Friending Shakespeare

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mark Harding teaches a full range of students, from special needs to Advanced Placement, at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  He has taught at both the secondary and post-secondary levels during his career. He likes a well-equipped gym and dislikes irregular Latin declensions.

I think most English teachers would agree that the annual Shakespeare unit offers the teacher both the greatest challenges and the greatest rewards. Each year, we meet new groups of students who are more conversant with screen content than book content. Has the time come that Shakespeare is unteachable to any but the very best students? Not yet. Some years require more ingenuity to get the students engaged, but Shakespeare, in my experience, has never failed to engage them.

When I first started teaching Shakespeare in high school (back in the Pleistocene), I could assume that at least a significant minority of students had a recreational reading habit. No longer. The recreational reader is now an oddity, even among the brightest students. This means they get less practice in navigating complex syntax and figurative language than did students in the past. Sometimes during whole-class reading, you feel like you are committing murder by vivisection in having to explain the context of every single word. And it is not just that their attention spans are shorter than those of the past (the common complaint). They simply do not encounter new vocabulary as regularly as students did in the past. A lot of teaching time is spent clarifying what used to be assumed vocabulary and allusions.

Nevertheless, the experience of the current generation with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sets them up for an approach to language that was not available to students in the past. A play is a social event, and so is a Facebook thread. Moreover, most dialogue entries (with the exception of soliloquies) in a Shakespeare play are not too far off the length of a typical Facebook post.  These posts are meant to be dialogical, unlike the lengthy paragraphs of, say, a Victorian novel, which assume solitude, quiet, and extended amounts of time to read. Not ideal for a chatty generation like this one.

Despite the challenges of declining vocabulary and lack of experience with complex language, these students show, strangely enough, an unconventional strength in intuiting the nuances and colloquialisms of short exchanges between characters, such as in the first meeting of Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew or the discussion between Lady Macbeth and her husband prior to the murder of Duncan in Macbeth.  That is to say, they seem able to hear tone and intent without necessarily understanding all the vocabulary.

I have always tried to remember that Shakespeare’s audience went to “hear” a play rather than to see one. In an unexpected way, the experience of the modern sixteen-year-old whose primary interaction is with some form of screen combining both visual and auditory media may be more suited to the “hearing” of some aspects of Shakespeare than were the highly-literate sixteen-year-olds of the past. The job of the teacher is to find a way to apply this strength to the text.