Old texts, new perspectives

When Go Set a Watchman was published, it seemed that To Kill A Mockingbird was ruined for us. When Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet placed “To be or not to be” at the very start of the play, it was sacrilege. But this is part of the beauty of literature, that the words on the page never change but our perspectives can. Kenny Pieper, in this lovely post on reading Go Set a Watchman, writes:

Over time we change, experience and age altering our outlooks, and that is reflected in the way we read.When we re-read old favourites we don’t merely repeat the process because we have changed; our background knowledge has increased, our life experiences enhanced. So, like Jean Louise, we might return there but it can never be the same.

English teachers will visit the same texts many times in their careers and every time that we reteach a text, we reread it. Each time we will spot those differences- sometimes subtle, sometimes transformative- that keep things from ever getting stale.

Experiences

As we learn more about the world, our perspectives change. I spent a couple of days in Venice this summer and of course I thought of The Merchant of Venice throughout my stay. Navigating the intricate streets, I was both fascinated and claustrophobic. I often had no idea where I was- thankfully I was never too far from a sign. Perhaps other factors such as the intense summer heat and the swarms of tourists exacerbated this feeling of oppression. I could see echoes of this in so many of the characters, most of whom are trapped in some way: Antonio, trapped by his lack of capital; Jessica, trapped by her father (and Portia trapped by hers); Shylock literally and figuratively trapped by his religion. I thought of Belmont (which in my mind was a mountain visible in the distance) as a place that was so far removed from this place that Bassanio would do anything to be there. I loved the bustle of the Rialto bridge and the romance of the canals. When I teach the play again, I will approach it quite differently. (I can’t say that going to King’s Cross has changed my perspective on Harry Potter though.)

Choices

This year, like every year of my career, I am teaching Macbeth. The scheme of work starts inevitably with Act 1 Scene 1 but I don’t think that the scene with the witches is particularly interesting. It is fairly dramatic, and there are some language elements worth picking apart, but I feel that it is all fairly superficial. So I did a Cumberbatch of my own and started with Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 5 Scene 5: “Tomorrow and tomorrow…” It is one of the best passages in any Shakespeare play, it deals with the human condition as well as anything and is a perfectly formed poem in itself. It demonstrates Shakespeare’s wordplay and use of metaphor. It also leads students into the question of how he ended up like this and serves the study of Macbeth as a tragic hero much better. By changing the starting point, I changed the whole relationship students have with the play. It is framed as a play about a person, rather than a play about witches.

Time

Another thing that is hard to avoid is how time changes the way we read texts. Characters who were once much older than us become younger and our relationship with them changes as a result. Our political opinions change, our passions change, our circumstances change. A poem which has changed for me is So Many Summers by Norman MacCaig, one I always find a way to teach. It’s a simple poem, where the speaker passes a boat and the body of a deer every year on his fishing trip. The last stanza is:

Time adds one malice to another one–
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Year after year, I have taught this poem, one I first read when I was at school. Just like the speaker, the hind and the boat are still there for me, year after year, so the message of the poem becomes more resonant each time I come back to it.

Even though these are the same texts for us, our students are meeting them for the first time, and viewing them from their perspectives, so this poem is an entirely different poem for them. They see the speaker, and the boat, and the hind, for the very first time. Yet their perspectives, far from being naïve or simplistic, help to keep our texts exciting and new. The cries of “oh no” that came from a couple of students as we read the end of Of Mice and Men reminded me that these texts can always surprise. It is great to hear their fresh opinions on texts that you take for granted- I have lost count of the amount of times a comment from a pupil has changed what I think about a character or a simile or a theme.

Whatever we read, our perspectives are routinely changed. Does Orson Scott Card’s homophobia change the fact that I enjoyed Ender’s Game? Does knowledge of Steven King’s addiction invite a more favourable interpretation of The Tommyknockers? Most importantly, and I know that this isn’t ‘literature’, but does this article on Jar Jar Binks as a kung fu master change everything we thought we knew about The Phantom Menace?

Shakespeare and the perception of incomprehensibility

First FolioFor many students, Shakespeare feels beyond their capabilities and the language seems completely inaccessible. But Shakespeare’s language isn’t really the problem- the majority of words are pretty familiar. The problem is caused by the things that students have to cut through: cognitive overload and the perception of incomprehensibility. Once these are addressed, Shakespeare’s language becomes much more straightforward.

Reducing cognitive load

For me, the biggest problem with studying Shakespeare is the wealth of knowledge students need to make sense of everything. Not simply vocabulary but the poetry, unfamiliar concepts, classical allusions, strange pronunciation, jokes which we can’t understand, topical references etc. Many things need to be known in order for a student to fully understand a scene and we can’t just point them all out as we read. Students need to be able to focus on the text without having to juggle a million new concepts. If they have too much to take on, they don’t understand the text and all those old prejudices rear their head.

I would therefore always start by watching the play. In an ideal world this would be in the theatre but most likely it’ll mean a film version. In starting with the complete play, students have the overview of plot, characters, themes etc. This means that the language is more accessible because they can contextualise it. There’s an argument that this spoils the reading of the text. However, surely the knowledge that Romeo and Juliet are doomed is crucial to our understanding of everything that happens before. And let’s face it, Shakespeare tells us that anyway in the prologue!

We should also endeavour to pre-teach some concepts which will unlock key sections of the text. Suppose we were studying The Merchant of Venice. Bassanio describes Portia:

Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia:
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

Students who had previously been introduced to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece would be able to spot the connection. Reading this extract without that knowledge would completely change the meaning of ‘golden fleece’ and ‘Jasons’. Having to stop here and explain that story takes the students out of the language long enough for them to become disconnected. Shakespeare needs to economically introduce Portia’s status as ‘prize’, establish Belmont as a special, almost mythical place and lead in to the sub-plot of the casket quest. An allusion to the Greek myth does that job beautifully but we miss it all if we don’t fully understand that myth.

This ‘pre-teaching’ can be integrated into the curriculum. For example, in year 7, our students spend time studying Theseus and The Minotaur in one scheme and then read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which begins with Egeus taking his daughter to Theseus. Instantly, students understand the great authority Theseus wields because they can make the connection. These two examples just happen to be on Greek mythology but there are obviously other examples.

The curriculum needs to be carefully designed to offer these opportunities to prepare for Shakespeare. A poetry scheme of work could easily include Anne Hathaway by Carol Ann Duffy. A scheme on Blood Brothers could contain lessons on fate and tragedy. Rhetoric could be studied in Animal Farm before reading the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice. Vocabulary homework from the previous term could be designed around difficult words to be encountered in the play. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of new information is worthwhile.

The perception of incomprehensibility

Sometimes the biggest barrier is simply the perception that Shakespeare’s language is impossibly difficult so we have to address that. It is helpful to start with something which suggests the simplicity of Shakespeare’s language. Sonnet 130 is a great introduction, as it combines simple ideas and allows students that moment where they ‘get it’. From there, we can unpick other features of the poem without any fear of the language.

Another ‘way in’ to Shakespeare’s language is to choose a part of the play where the audience is being directly addressed, a soliloquy or chorus (more often a character serving the function of the chorus). While Shakespeare is an amazing wordsmith, we can’t forget that he is writing for the stage. Every line is there to convey something to the audience. Ben Crystal, in ‘Shakespeare on Toast’, writes: “People write in sentences, they speak in thoughts.” If students can unlock each thought then they can make sense of complex language and ideas. Take this from Act 5 Scene 5 of Macbeth, following Lady Macbeth’s death:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In this soliloquy we get a glimpse into Macbeth’s mind. Each of his thoughts (colour coded) is relatively simple. Looking at the soliloquy like this does cut through that perception of complexity that puts students off. Then each ‘thought’ can be explored, the language analysed and the structure becomes clearer e.g. the layering of metaphors jumps out.

Sometimes there is a temptation to change the words but we should expect all students to study Shakespeare’s language. If you change Shakespeare’s language then you distort the meaning, you lose the rhythm, you lose the rich imagery and characters lose their ‘voice’. For me, it is the one non-negotiable aspect of studying Shakespeare. If you change the language then why study Shakespeare at all?

Shakespeare’s language isn’t always easy to unlock but hopefully these things help to cut through any distractions. I definitely feel that I’m still learning when it comes to teaching Shakespeare but I know that my students’ attitudes towards Shakespeare are changing. There is a real sense of achievement to succeeding in something difficult which was previously thought of in very negative terms. I also feel that the enjoyment of understanding a complex text is much better than simplifying things to make it more ‘fun’.

Further reading:

ToastShakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal is useful and insightful. His Springboard Shakespeares  are short and packed full of ideas to support teaching.

Here is everything Chris Curtis has written on Shakespeare.