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Hellen Mirren Against Reading Shakespeare in Schools

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macbeth
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https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Helen-Mirren-Believes-that-Shakespeare-Should-Not-Be-Taught-in-Schools-20201125

My own school memories (from the 70s/80s) were getting more enjoyment out of watching the films after finishing reading the plays in class... but it's not all about enjoyment then, is it? 

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JBroadway
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Speaking as a massive Shakespeare fan: I think there’s some truth to what she’s saying. I adore Shakespeare, and yet I can’t remember the last time I sat down and read a Shakespeare play for pleasure. It’s much better experiencing it in performance. And I do know lots of people, including die-hard theatre people, who were turned off from Shakespeare after reading it in school.

I don’t necessarily agree that eliminating the literary component entirely is the right way to go about it though. Surely it still has some value as literature.

Maybe it depends on the age and the setting; My 1st exposure to Shakespeare in an academic setting was in 7th grade Humanities, and while we learned about the text, and read R&J, the teacher strongly emphasized the historical+performance perspectives (we also watched the movies). It wasn’t until I was a Junior in high school that I really started studying it as literature, which I did mostly enjoy. In retrospect, maybe the trajectory I had was the most beneficial to my long-term enjoyment of Shakespeare.
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HogansHero
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I have been saying this for years. I definitely think it has done more harm than good. 

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Jordan Catalano
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Nothing can make a kid hate Shakespeare more than having to sit in a classroom for a week hearing 14 year olds try to pronounce words they’ve never heard before.
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Jordan Catalano
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You know in “Pretty Woman” when Edward takes Vivian to the opera and she asks how she’ll understand it since it’s in Italian and he says -
“You’ll know. Believe me, you’ll understand. The music’s very powerful”.
I feel the same way about Shakespeare. You cant make someone really appreciate it by just reading it, especially someone who won’t understand the words. It needs to be seen to be fully understood and appreciated.
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fashionguru_23
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Grade 9 English class was my first exposer to Shakespeare, and I absolutely loved it. It was a bit challenging at first, but I thought the stories were so compelling and interesting. 

What bothers me (and this was an issue throughout high school and university) was the coversations that started with, "what do you think Shakespeare is trying to say by writing [insert line here]?" The analysis of every word, line, or idea having a double meaning, or trying to force ideas of what Shakespeare meant when in fact there may not be a basis to it. 

"Ok ok ok ok ok ok ok. Have you guys heard about fidget spinners!?" ~Patti LuPone
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joevitus
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Jordan Catalano said: "You know in “Pretty Woman” when Edward takes Vivian to the opera and she asks how she’ll understand it since it’s in Italian and he says -
“You’ll know. Believe me, you’ll understand. The music’s very powerful”.
I feel the same way about Shakespeare. You cant make someone really appreciate it by just reading it, especially someone who won’t understand the words. It needs to be seen to be fully understood and appreciated.
"

Only problem with the Pretty Woman quote is, it's false. Almost no one just sitting there listing to an opera they know nothing about is going to understand it based on the music. That's why so many people, prior to the advent of supertitles were bored out of their skulls. They were dragged by people who did love and knew opera (or at least wanted to be seen at the opera) and had almost zero idea what was going on.

Mirren's comments were well-stated in that they were purposely vague. I mean, sure, it would be best to see the plays, as they were meant to be seen, not read. Kinda obvious. But is reading Shakespeare in a good class better than seeing Shakespeare in a bad production? Doubtful. Is taking kids to see Shakespeare with no preparation for the plots or Elizabethan language really going to result in instilling a love a Shakespeare? Again, not likely.

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speaking as someone who has taken my fair share of kids to their first exposure to Shakespeare, I think you underestimate them. Although of course there are teachers who manage to create an enriching experience, a random sampling of adults not involved in the theatre will tell you it's boring, and that assessment is most often based 100% on their 9th grade class

A.J.
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Mixed feelings here. 

I would agree that for the typical English student, a movie or live production would provide a much more efficient understanding of the text. 

That being said, there’s so much historic context and deeper meaning that can be learned from going line-by-line. 

Perhaps Shakespeare should be taught as a supplement to an English curriculum, rather than a core feature. 
 

 

 

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Charley Kringas Inc
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Shakespeare should be taught as a supplement, absolutely, or in classes that are specifically focusing on either that era of literature or on theatrical writing in general. I had to suffer through a Shakespeare play in almost every English class I had in middle and high school, which usually entailed listening to other students stumbling through dialogue so slowly that the words lost their meaning, and the teacher asking opaque questions that typically elicited confused silence. Even as a theatre nerd and a big reader, it was impossible to glean anything from any of these sessions.

The biggest issue is that Shakespeare requires translation by skilled actors, and it's really magical seeing a great production because of that effect of translation. Think of how funny the Rylance production of Twelfth Night was, and then read the same scenes for yourself and consider the amount of interpretation it takes to mine all that meaning, and communicate it to the audience! The fact that the taught approach to Shakespeare is inevitably to end with a viewing of the play, after laboriously crawling through the text, is so absurd.

We were also never taught why we were reading Shakespeare, or just about any other thing, just that we had to read it because it had to be read. Of course, it's going to be difficult for any teacher to wrangle thirty-plus disinterested fifteen-year-olds into a philosophical epiphany about why reading anything at all is valuable. But still, if you show students a piece of Shakespeare that they can understand and enjoy, and then go back and take a look at the text, you'll likely have a greater chance of helping them understand the potential meaning and impact of language they aren't necessarily able to immediately grasp. Going the other way around is like asking them to analyze a calculus equation, and then telling them why they're wrong.
Updated On: 11/25/20 at 01:25 PM
theatreguy12
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It depends on how and where it's taught.

I spent many years as a teacher and I "moonlighted" as the musical director at our school using a wide variety of MTI materials over the years as well.

I taught a gifted class though and I was expected to expand their learning to include topics and studies that went beyond the curriculum. I was also expected to teach with attention to depth and complexity.  I had 5th and 6th graders reading at the high school and even college levels.  Maturity-wise would they have been able to understand the Bard in its original text.  Maybe to some degree some of them could have, but not entirely.

Still, I took a child's versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, reconfigured it in to play form and had my kids perform the play on our school's stage.  This was when I taught a 4/5 combo.   The kids ate it up.

Was it Shakespeare in its original text?  No.   But they got the idea of who he was.  Why he was considered a great writer.   What the play was about.  And they related to it.

In my post unit exam on the play, and on Shakespeare himself, most of the kids got 100%.    Some even came back to me five years later and said they were studying AMND in high school, and while it was challenging to read it in its original form, they already had background knowledge of the play, and who Shakespeare was.   This facilitated their understanding of it.   Even 5 years later.

I understand what Mirren is saying, but again, it all depends on how you're implementing the study of Shakespeare. 

Sunny11
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The first time I remember truly liking Shakespearean language was while watching Leonardo DiCaprios Romeo and Juliet movie. Hearing it properly from talented actors made such a big difference. It sounded beautiful and poetic and the visuals helped to understand what was going on when you didn’t understand the dialogue. I agree that making teenagers painfully read passages out aloud in class is a bad method. I hated those classes.
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^ Yesssss
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Charley Kringas Inc
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This thread brought back something I had completely forgot about, which was the time in ninth grade I went to a local Shakespeare in the Park performance of Romeo and Juliet and it (lol) made me cry so hard I couldn't talk all the way back to the car.
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Fan123
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When I learned Shakespeare in school, I found it tedious as long as I tried to pause and look up the footnotes for every word or phrase I didn't understand. But I discovered that if I just read on without worrying about understanding every nuance, I got into the swing of it after a scene or two, and got caught up in the plot machinations etc. While I didn't particularly notice it at the time, I suppose having to do Shakespeare at school did teach me something about approaching 'difficult' content in alternative ways so as to find a way into it.

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HogansHero said: "speaking as someone who has taken my fair share of kids to their first exposure to Shakespeare, I think you underestimate them. Although of course there are teachers who manage to create an enriching experience, a random sampling of adults not involved in the theatre will tell you it's boring, and that assessment is most often based 100% on their 9th grade class"

A random sampling of kids taken to see a production will tell you the same.

I say this as one who 1) grew up in the theater loving Shakespeare and 2) was a college English professor (and I think the majority of my students enjoyed when we did Shakespeare). 

But really, such generalities mean nothing. Taking a kid to a good production can be very effective. Assigning Shakespeare in a class run by a good teacher can be very effective. It all depends on the student, the environment and a ton of other things. 

The big issue is that it would be disastrous for an institution dedicated to learning not to teach Shakespeare. Familiarity with Shakespeare is a fundamental part of being what is called being educated. Helen Mirren herself no doubt first encountered Shakespeare in the classroom. 

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It was probably ninth grade when my so-called advanced English class started reading Shakespeare. We loved it. Had so much fun with all the famous quotes. For a few weeks after we would go around quoting Shakespeare from out of the blue: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look, he thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”

We thought this was hilarious and on March 15 we would go around saying “Beware the Ides of March” and our 11th grade English teacher made everyone memorize the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech from MacBeth. I had already memorized it from the year before when we had first read MacBeth. It was just such a sublime use of the English language.
 

But when we did go to see a live production of As You Like It at the local college, it was a better and more fulfilling exposure to the man. And I sometimes go back and read specific scenes such as those with Falstaff in Henry IV, but I admit that I have no interest in reading a whole play for pleasure.

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There's a growing movement in American education to reduce the amount of Shakespeare taught in schools. While his work is significant to the literary canon, the language can be so inaccessible that students do not absorb as much knowledge out of it as we'd wish. The more successful teachers I know will book the auditorium in the school and have students actually act out the show onstage with props and a lot of direction from the teacher. A few others do well with having students film adapted scenes and piecing that together as a text to analyze as a class.

I love teaching Shakespeare in a theatre course, but not in an English classroom. Even then, I'm using scenes, abridged versions, or even adaptations. I would only teach a few sonnets in the English classroom if the curriculum allowed it, as they're more digestible, easier to breakdown, and feature the same literary elements that make schools force 14 year olds to monotone their way through Macbeth or Hamlet.

What I've done in the past is provide my students with a summary of the story, have them watch a close enough to accurate filmed production a few scenes at a time, and then have them go at the text for deeper analysis. It's what I do for any theatrical text older than Our Town. The difference even in that play between just teaching the text and having the students watch then analyze is astonishing.

This is a long way of saying I agree with Hellen Mirren here. If we're going to teach Shakespeare in school, it has to be absorbed as a performative text (and not performed by the students) before it can be studied as a literary text.
Updated On: 11/26/20 at 09:20 AM
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@joevitus "It all depends on the student, the environment and a ton of other things." That is unquestionably true as is the notion that not teaching it is an option. I think my point would be that we need a means of teaching it that has as much quality control as possible, and that is demonstrably not achieved by having it taught as literature the way it largely has been by teachers who are not equipped to do anything else.  

Leading me to agree fully with trentsketch that "If we're going to teach Shakespeare in school, it has to be absorbed as a performative text (and not performed by the students) before it can be studied as a literary text."

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When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher wanted to work on Shakespeare with us. She decided against starting us off with Romeo and Juliet, simply because she felt that it’s overdone in high schools and wanted to mix things up a bit. So, the first play I worked on/learned about from that class was Merchant of Venice.

While we went around reading the different characters, by virtue of hearing the words spoken, that increased our understanding of what is going on. Also, it lead to some interesting conversations. Such as, was Shakespeare really anti Semitic regarding the character of Shylock. Or, was he just writing about the world around him. And, we also discussed this based on the fact that in the stage directions, for Shylock, his name isn’t mentioned. Instead it said enter Jew, not enter Shylock. 

Then, Junior year we worked on Hamlet, and we as a class both found them interesting. 

Personally, I think that, specially at the high school level, there are topics that go on in the plays that can lead to great discussion involving critical thinking. And, there are ways for a student to learn that rather than just being able to understand the way Shakespeare wrote. For example, Spark Notes makes books of all Shakespeare’s plays with one page being written out the way it was initially by the Bard, the other, had the text written in modern English.

Islander_fan
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When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher wanted to work on Shakespeare with us. She decided against starting us off with Romeo and Juliet, simply because she felt that it’s overdone in high schools and wanted to mix things up a bit. So, the first play I worked on/learned about from that class was Merchant of Venice.

While we went around reading the different characters, by virtue of hearing the words spoken, that increased our understanding of what is going on. Also, it lead to some interesting conversations. Such as, was Shakespeare really anti Semitic regarding the character of Shylock. Or, was he just writing about the world around him. And, we also discussed this based on the fact that in the stage directions, for Shylock, his name isn’t mentioned. Instead it said enter Jew, not enter Shylock. 

Then, Junior year we worked on Hamlet, and we as a class both found them interesting. 

Personally, I think that, specially at the high school level, there are topics that go on in the plays that can lead to great discussion involving critical thinking. And, there are ways for a student to learn that rather than just being able to understand the way Shakespeare wrote. For example, Spark Notes makes books of all Shakespeare’s plays with one page being written out the way it was initially by the Bard, the other, had the text written in modern English.

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joevitus
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HogansHero said: "@joevitus "It all depends on the student, the environment and a ton of other things." That is unquestionably true as is the notion that not teaching it is an option. I think my point would be that we need a means of teaching it that has as much quality control as possible, and that is demonstrably not achieved by having it taught as literature the way it largely has been by teachers who are not equipped to do anything else.

Leading me to agree fully with trentsketch that "If we're going to teach Shakespeare in school, it has to be absorbed as a performative text (and not performed by the students) before it can be studied as a literary text."
"

I think this is nonsense, but I think absolutes in general are nonsense--which has been my essential point all along. 

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joevitus
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trentsketch said: "There's a growing movement in American education to reduce the amount of Shakespeare taught in schools. While his work is significant to the literary canon, the language can be so inaccessible that students do not absorb as much knowledge out of it as we'd wish."

I really hope they don't reduce it, but then American schools (even colleges) seem to earnestly want to evolve into trade schools, so I can't say I'm surprised. The idea of teaching beauty and finding the truths meaningful to oneself in works of art and beauty is the least of their concerns. 

The language is not inaccessible. It's difficult, which is different. It's highly wrought and makes you reach, as all good poetry does. 

How many people ever "absorb as much knowledge" as is contained in Shakespeare's plays "as we'd wish"? That's how you turn art into a test, and rob it of its best qualities. 

Updated On: 11/26/20 at 04:46 PM
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joevitus, the inaccessible argument is more complex than struggling with hard language. We teach Romeo & Juliet as a starter text because it's about younger characters. Everything is framed as star crossed lovers and romance with a couple fights. That's already an oversimplification of the text to try to make it connect with the high school audience.

Reading the work with no context for its rhythm, its style, and how it's staged is what makes it inaccessible. No play was meant to be read like a novel, yet that's how we teach them. Even having read alouds assumes that students are going to easily keep up with the different formatting of the text and still be able to take notes and really absorb the literary elements they're meant to be studying. Playing a scene first before reading it offers context that helps some students understand what they're reading. It also presents the text in its intended format: as a performance.

The typical curriculum does not build in time to teach students how to read and understand the elements of a play beyond "Plays have acts and scenes. Italicized text is stage directions. Now read this and analyze it at the same time. Paper's due in two weeks." Combine that with dialogue that is poetry and written in English that does not really resemble how we speak anymore and you hit the issue of students learning to hate Shakespeare before they understand it.

It's a problem that extends beyond Shakespeare and goes into how we teach classic literature in English class. Any non-contemporary text starts to face those same issues, going as far back as Beowulf and into the early 1900s. This is not to say there is no place for classic literature study. Of course there is. It should not be the starting point for forms like plays in schools and they certainly shouldn't be the only plays taught, which in many districts across the country is the case. These same lessons we're trying to teach in reading comprehension, writing, argumentation, and analysis can be taught through newer texts with high literary value that don't result in schools buying whatever the new "translation" of the text is to teach instead. That is where the change is happening in literary pedagogy at a high school level.
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It doesn't matter whether any play was "written to be read," the fact is what Shakespeare wrote is greater than any production of any of his plays will ever be, and the plays do read extraordinarily well on their own.

"Rhythm, style and how it's staged" are all pretty empty arguments, as we don't remotely stage these works as they were written to be staged, the verbal rhythm of language in Shakespeare's day was closer to the Appalachian Mountains than "proper" mid-Atlantic British, or even the standard American speech of the average U.S. production (although you may be referring to the "correct" rhythm when reading blank verse, though really that's all wrong--the whole point of blank verse was that it mimicked realistic speech better than other forms of verse). You certainly aren't getting Shakespeare's "rhythm, style and how it's staged" from either Laurence Harvey's Romeo or Leonardo DiCaprio's (though they are both good in their very different ways).

Once again, watching a movie or stage production of Shakespeare is great, and I'd encourage it, but I don't think it's inherently any better than a classroom reading or private reading. It just depends on circumstances, and the given student, as well as the given teacher or production or movie. It may, though, be a mistake in that it will seem to force an interpretation on kids rather than letting them figure out for themselves who the characters are or what the works mean. We're all still finding for ourselves what these works mean (that they continue to generate new meaning for us each time we read them is essential to their greatness), and to give students the false idea that there's a set "right" way to interpret the characters of the "meaning" of the works doesn't do the students or Shakespeare much justice.