Friday, 30 March 2012

Where There's Some Will.....

Recently I was invited to teach an English class on the last day before spring break. The topic was Hamlet and the theme revenge, and no I didn't see any irony in the invite - the teacher and I go back quite a ways!  As I set up for my class I heard the soundtrack of Kevin Branagh's Henry V from an adjoining classroom. Forgive my mixing of poets but "My heart leaps up, when I behold" such a situation. It would seem that when it comes to teaching Shakespeare, the play is still the thing.

There really seems to be two types of English teachers - those who love teaching Shakespeare and those who don't. Firmly in the first camp, I discovered early on that having a personal love of Shakespeare only goes so far when trying to teach it to teenagers. The literature is not without its challenges and, unless a teacher makes the plays easily and quickly accessible to all, its easy for students to claim Shakespeare is too hard, and too boring, to be worth the effort.

Fortunately there's a wealth of resources available. The British Council and BBC offer an excellent page answering the questions "Why teach Shakespeare?" "What Shakespeare to teach" and "How to Teach Shakespeare". The site also links to other resource pages. Worried your students might not be "up to the challenge"? Non academic learners get into Shakespeare without problems, so long as its presented well. Check out the site How to Teach Shakespeare to Reluctant Learners for a Canadian perspective on engaging all students.

Shakespeare's plots have impacted popular culture to an incredible extent. It is often surprising, and enlightening, for students to discover the degree to which ideas from plays like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Othello and Henry V have infiltrated modern entertainment franchises.  Comparing "The Simpsons" six minute Hamlet to the original can be amusing, and illustrative, of just how much students have drawn from the real play. Finding common themes and discussing the comparative entertainment value of Disney's "The Lion King" and Shakepeare's Hamlet or Henry V always generates energetic student debate (especially if one suggests that Shakespeare is superior!)

I tell classes that Shakespeare was must see entertainment for its day, chock full of  the same things students hope to see in movies today!  Life and death drama, forbidden romance, paranormal activity, violent conflict, evil villains and tragic heroes and heroines abound. Shakespeare might be more "Hunger Games" than "Twilight",  but its themes are universal and still resonate with audiences 500 years after they were first performed.  Far from being  "Much Ado About Nothing", Shakespeare should be a high point in everyone's academic year.

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