An Introduction to Shakespeare

Slice of Life 2019: Day 13

So, teaching Act I of Romeo and Juliet to a class of mostly ninth grade boys at nine am on a Wednesday the first week of Daylight Saving Time went better than expected. Of course, everyone was half asleep upon entering the room. I saw some nasty looks, like I had ruined their life by assigning such a boring and useless piece of literature. One student’s eyes were half opened while he leaned into his chair and yawned.

“What have you heard about Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.

My class of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds responded with this list:

I hate Shakespeare

The language is confusing

The language is complex

Shakespeare stole his ideas from somebody else

Shakespeare worked with another person to write his plays

Reading Shakespeare is like reading a foreign language

R & J has too much drama

The lovers are too young

I can’t understand any of this

My mom let me listen to it on Audible

I knew with a list like this, I had my work cut out for me. The first challenge: give a quiz to find out who finished the homework reading of Act I. Just as I suspected, only about two students understood the plot. I took off my jacket and got to work.

Next, on the board, I projected the article, “10 Reasons To Try Reading Shakespeare, If You’ve Somehow Avoided It Until Now” by Charlotte Ahlin over at Bustle.com. This media piece has fun images and basically states what we all know is true: Shakespeare is relevant because you already use his language and watch shows inspired by his plots.

After demystifying Shakespeare’s sentence structure, word choices and poetic language, we talked about the sophisticated nature of his audience. Only men were actors. Plays took place during the day. People got married at 14 and 15 back then because you only lived until 49. A Shakespeare play was their Game of Thrones. Now everyone was awake.

Then, it was time for some reader’s theater. I had more volunteers than I had parts. They read Tybalt and Benvolio’s part with vigor and excitement! The class was roaring with laughter when we got to the bawdy scene in Act I where Gregory says, “Draw they tool! here comes two of the house of the Montagues” (1.1, 31 – 23) and Sampson answers, “My naked weapon is out” (1.1, 33 – 34). They got it and faces were red. I kept my mouth shut, turned the page and smiled.

After wrapping up the oral reading, we watched the 6 minute opening to Franco Zeffirelli’s R & J where the street brawl, complete with swashbuckling sword fight, comes to a head on the streets of Verona. They were hooked.

At the end of the period, I saw bright eyes and smiles along with laughter and few jokes on the way out the door. I think they are now ready for Act 2.

Next week, I’m hoping a good dose of Shakespearean punnery and insults will again rouse the class from its slumber.

Image result for shakespeare

8 thoughts on “An Introduction to Shakespeare

  1. I was thinking about Shakespearean insults as a great way to hook kids into Shakespesre’s language. Love that you’re using reader’s theater. Have you tried other performance techniques? “Shakespeare Set Free,” a publication from the Folger Shakespeare Library, has wonderful resources for R&J, beginning w/ a cool stomping activity to teach the prologue.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The Folger offers a variety of PD, including a month long NEH workshop in Washington D.C. The next one is summer 2020. It’s an amazing experience.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. How great that you could break through and hook them into Shakespeare!! I couldn’t think of anything worse than trying to teach a group of boys of that age, but wonderful that you could and did! I do confess that Shakespeare sometimes doesn’t seem to fit, especially here in India as a set author for older classes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand that. It’s a stretch, although worth it, even here. Modern media has made it easier. I remember trying to do this in the 90’s before movie clips and online resources were available and it was challenging

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  3. Stumbling through some of your past slices here before I have to run out with my boys, and you’ve got me hooked. Oh how I love me some Bard and you coupled that with adolescent boys not keen on learning Romeo & Juliet. This is like my short, literary Netflix binge. You even had me look that article up even though I remember reading it! This is great though and makes me wish I was a fly on the wall of this class. Thank you for doing us all the service of educating them on what really matters in general acadmics 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by and sticking around. That article is great and I’m adding it to my annual repertoire of intro activities with the Bard. We’ll see if any of these preparations worked when we get to Act II. Check back around mid week!

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