Teaching Shakespeare is not easy. On the first day of discussions of Twelfth Night, I asked the students, “Can you see any value in our studying Shakespeare?” Most chuckled and shook their heads. So I asked again, “Let’s use our imagination. What could we possibly get out of reading and learning Shakespeare?” and this time I got some better answers.
“It makes you figure things out,” one student said. “It forces you think about what you read. ‘Cause if you don’t, you don’t know what the hell’s going on,” another student said.
Yes it does! There are of course many things we learn from reading Shakespeare, but that’s one of the things that most non English major students can get out of it. It doesn’t have to be about memorizing the lines or understand poetry – although those are important too. What I really wanted them to get out of this experience was the reading and critical thinking skills. And while they’re at it, they can also enjoy a little poetry and a little drama.
For one class exercise, I asked them to work in pairs and translate an important speech from Twelfth Night into “modern text.” It was the speech given by Viola at the end of Act II. Of course, I know that Sparknotes’ No Fear Shakespeare offers this, so they were not allowed to use anything other than a dictionary and the textbook.
I could see that they enjoyed the exercise, and I could overhear many of them having heated discussions about what the words and the phrases were communicating. They were really slowing down their reading and trying to understand the context.
At the end, some of them went really “modern” – with slang and all – while most of them produced a clear prose that communicated the essence of the message. All in all, this was a fun exercise. What I didn’t get to do due to time but would like to have done is ask them to “perform” their versions. One of them could perform the original text and the other person in the pair could perform the modern version. I think that would have been fun too.
Bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century in this way could be seen as watering it down or taking out the essence of Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic feats. However, I feel that I have to first make it approachable for the students who are coming to it with fear and allergic reaction to Shakespeare. And this little exercise accomplished that in a small way. (Besides, I showed them a clip from She’s the Man, the Amanda Bynes movie based on Twelfth Night. And that really worked!)