Occasionally, I’ve had students ask why young people should study and perform Shakespeare’s plays given that they were written four hundred years ago and come from a very specific Western tradition. The question used to take me by surprise, but I’ve come to recognize that not everyone agrees about Shakespeare’s value in the classroom or in performance. From a practical perspective, I don’t see Shakespeare leaving our curriculum anytime soon. In fact, it seems that school districts are pushing for exposure at an earlier age, now starting in elementary school. Therefore, it is important to explore how Shakespeare could be appealing to young people from all backgrounds and experiences, and then to find ways of enhancing their understanding of his body of work.
I find that the perceived resistance of young people to Shakespeare often comes from their teachers’ own fear of and discomfort with Shakespeare’s plays. The “inaccessible” language; the complex and sprawling storylines; and the density of the scripts make for a daunting task in any unit of classroom study. I overcome these hurdles by engaging young people in a problem solving, mystery-cracking approach to the scripts, rather than a bookish quest to understand the meaning and interpretation of every word or phrase on the page. Tackling a Shakespeare play in an active way builds confidence, and that confidence translates to other academic and artistic tasks. The act of discovering a play through a constructivist, inquiry-based approach helps students of any age or experience level gain a sense of ownership over a complex text, and the skills gained in this process are transferrable to contemporary literature and other subject areas.
To assist my students with their understanding of Shakespeare’s work, regardless of age or experience, I ask them to consider five basic ideas about the cultural context of Shakespeare’s plays and their dramaturgy. If we embrace these tenets, the worlds of the plays become more accessible, and we can find ways to share those worlds with young people. Those five ideas are as follows:
1. Shakespeare wrote his plays for a wide, popular audience.
Shakespeare’s plays appealed to people from all walks of life and across class divides: kings, queens, nobles, workers and the poor. His plays were considered popular entertainment in his day, much like the blockbuster movies and television shows of today. If Shakespeare were writing now, I’d venture to say that he’d write for film and prime time television. He understood how to reach audiences of all ages and experiences, and when young people understand that, they gain confidence that their interpretation of a play could actually be valid and “correct.” If we empower young people to find their own relationships to a play, suddenly that play becomes legible and relatable.
2. Reading, watching, and playing Shakespeare can be like working in a second language.
Even though Shakespeare wrote his plays in English, his style of writing is heightened and his vocabulary is vast. As English speakers in the 21st century, our relationship to language is very different from Shakespeare’s and his audience’s. If we were watching an opera in Italian, we would expect subtitles or we would have to learn Italian. Similarly, when we work with Shakespeare, there may be words or whole sentences that are unclear. When watching Shakespeare in performance, encourage young people to look for other ways to understand what is happening: stage pictures, the tone of an actor’s voice, lighting, etc. These elements can provide clues that clarify the difficult parts of Shakespeare’s language. When reading a play in class, remind students that the English language has three end punctuation marks: periods, question marks and exclamation points. The arrangement of the verse and prose on the page can look confusing, but when I locate the end punctuation marks, I’m suddenly reminded that this is a language I understand—it’s just arranged on the page a bit differently. Ask students to mark the sentences with brackets when they encounter a particularly difficult passage; isolating sentences leads to identifying a character’s thoughts and ideas. Students will then understand the character’s meaning and intention in that particular moment.
3. Shakespeare provides all the information we need in the writing on the page.
If we spend ample time reading one of Shakespeare’s plays, we learn that all the clues we need to understand the play are there on the page in front of us. He gives us the setting of the action in the lines of the play, and has his characters tell us how they feel and why they behave a certain way. For example, we do not have to guess about Hamlet’s state of mind when he discovers the truth about the death of this father, because he tells us that he will “put an antic disposition on.” I like to work with young people on Shakespeare in performance because their often limited life experience does not detract from playing these characters. Since acting the play is not an exercise in emotion memory or sense memory (Shakespeare came before Stanislavski and his system of acting), young people can perform these plays effectively, simply by becoming adept storytellers. Of course, close connections to the experiences of the characters are certainly helpful, but by focusing on what the character says, an actor can discover what needs to be said and how it needs to be said in order for the story to unfold.
4. Shakespeare wrote his plays for a simple stage.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre did not have the capabilities of modern theaters. Theaters did not have helicopters flying in or sets that rotated by themselves. Therefore, Shakespeare had his characters tell the audience where they were, either in conversation with one another or in a speech directed to the audience. Oftentimes, the audience in Shakespeare’s time had to imagine the setting of a play more than we do today. Given this expectation of simplicity, Shakespeare’s plays can be staged in theatres, gymnasiums or classrooms. We don’t need fancy lighting or scenic elements or even extravagant costumes—we just need an actor or audience that’s willing to imagine what Shakespeare’s characters describe. If we encourage actors of all ages to see what they say as they say it, then young audiences will see the world of the play before them, as well.
5. Shakespeare’s characters are often superhuman or extraordinary, so they feel and act that way.
Shakespeare wrote his plays before the existence of modern psychology. While it helps to think about why a character behaves a certain way, Shakespeare did not always concern himself with logical reasoning. In the acting style of contemporary movies and television shows, the focus is usually on making sure that the audience “believes” a character and the choices that s/he makes in a given situation. In Shakespeare’s plays, characters are not confined to the same set of rules governing reality. In other words, our modern notions of what is realistic are very different from Shakespeare’s. The characters in his plays may make choices that seem very foreign to us, but those choices make sense within the worlds of Shakespeare’s plays. Given our diverse and ever-expanding society, this understanding of cultural context as it relates to Shakespeare can also help young people to recognize that their own points of reference are not the only way to experience the world. What we consider logical in New York City may seem very illogical in other parts of the United States and certainly in other parts of the world. As a result, people behave differently in different contexts, and having an increased awareness of that helps us to teach young people about tolerance and understanding within our growing, globalized society.
So why Shakespeare? Because the complexity of his work has survived the last four hundred years and still offers us opportunities to ask big questions about ourselves and the world around us. If we find ways to allow young people to ask these big questions in their own voices and to explore the plays with those questions in mind, then Shakespeare becomes a vehicle for greater understanding on so many levels. Like all of us, young people want to make meaning of the world around them, and when a complex, parallel world opens up for them, our own cacaphonous, fast-moving world might just become a little bit easier to navigate.
Joe Salvatore is a playwright and director and has been on the faculty of the Program in Educational Theatre since Fall 2002. He teaches courses in acting, directing, Shakespeare, applied theatre, new play development, and theatre pedagogy. Recent original plays include open heart (FringeNYC 2010) and III (FringeNYC 2008-Overall Excellence Award for Outstanding Play). Past directing projects for NYU include The Class Project, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, As You Like It, Polaroid Stories, Measure for Measure, Richard II, transfigured, Romeo and Juliet, Pericles, and 5 X Wilder: Plays from the Seven Deadly Sins Cycle by Thornton Wilder. Additional writing and directing credits can be viewed by clicking here.
Joe serves as the Artistic/Education Director for Learning Stages, an award-winning youth theatre company in southern New Jersey. He also consults for YoungArts, the signature program of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, directing regional performances in Los Angeles and Miami. From 2003-2009 Joe served as the curriculum consultant for Dance Theater Workshop's schooltime series, creating curriculum guides for twenty dance and theatre productions.
Joe’s publications include his play III in Best American Short Plays 2008-2009 (Applause), excerpts of his play open heart in Johnny Saldana's book, Ethnotheatre: Research from Page to Stage (Left Coast Press), with the full performance text available through the new digital theatre library, Indie Theater Now, and "Overcoming fear and resistance when teaching Shakespeare" in The Routledge International Handbook of English, Language and Literacy (Routledge).
Prior to joining the faculty at NYU, Joe worked as the Education and Humanities Manager at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Joe has also taught courses at Barnard College, Long Island University-Brooklyn campus, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.