As a Secondary Teacher English, who doesn’t even have the advantage of being young and cool, I have often been met with blank expressions, deep weary sighs or even groans of despair, at the moment I’ve excitedly announced that we will be Shakespeare next.
Charges Laid Against Shakespeare
The reluctance in the class to engage with any kind of exploration of Shakespeare’s life and work is palpable. The charges that have been made against poor old Will (I use first name terms as I consider him a friend) are:
- He’s dead. Well yes, I can’t argue with that.
- He didn’t even write his own stuff. Well we don’t know that for sure. He definitely wrote some and probably most of it!
- He is boring. NO!
- It is old. Yes, but loyalty, friendship, love, anger or any other concept and emotion you can think of is timeless and worth exploring.
- He is too difficult to understand. Well, yes the text is over four hundred years old so it can take a bit of unpicking but there are tips available for doing this and if you have a ‘way into the play’ then the rest becomes easier and ultimately hugely rewarding.
Shakespeare is a Friend for Life
The thing is that once you have found a way in to a Shakespeare play then you won’t want to leave it or him. Shakespeare is a friend you will want to keep for life. I’m in no doubt that if old Will was around today he would be down with the kids – being ‘woke’, ‘spilling the tea’ and collecting more instagram likes than there are exits and entrances in one of his comedies. He would also, definitely, be quoting himself in order to impress his love interests of the day!
A Way into Shakespeare, using Hamlet as an Example
I’m going to share strategies that will make you eager to find a way into understanding Shakespeare, (essential for doing well at school). Even more importantly these strategies will help you discover the eternal contemporary relevance of Shakespeare’s plays. You will end up hopefully enjoying your time studying Shakespeare and be a more rounded, more fulfilled individual for having read, watched and visited his work.
Step 1 – Create your own Context
Read a straightforward plot summary. I know doing this is the ultimate ‘spoiler’ but do it anyway. Hamlet can be seen as a disheartened Prince desolate that his mother, the Queen has, instead of grieving for dead husband, married his brother. Hamlet seems unable to actually do anything about his suspicions that his father the old King Hamlet was murdered. Let’s face it his father’s ghost tells him enough times. Instead of acting Hamlet goes mad for a little while, spurns his girlfriend who kills herself and watches on as the new King destroys his father’s Kingdom.
This is a pretty cool story in itself, but ghosts, kingdoms, dead people, love affairs, it is a lot to manage and the story is complicated, you need to make it accessible to you.
Step 2 – Familiarize yourself with the Plot
You can reinforce and familiarize yourself with the plot by retelling it in a personal and up to date context.
How about: “Hamlet is the good looking, (Hamlet is always handsome in my mind), but sometimes mean and often moody boy who sits at the back of the class. You don’t know what is wrong with him. But you have heard that his dad has died and his mum is out on the town partying. There is also gossip in your common room that there is some kind of weird incestuous family stuff happening and you want to know what. You are wary of Hamlet as you know he can be cruel. Many people are sick of him whining and can’t believe that he has ‘binned off’ his gorgeous girlfriend (who has always been in the cool crowd) for no real reason. You also know he has been suspended several times by the school’s Deputy Head teacher for being rude and rebellious. The Head happens to be Hamlet’s ex-girlfriend’s dad who is a bit of a joke and a suck up. As a class member you share Hamlet’s view that the Deputy-Head is a bit of an idiot.”
And so on… you can make the story as intricate as you want it to be. (Be careful, though not to slip into meanness or bullying behaviour if you are assigning real teachers to the characters!)
Step 3 – Create Discussion Questions
Once you have created a personal and relevant context for the story your version of the plot should be pretty firmly established in your mind. Make a list of the questions that you would like answered about YOUR story. This can be created in a variety of ways.
One approach is to tell your version of the story to someone who has zero knowledge about the play and request that they ask as many questions as they can think of. You might talk to a group of young kids at school (creating a cross-year activity will impress your teachers) where you jot down all the random questions that they barrage you with. Alternatively you might keep it in the family and opt to talk to your siblings or your granny! It doesn’t really matter, but what is important is that you are not dismissive of the questions they ask.
- For example, why did the Head teacher patronise Hamlet and give him such tedious advice?
- Why did Hamlet dump his girlfriend?
- Why did Hamlet’s mum go out partying instead of being sad.
A different approach (slightly more scholarly) is with your peers to put together a more organised set of questions based on character and theme. Again though, make the questions about your version of the story not Shakespeare’s. For example:
- Why is Hamlet so mean to his girlfriend?
- Why is the Deputy Head teacher so annoying?
Step 4 – Reflect on your Questions
Contemplate the list of questions you’ve created for your own version of Hamlet and record your responses.
For example, you might say that Hamlet was rude to his Deputy Head because he thought he was a suck-up, and he could see that he had no real power and really wanted to be the Head.
Keep in mind that this is a way into Hamlet and you are not doing a formal assignment so record the responses in a way that suits you. It might be old-fashioned pen and paper, or you might do as a group in a shared Google doc. Alternatively, you might record as audible reflections on your phone. It doesn’t really matter so long as you can easily access the responses later.
Step 5 – Transfer your Knowledge to the Real Play
If you’ve followed the stages you now have a list of questions and responses and reflections about characterisation, cause and effect and key themes. Use these insights to add to class discussion, evaluation and interpretation in class. As you study Shakespeare in class it is now time to switch back from thinking about your own version of the story to considering the actual play. Search for evidence in the play to either refute or add to your initial assertions gathered from contemplating your own version of the story.
Moving Forward with Shakespeare
You’ve taken those all-important first steps of contextualizing Shakespeare and making it relevant to yourself. You will be surprised how comprehensive an insight into the play you have. Creating a personal perspective and context has provided relevance and you’ve found your way into Shakespeare.
This process can be applied to any play you are studying. It enables you to fully understand the plot and consider the motivations and behaviour of the characters involved in it. You should be left with great initial insight into the essence of what Shakespeare is exploring. Awareness of its contemporary relevance will add depth to your analysis and understanding of Shakespeare. In my intro I claimed that you can find a way into enjoying studying Shakespeare then you will become a more rounded, more fulfilled individual. I hope that is the case and I vainly hope that I have been less of a Polonius and more of a Horatio! Adieu.