When I was at high school half a century ago my English teacher brought out a solemn vow from me that I would never open another Shakespeare play again. He sat behind his desk while we all sat in rows in front of him with our books open. He went through Hamlet, stopping at the end of each line and explaining it. He punished everyone who fell asleep by making them write out a hundred lines from the play.
I’ll never understand what made me become an English teacher after that, but I discovered Shakespeare at university, I became hooked, and here I am.
Teachers make Shakespeare exciting in the classroom these days. And why not? The stories are gripping and exciting. They are full of action, love, twists and turns, and all the things we like in a story. When I was at school the language was a barrier that we just couldn’t get through but the excellent teachers we have today have found ways of making it easy. They have realised that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays to be studied in twenty-first century classrooms but to be performed in the theatre. Today’s teachers bring the plays to life by having students interact with the texts in an active way.
Students push the desks aside, roll up their sleeves and act out the story and the language. They speak the language together, feeling it in their mouths. They perform the actions that characters describe while the teacher reads a speech. If my teacher had only realised that Shakespeare’s language is physical he might have read Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s madness and had us acting out the language. She says:
He took me by the hand and held me hard
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And with his other hand thus o’er his brow
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stayed he so;
At last a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being.
That’s just one example of the physical nature of Shakespeare’s language. Imagine miming it all out in pairs. How much better is that than the way I was taught? How much more might I have learnt about the play in one lesson than in those months of sleeping at my desk then writing out lines I didn’t understand?