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Teaching Shakespeare

Engaging students in the playwright’s work
Guardian Staff Reporter

Published: Sep 18, 2013

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Teaching Shakespeare in the school system can be a challenge for any teacher.

The first barrier usually is the language. Students resist it like the plague. But that doesn’t have to be the case, teachers argue.

William Shakespeare, who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in the early 1560s, is considered one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language.

He wrote his plays in poetry, in the iambic pentameter to be specific. Juxtapose that to an average 12 or 15 year old who has never read a line of poetry, or a book, and the problem becomes a glaring one.

“Part of the problem is that we don’t realize that English in general is a second language for Bahamians,” said Dr. Nicolette Bethel.

“We don’t value our own specific language and therefore we teach English as though it should be a natural thing for our students when it isn’t.

“Then we don’t recognize the kind of shift that people have to make when they have to engage in more archaic English.”

Bethel, who has a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature, and is a playwright, has taught the bard in both public high schools on New Providence and at The College of The Bahamas.

She is also the festival director for Shakespeare In Paradise, a theater festival that has taken place every October since 2009.

In 2011, some 3,000 Bahamian students saw a play from the festival.

When she begins preparing to teach Shakespeare, Bethel said she reminds herself that Shakespeare is meant to be performed as a piece of drama and not as literature.

“I tell them the story because Shakespeare’s stories are cool,” she joked.

“You get them interested in the people because the people are so very complex.

“The stories are universal. Shakespeare’s stories are fresh, they are new, they are not bound by the time that he puts them in.

“They are about human activity. Hamlet is about what happens if you procrastinate. That’s how I teach Hamlet to college students – that if you procrastinate you might kill everybody.”

Dr. Toni Francis, a professor of English studies at The College of The Bahamas, said she uses the plays she thinks students will enjoy the most.

“It helps to love it,” she joked.

“It helps to get students more engaged. One of the things to do is to find those plays for which you can get some enjoyment.

“Selecting a modern English version text of the play may be a way to get past the resistance and getting to where you can focus on the story and not have to worry about the language.”

Both teachers agreed that Shakespeare should always be taught as a piece of drama.

And when it comes to which group is easier to teach, Bethel said high school students, in her opinion, are more easily drawn to the work.

“Macbeth is one of the best Shakespeare plays to teach to high school students because it has witches, it has serial killers and it has ghosts,” she said.

“It’s just your typical horror movie and high school students, in my experience, get off on horror.

“Attack them with what they like.”

But why teach Shakespeare? There are thousands of other writers who have contributed to drama and literature.

“His work constitutes some of the best examples of drama at its best, of literary art that we have,” Francis said.

“Also by teaching Shakespeare we allow students to critically engage in some of the difficult aspects of everyday life.

“Shakespeare is also very useful to talk about history.”

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