Teaching your kids to swear in the best Shakespearean fashion - and other strategies
by Helen Sykes
In the early nineties, British educator Rex Gibson challenged – and then inspired – teachers of Shakespeare worldwide to move away from exam-oriented, line-by-line dissection of Shakespeare’s plays to an approach that treated the plays as scripts to be performed and that took it for granted that students should be actively engaged with the text. His philosophy was expressed in his influential book Teaching Shakespeare and in the Cambridge School Shakespeare editions of the plays, where he and his team of editors provided teachers and students with a host of activities that allowed them to explore the plays in an active way.
The distinctive two-page format of the Cambridge School Shakespeare editions has been imitated by more recent school editions, but the quality of the Cambridge texts is unique. The right-hand page has the Shakespearean text, very accessibly presented. The left-hand page has a brief running synopsis, a glossary and lots and lots of suggested activities. It is the quality of those activities, derived from Rex Gibson's teaching strategies, that makes these editions so exciting.
One of the most useful strategies that Gibson proposed – one that is frequently recommended in the editions of the plays – was a way of avoiding that painful reading-around-the-class that every teacher has experienced, with students stumbling through lines of text they do not understand. My own solution to avoiding this exercise was to read aloud most of the play myself, supplemented by the use of professional recordings of a play: something that I persuaded myself was a little less tedious but that was of course totally teacher-centred. Gibson's idea that students work with a major speech or scene by sharing the lines was an epiphany for me; it put the learning back in the hands of the students, it was a means of their coming to understand a text that seemed at first incomprehensible and it was lots of fun. Gibson suggested that, in small groups of about six, students should take turns reading, but each student would read only to the next punctuation mark, even if that was only one or two words. The strategy involved having students read through a speech like this several times, beginning with a different person each time so that all members of the group gained experience in reading all the lines. Students would begin tentatively, with lots of stumbling, but would improve as they became familiar with the words. The great discovery was that with fluency came quite a degree of comprehension.
This strategy works particularly well with passages of abuse. No one is more imaginative or inventive with curses than Shakespeare, but, partly because of the inventiveness of the language, many of the words are unfamiliar. Take, for example, Kent’s glorious outpouring of invective in King Lear (II.2.13-21) when Oswald asks him: ‘What dost thou know me for?’
A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch, one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
It’s a wonderful speech but it is certainly not one to throw at the kid in the back row who doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. Instead, using the sharing-the-lines strategy, each student in turn reads just to the punctuation mark. If the students are not familiar with this technique, do it first as a whole-class activity. You might even want to help the fluency of their reading by giving them the text set out like this:
an eater of broken meats
filthy worsted-stocking knave
one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service
and art nothing but the composition of a knave
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch
one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.
Students read through the lines a couple of times, at normal pace, getting familiar with the words. They won’t understand all the words but they will pick up the fact that Kent is hardly being complimentary to Oswald. Tell them that Kent is deliberately trying to pick a fight with Oswald; ask them to read faster, with anger and contempt. Have them practise this a few times until they are clearly getting a feel for the forcefulness of Kent’s abuse. Then let them try it in groups, but this time have one member of the group as Oswald. Oswald sits in the centre of the group while the rest of the group, as Kent, circle and point at him, shouting the curses at him. Taking the Oswald part can be quite intimidating as the Kent characters get more and more abusive, so make sure always that the victim’s role is a voluntary one and that the role is rotated.
This technique gets kids comfortable with the language and also enables them to feel its power. It can be used with any of the passages of abuse in Shakespeare. A particularly useful scene to experiment with in this way is Capulet’s abuse of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (III.5.149-195), when she refuses to marry Paris. Capulet has three long and difficult speeches here, beginning with this one:
How how, how how, chopt-logic? What is this?
‘Proud,’ and ‘I thank you’, and ‘I thank you not’,
And yet ‘not proud’, mistress minion you?
Thank me no thankings, nor proud me no prouds,
But fettle your fine joints ’gainst Thursday next,
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green-sickness carrion! out, you baggage!
You tallow face!
They are very difficult speeches to read aloud unprepared. It takes kids a while to get the sense of them, but the sharing-the-lines strategy is the easiest way to do this. Once they are fluent, have them put a volunteer Juliet in the centre, circled by abusive Capulets. They will again experience the power of the language: the shocking rejection of his daughter by this formerly-doting father, because she has dared to disobey him. The activity is enhanced if Juliet (preferably on her knees in the centre of the circle) interrupts the abuse regularly with her plea:
Good father, I beseech you on my knees,
Hear me with patience but to speak a word.
Every play has scenes that can be dealt with in this way. Obvious ones include Lady Macbeth’s taunting of her husband (I.7.28-82), Hamlet’s ‘Get thee to a nunnery!’ abuse of Ophelia (III.1.103-43) and Antony’s angry tirade against Cleopatra when he believes she has betrayed him (IV.12). Students enjoy the power and inventiveness of the language. Who knows, the experience might even make them question the efficacy of the ubiquitous ‘f’ word?
The sharing-the-lines technique works with most speeches, not just torrents of abuse. Whether students read just to the next punctuation mark, or to the end of a line, or to the end of a sentence, depends on the speech and students’ familiarity with Shakespearean text, but the sharing-the-lines approach ensures active involvement with the language. Students read through a speech several times to become familiar with it. They can then experiment with different ways of reading the lines. For example, students can try whispering the lines of Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy ‘The raven himself is hoarse’ (I.5.36-52); they can then try hissing the lines fiercely, or speaking them as if in a trance. Students working with Othello can explore the nature of the relationship between Iago and Emilia by experimenting with different ways of presenting the dialogue between them in III.3.302-21. Emilia is: intimidated by Iago; cheerful; confident; desperate for her husband's attention; frustrated; playfully flirtatious; resentful and moody. The different choices have important consequences, of course, for students' view of the characters and their relationships. Students approach their understanding of the characters by exploring the possibilities of the plays as scripts to be acted.
A particularly interesting example of sharing the lines in a speech is the approach recommended for some of the soliloquies. Many of the soliloquies are like internal conversations, expressing a character’s inner conflict. Have students work on such soliloquies in pairs, turning them into dialogue – speaking the two voices of the mind. Take, for example, Richard’s soliloquy on the eve of the battle, when he wakes from a fearful dream (King Richard III V.3.180-209):
Is there a murderer here? No, yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why –
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
This can be spoken as an agonised conversation, each person speaking one sentence in turn:
A. Is there a murderer here?
A. Yes, I am.
B. Then fly.
A. What, from myself? Great reason why –
B. Lest I revenge.
A. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself.
B. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
A. O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain.
B. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well.
A. Fool, do not flatter.
Most of the soliloquies in Hamlet and Macbeth work well with this technique. Macbeth’s ‘If it were done when ‘tis done’ soliloquy (I.7.1-25) is particularly successful, with students whispering the lines as a tortured conversation, heads close together.
As well as experimenting with ways of speaking the lines, students can experiment with movement and gesture. One useful strategy is to use exaggerated body movements to explore the meaning of a speech or a scene. A good example is Hamlet’s ‘wild and whirling words’ scene after seeing the ghost (Hamlet I.5). Horatio is puzzled by Hamlet’s words. To gain a sense of the rapid changes in Hamlet’s language, students take parts as Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio and read lines 115-53. As they read, they move around the room, with Hamlet frequently changing direction. The other two try to keep up with him. Afterwards, students talk about how the physical movement gives additional meaning to Horatio’s claim of ‘wild and whirling words’. They can also discuss how the activity reveals something of Hamlet’s mind.
Another example is Antony and Cleopatra I.3.60-106. Cleopatra chides, taunts and cajoles in her desire to make Antony stay. She pushes him away and then pulls him back. Antony also does his share of emotional or verbal pushing and pulling. Have the students feel the scornful or taunting ‘pushing-words’ and the cajoling or pleading ‘pulling-words’ by reading the scene in pairs. Each student holds the script in one hand and grasps their partner’s shoulder with the other. As they read, they push the partner away on the ‘pushing-words’ and pull the partner towards them on the ‘pulling-words’. A similar technique can be used in Much Ado About Nothing (IV.1.296-316), when Beatrice and Benedick are arguing about challenging Claudio. Have students working in pairs explore how the initiative moves from Beatrice to Benedick. They need to place two chairs facing each other. Beatrice stands in front of her chair while Benedick sits on his. As they read the lines, at every colon or full stop Benedick must attempt to stand up, but Beatrice must push him down again if she feels angry enough. Students can decide where Benedick becomes determined enough to push Beatrice on to her chair and take control.
Actors in rehearsal use techniques like this. I once saw actors rehearsing Macbeth use exaggerated movement to underline Malcolm and Macduff's suspicion of trusting each other when Macduff visits Malcolm in England. The actors moved exaggeratedly towards each other when they thought that they could trust each other, and then exaggeratedly far apart when they feared to trust. Actors tell me that, even though their movements will be restrained and realistic on stage, the use of exaggerated movement in rehearsal to show characters coming together and then pulling apart is remembered by their bodies when they play the scene, helping them to convey the relationship to the audience.
The sharing-the-lines strategy is also useful in helping students to explore those famous speeches that even those who would claim to know nothing of Shakespeare have been much exposed to, such as Portia’s ‘quality of mercy’ speech, Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene or Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. Because of their familiarity, these can be hard to approach with fresh eyes. By working together, sharing the lines until they become fluent and then experimenting with such things as tone and pace, students are able to explore possible meanings for such speeches and scenes.
Another Rex Gibson strategy, frequently suggested in the Cambridge School Shakespeare editions, involves reading key words only from a speech. This is a way of coming to grips with the tone or intention of a speech. Students usually work in groups of four, each person speaking one line only, and then handing on to the next. They then read again around the group but this time each student says just one word from the line – the word that seems to be most important. Students should do this three or four times, with a different person beginning the speech each time. Students then talk about the words chosen and what they reveal about the speech. An example is the scene in Romeo and Juliet when Tybalt wants to pick a fight at the party and Capulet restrains him (I.5.53-91): are there ‘typical’ Tybalt words and ‘typical’ Capulet words, and what do they suggest about each character?
A similar strategy involves students in echoing key words from a scene or a speech. This usually works best in pairs: one partner reads the lines aloud, while the other partner echoes certain words. A good example is Shylock’s aside in I.3.33-44 (‘How like a fawning publican he looks!’). As one partner reads the lines, the other echoes words which show Shylock’s hatred for Antonio. Students should try this several times. They can then talk about why Shylock hates Antonio so passionately. Another example is Juliet's speech in Romeo and Juliet III.2.1-31: 'Gallop apace you fiery-footed steeds ...' One person reads the speech while the other echoes all the words that seem to be commands or concerned with speed or haste. This is a good way for students to experience the intensity of Juliet's feelings.
You will have noticed that the sharing-the-lines technique assumes that you will be working closely with students on particular scenes or speeches. As English teachers, conditioned by years of external exams, we have this obsession with ‘doing’ the text – thoroughly and exhaustively. It is very rare for a performance of a Shakespearean play to cover every word of the printed text; most productions cut some scenes. As teachers, however, we seem afraid that we are not doing our job properly if we don’t labour through it all. Even with plays being studied for external exams, this is probably not necessary, and it is an absurd requirement for other classes. The brief synopses at the top of every left-hand page in the Cambridge School Shakespeare editions are a great help if you want to skip over some scenes, or to give the context to a scene in which you may be concentrating only on one or two speeches.
There are all kinds of strategies for giving students an overview of the play as a whole, as an introduction to close attention to particular scenes. One that Rex Gibson recommends – and that he explains in some detail on pages 95-100 of his Teaching Shakespeare - is a storytelling approach. With this strategy, rather than students being passive recipients of the story, they act it out – using Shakespeare’s language. The teacher selects ten lines that give an outline of the play. These ten lines are presented in large print somewhere where they can be revealed line by line.
The ten lines Gibson chose for Romeo and Juliet are:
1 Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!
2 But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
3 O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
4 They have made worms’ meat of me. I have it.
5 And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now! (They fight, Tybalt falls)
6 Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch!
7 Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here’s drink – I drink to thee. (She falls upon her bed, within the curtains)
8 Here’s to my love! (Drinks) Thus with a kiss I die. (Dies)
9 O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; (Stabs herself)
There rust and let me die. (Falls on Romeo’s body and dies)
10 For never was a story of more woe,
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
The teacher narrates the story, introducing and revealing each line with suitable narrative (and perhaps actions). Students, working in pairs, can speak the language with accompanying actions. After the first run-through, students speak and practise the ten events in all kinds of different ways (for example, in slow motion, or running). After some practice with all the lines clearly visible, the teacher covers up the lines, and the students enact the ten scenes, having learned the words by heart by active practice. Students can also work in pairs to prepare a tableau of a chosen line. They freeze into a still picture of that moment. The other students have to guess which line is being portrayed.
Every teacher will adapt the activity to his or her own style. On pages 96-7 of Teaching Shakespeare Gibson gives a detailed account of how one teacher used this activity. He also supplies ten key quotations for Macbeth, although the activity can be easily adapted to any of the plays. The purpose is to give students an active grasp of the outline of the story and to help them learn by heart some of Shakespeare’s language.
The Cambridge School Shakespeare editions of the plays offer another opportunity for storytelling as a way of introducing a play. The plays have eight introductory pages of coloured photographs - photos of productions of that play, organised chronologically to tell the story, with brief captions explaining what is going on. It is an easy and attractive way of giving an overview of the play. Importantly, all the photos are from different productions, so that students know immediately that many different 'readings' of the play are possible. There has been a deliberate choice of some quite unusual representations, such as Macbeth as an Idi-Amin-style African dictator or Malvolio and his aristocratic tormentors dressed in Japanese medieval robes.
Because the Cambridge School Shakespeare editions approach the plays as scripts, activities suggested regularly involve students in solving problems of staging the plays. In the most recent edition of the Cambridge plays, some activities have been grouped in colour-coded boxes. The green boxes have the heading 'Stagecraft', and the activities in those boxes consist of practical, problem-solving tasks, involving a wide range of skills. Many of them can be done co-operatively as group tasks and they can appeal to students who find a literary approach to Shakespeare daunting.
Solving the problem of how to present ghosts, witches and other supernatural beings on stage is one that students find intriguing. They might like to consider solving the problem for the Elizabethan stage as well as for a contemporary space with which they are familiar. It seems that Shakespeare sometimes solved the problem with ‘a robe for to go invisible’ which is listed among Philip Henslowe’s props. Students can experiment with ways to make the witches vanish in Macbeth; with the appearance of ghosts in plays like Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Richard III; with the problem of Ariel’s invisibility in The Tempest; and with ways of making the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream acceptable to a modern audience.
Opening and closing scenes are crucial in establishing the atmosphere of a play. The Cambridge editions frequently give students information about past performances and ask them to consider how they would present an opening or closing scene, again taking account of the different physical demands of Shakespearean and modern stages. The wonderfully ambiguous ending of a Bell Shakespeare production of Measure for Measure, where the Duke offers his hand to Isabella but she makes no move to accept, is possible only because the curtain can be brought down on the frozen moment. Shakespeare’s actors would have needed to leave the stage, so some kind of resolution would have been necessary. Yet the Bell interpretation is an inspired response to Isabella’s strange silence during the final moments of the play.
Other colour-coded boxes include 'Themes', 'Characters', 'Write about it' and 'Language in the play'. The language activities have been present in the Cambridge editions from the beginning, but highlighting them has made it clear how many there are - and how very useful. Part of Rex Gibson's philosophy is that students can come to understand and enjoy Shakespeare's language. Students through these activities can explore Shakespeare's craftsmanship as a writer. Why does he use prose rather than verse in a particular scene? What does it suggest about a character that he speaks in rhyming couplets, rather than blank verse? How does the change from beautiful, mellifluous multisyllabic words to monosyllabic grunts reflect Othello's disintegration? The editors of these texts afford students the compliment of teaching them the technical terms - what's the difference, for example, between a pun, an epigram and a paradox - but never expect them to descend to the pointless task of merely labelling devices. Teachers find the language activities invaluable.
Studying Shakespeare can be fun for students and teaching Shakespeare can be rewarding for teachers. The reality is, however, that often the purpose will be to prepare students for an exam. The Cambridge editions have placed an increasing emphasis on material that will help students with this, especially the 'Characters', 'Themes' and 'Write about it' boxes, the substantial 'Looking Back' sections at the end of each Act and the extended support material in the back of each edition.
It seems that Shakespeare had a fairly sour view of school. It is not just quotations like the famous ‘whining schoolboy’ reference that supports this: after all, these are words that Shakespeare puts in a character’s mouth and may be no more his personal views than are those tedious platitudes that Polonius mouths. What is more significant is Shakespeare’s imagery: the best way Shakespeare can think of to explain how miserable it is for lovers to part is to remember the misery of kids on their way to school. On the other hand, when he wants an image to reflect enthusiasm, it’s school that comes to Shakespeare’s mind again – only this time it’s kids rushing out of school. How, then, would Shakespeare have reacted if some ‘weird sisters’ of his day had told him that, for more than four hundred years after his death, school boys – and girls – would be subjected to unrelenting tedium in his name? Thanks to Rex Gibson and the Cambridge School Shakespeare editions of the plays, students of the twenty-first century might re-discover that Shakespeare was the greatest entertainer of all time.