Within Shakespeare’s plays are countless metaphors connecting our lives to actors on a stage. This unit proposes to further students’ understanding of themes and character motive when reading Shakespeare by empowering them as dramaturges for scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. As directors, they will be responsible for recreating a world and the people who inhabit it. They will need to justify all their creative decisions including setting, costumes, props and character actions. They will also need to determine what characters are feeling emotionally within a scene and how this emotion comes through in the words they speak. They will need to see the scene from above, and understand the characters’ interactions from all perspectives.
Shakespeare is difficult. The language is four hundred years old, and although it is modern English, it is difficult for many teachers to use these plays to reach students whose reading comprehension is far below average or whose first language is not English. But isn’t our goal as teachers to expand the perspective of our students? We should present characters whose conflicts are profound. Shakespeare’s genius reveals the fearsome human heart and takes our students over socio-economic barriers to a place that is rich in vocabulary, poetry, music and thought.
Shakespeare’s language reaches beyond the prosaic communicative function of language. The poetry of his expression is transcendent – even without seeing actors perform. Shakespeare’s themes are timeless and the instruction of his scenes especially important for students in crises. His plays confront racism, sexuality, gender roles, incest, tribe and family violence, betrayal, the searing and ridiculous qualities of love, power, temptation, murder, war. Considering that homicide and suicide are still primary causes of death for teenagers,
it seems particularly urgent to teach
Romeo and Juliet.
But how to open this door for students!
On the other hand, why should it be hard? Shakespeare’s audience was mostly illiterate. Many were the “stinkards” who stood in the yard of the Globe Theater, likely rougher by far than the worst of my students. His plays were performed to people wealthy and poor, and to people who spoke different languages and from different cultures. Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed and seen on stage, not read, relying on stagecraft and actors to help covey what is not in the words, but underneath the skin.
Shakespeare makes us wonder about questions unanswered by characters’ words. Why is Hamlet so depressed, Romeo so desperately lonely, or Iago so evil? Why is Othello swayed by Iago? Why can’t Macbeth stand up to Lady Macbeth? Why would Helena cling to Demetrius? Why can’t Shylock find mercy? Why is Mercutio self-loathing? Why can’t Prospero see his own tyranny? Why does Lear disown his most loyal and honest daughter? Why do Romeo and Juliet choose suicide? What does it take to forgive someone – or to forgive oneself? I would like students to pry deeper into Shakespeare’s characters in order to give them insight into their own feelings and encourage them to be patient and thoughtful when making their own life choices. The questions that Shakespeare leaves unanswered are not simple ones. But the conflicts that plague my students – and most humans – are not simple. Literature has the power to give us all strength, wisdom and resiliency in facing our own trials. But how to unlock the wisdom that Shakespeare offers!
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
, Harold Bloom writes that Shakespeare is a “mortal god” and our “psychiatrist.”
His argument is that not only are Shakespeare’s characters so completely and wholly psychologically real, but that his creations have given us the map by which we learn to find our own humanity. If we give our students the task of being directors, they will gain the ability to work with the words, visualize a character’s emotional intent, decide what the characters will wear, what props might be significant, where the scene is to be set, how the characters will move, what they are feeling, how the lines are delivered – and how these elements of stagecraft illuminate the difficult human questions Shakespeare gives us so we might vicariously answer them to improve our own lives.
Why not ask students to provide the stage directions that Shakespeare never wrote? As a director himself, Shakespeare understood that while the actor’s speech might be the lines on the map, the voyage to these realms must surely be the internal dream of an individual. Indeed, “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report” what this dream might be. But the director, with his Argos view, must see and hear and communicate his dream. From this perspective, students will better understand not only meanings of individual words, but the human motive and heartbeat beneath the iambic pentameter rhythms of the lines.
My unit will include lessons on
Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
These plays offer key scenes of instruction that students at all academic and linguistic levels discover not by simply viewing the scenes, nor necessarily by acting them, nor by simply reading them, but by formulating them as a stage or film director might. The play’s the thing.