studied a series of nine panels of Andy Warhol’s Mao (a screenprint of one similar is available on Amazon). The discussion asked teachers to consider how a cultural icon is adapted for new audiences. Next, teachers gathered around Manet’s Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume and continued the discussion on adaptations before heading to the workroom to make collages that were adaptations on Manet’s other reclining female, Olympia.

Andy Warhol Mao 93, 1972 Screenprint sold by RUDOLF BUDJA GALERIE. $200,000.00 + Free Shipping

Andy Warhol
Mao 93, 1972
Screenprint on AMAZON through RUDOLF BUDJA GALERIE.
$200,000.00 + Free Shipping!

Édouard Manet, French, 1832–1883 Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume

Édouard Manet, 
Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume -Yale University Art Gallery

Returning to Yale Rep, teachers also had the opportunity to try reading and writing strategies aligned with the Common Core using informational texts, short commentaries about social media and cultural icons. Rachel Sexton, an educational specialist at ACES, engaged teachers by having them participate in a reading strategy that asks students to organize an article that had been cut-up. “Don’t look for matching cuts like a puzzle,” she warned, knowing how some students might look for a short-cut. The next strategy involved reading that text and other short commentaries in order to write a personal response incorporating three ideas they found significant. Dutifully, teachers took pencils in hand. The sounds of scribbling were slow at first but became steadier, and Sexton had to interrupt teachers as her session time was drawing to a close,  I overheard teachers:

  • “This is a great way to introduce a topic”
  • “I cannot believe how much I am getting out of this exercise…”
  • “I know how my students have trouble getting started with writing; this [strategy] solves that problem!”

The last session was dedicated to the lyricism in Shakespeare’s play offered by Dr. Matthew Suttor, Director of the Laurie Beechman Center for Theatrical Sound Design and Music at the Yale School of Drama. His session was  titled, “Let Music Sound…”, a presentation designed to have teachers “examine and experience the creative process for drawing both lyrics and music from a play’s text. (full disclosure: Sadly, I could not attend this last session because of impending snow.) 

As she has in the past, Feldman organized seven hours of first-rate (FREE) professional development through the WILLPOWER! program that was both practical for classroom application and powerful enough to encourage educators to explore new possibilities for bringing the messages of adaptation in culture. Exploring the elements of These! Paper! Bullets! before the opening of the show helps educators prepare students for the experience of Shakespeare performed live.

In addition, knowing adaptations can be made from works created by a cultural icon some 400 years ago is an concept that students today, with their ability to create mash-ups and Internet memes coupled with their  fascination with today’s cultural icons, should appreciate or even (hopefully) try themselves.

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We have been discussing loss a great deal in English class. In order to begin our  study of King Lear, students had to create lists of their 10 favorite things while I played the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. After they made their lists, I  had them “lose” -one at a time- an item off the list.

“Cross off #7,” I announced with great seriousness.
There were immediate groans from students.
“That’s Starbucks!” one whined.
“My truck!” claimed another, “How will I drive?”
“Cross off #3,” I called out.
More protestations. More groans.
“No way I am crossing off my dog,” another retorted.

Soon, their lists were down to two items each. They stirred uncomfortably; they were unsettled by the mere thought of being separated from things or people they valued.

“Maybe I value my stuff over people too much,” mused one thoughtfully looking over her list.

In this short exercise, my students conveyed some of the same sentiments that are expressed in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”:

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (continued…)

My students were struck by the repetition of the words “master” and “disaster” in the poem, a result of the villanelle* (see below) format. They noted the progression of items lost in the poem: the car keys, the watch, the houses, the cities, rivers, and finally, the loss of continents.

They noted the choice of hyphens and parentheses in the poem. The hyphen at the beginning of the final stanza was a “hesitation” according to one student, “because she doesn’t even want to write the last stanza.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because she has to command herself,” the student replied, “See the parentheses and the words ‘(Write it!)’ on the last line?”

“Why? What is she losing in the last stanza?” I asked. They called out their ideas:
“Love.”
“You.”
“Her life…”

“So is the art of losing hard to master or not?” I asked them. They thought, and wrote the following in their notebooks:

  • “No one wants to  master losing things…who wants to be a loser, literally?”
  • “She is taking about the loss of physical objects in comparison to the loss of people, and no one wants to lose people…like a friend or lover.”
  • “The speaker is rushing towards the end, speaking faster with ‘shan’t’ and ‘losing’s’ as if things are slipping away, and out of control, until she writes down the losses….and commits them to memory.”
  • “She is trying to convince herself.”

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem brought my class back to the many themes we had been discussing in our unit on King Lear. We had spent several classes focused on the tragedy of a king who in dividing his kingdom, upends the order of the realm. In the process, he loses his daughters, his knights (protectors), his friends, his mind, and finally, his life. The students concluded that Lear was no “master of disaster.”

“Pretty cool that 19 lines can say almost the same thing as Shakespeare’s five act play,” concluded one student as he wrapped up his books  to leave.

Pretty cool, Elizabeth Bishop.

*villanelle: The villanelle has 19 lines, 5 stanzas of three lines and 1 stanza of four lines with two rhymes and two refrains. The 1st, then the 3rd lines alternate as the last lines of stanzas 2, 3, and 4, and then stanza 5 (the end) as a couplet. It is usually written in tetrameter (4 feet) or pentameter.

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!