How Shakespeare is taught is often a minefield for educators. Not only is there the language barrier, where it can become increasingly difficult the further we get from the Elizabethan era to understand their way of speaking, there’s the conundrum of just how to bridge that gap. Teachers themselves may have an uneven education in how they learned and experience Shakespeare, which can both assist and detract from their abilities to teach him in their classrooms. There’s also the issues of race, class, and sexism that need historical contextualization as well as comparisons and contrasts to the present.
Recently, ACMRS Press announced the first few titles in their upcoming releases of Shakespeare plays adapted into modern English. This project was started by the Oregon Shakespeare Company in 2015 in attempt to bring the plays into a modern context to make them more accessible.
Additionally, during the pandemic many highly regarded theatre institutions known for their Shakespearean productions opened their archives allowing access to stage works that were filmed live, creating greater access to witness varied productions and interpretations of these plays as they were meant to be experienced. National Theatre Live, Globe On Screen, and Canada’s Stratford Festival were just some of the organizations who broadcast free performances for a limited time on platforms like YouTube.
Below, the Writers’ Program staff highlights some of their experiences in learning Shakespeare, showing how different techniques left an impact (good and bad) on how they view Shakespeare’s work now.
Nutschell – My aunt was an English teacher and she had a book titled The Complete Works of Shakespeare. At age 9, it was easily the largest book I’d seen so I was instantly drawn to it. I tried to read the plays, but found them too complicated. I did enjoy his sonnets—and still do to this day.
Jeff – I’m pretty sure the first full play I saw in a theater was Romeo & Juliet during an elementary school field trip. But the greatest standout educational experience I had was hands down a “Shakespeare on Film” course I took in my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. We analyzed Shakespeare in Love and the ways it borrowed or referenced other plays, found narrative parallels between Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard and Richard III, and my favorite (final) assignment was reverse-adapting Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, where I had to compare it line for line against the text and figure out what was cut, what was kept, and what was translated visually instead of verbally. It was an intense amount of work, unexpectedly, considering it was just an elective, but definitely worthwhile.
Noemi – My best educational experience involving Shakespeare occurred this past year in college, actually, when our teacher had us act out whole chunks of the plays (Macbeth was my favorite) in class and break down the intention behind each of the lines. I had a similar experience back in high school when we did the same thing with Romeo and Juliet — the teacher assigning a cast with roles and asking them to get up out of their chairs and move around the classroom. It definitely helped to make the learning experience more fun and engaging, although I’m sure that this wasn’t a unique experience, as I imagine a lot of teachers use this method simply because Shakespeare can be pretty difficult to read otherwise, especially if you’re not well-versed in classical texts.
Alexis – My first taste of Shakespeare was reading Romeo and Juliet in my [high school] freshman year English class. The student-teacher leading our class spent two full class periods breaking down the prologue, which mainly involved repeating it over and over as we stomped around the room in iambic pentameter. I think I learned more about the play from the Baz Luhrmann film adaptation than I did from the actual class. Thankfully, I had a much more positive Shakespeare experience once I got to university, but I’ll never forget the sound of thirty pairs of shuffling feet on worn carpet and the amount of eye-rolls that student-teacher received whenever I think back to that famous opening.
Chae – Looking back through the recesses of my K-12 memories, I have come to the conclusion that I never formally learned about Shakespeare. Like not at all. It was only through my own research and pop-culture exposure did I come across his work. Omg how does that even happen? I guess the public school system failed me in that regard. Sigh.
Jennie – My first experience learning Shakespeare was in 9th grade English. Instead of reading Shakespeare independently, my teacher had us read his plays aloud in class so we could hear the way the work sounded. He made those plays fun and all about the drama, even so far as incorporating goofy props like Star Wars lightsabers for the fight scenes. I didn’t appreciate that experience until I studied Shakespeare again in a very-dry college lecture course that crammed in so many formal essays, it was difficult to appreciate anything about the work. For me, I think the best way to appreciate Shakespeare goes back to that high school English class – I want to hear the plays read. I want to be able to enjoy the characters, drama, and rhythm of the language. That’s what the plays were written for after all!
Ashley – I studied Shakespeare quite a bit from about middle school through graduate school and, honestly, my favorite moments with his work were through the film adaptations that left an impression on me: Romeo + Juliet (1996), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), O (2001), and even the recent Macbeth (2015), which I thought was stunning. If I had to pick one educational moment with Shakespeare that made an impact on me, I’d have to say it was the time I was reading Hamlet late at night during grad school, getting ready for a class discussion or something, and was hit with overwhelming certainty that Shakespeare’s work should always be performed or read aloud… always. Reading his words silently to yourself on the page strips them of any life they may have, and makes it so much harder to figure out what the heck is going on.
Bree – I was taught several plays in English and Drama classes in high school, but the experiences that stand out for me were once I started acting the plays. I had a small role in a community theatre production of Twelfth Night my sophomore year. I remember at a rehearsal the director telling me I got the part due to my audition with a short monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream where I ended by basically charging the director. He remarked that Shakespeare wasn’t just people standing on stage reciting lines. It was active, and often messy (for the characters). Once I understood that, the language became less of a barrier.
Carrie – I have some ridiculous pictures of college-aged me running around Stratford but I cannot find them. Alas. Despite having a semester abroad and taking an intense Shakespeare class, my favorite memory would be in ninth grade English and doing a read aloud of various scenes, and my team won as I, as Mercutio, had the most dramatic (and hilarious) death by Expo-marker-sword.