You WILL Survive. Popularising Shakespeare.

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David Tennant in the stunning 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet

As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?

However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.

Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone –  of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.

Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.

‘Too hard!’ they cry.

Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate.  Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!

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Gloria Gaynor is given a Shakespearean make-over in Erik Didriksen’s ‘Pop Sonnets’

This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.

Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

See also Shakespeare’s Words

 

 

 

 

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More Than One Way to Tell a Story

“All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”

Jean-Luc Godard

Queneau's iconic Exercises in Style

Very few people would dispute that there are some literary texts which are universally recognised as ‘classics’, some of the works of Shakespeare being obvious examples. What educated person could regard their education as complete without some experience of the works of the greatest writer in the history of the English language, whose lines have entertained, enlightened and moved us to tears for over four hundred years? Yet no other writer in history has had their texts re-worked in so many ways, from stage to film, musical to rap, ballet to opera, film to graphic novel. In 2010, members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in association with Mudlark, an internet and TV production company, presented a version of the play Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow as an improvised real-time series of tweets on the micro-blogging site Twitter, during which the performers engaged with the audience as well as each other, using YouTube to communicate images and video text.

What endures through all of these re-workings are two things: the beauty of the language and engagement with the narrative. But while the poetry and the flowing prose is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s, the story almost always isn’t. Versions of the tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’ for example had been entertaining readers and audiences for centuries before Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ it from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem – itself translated from the original Italian – and embellished it for the Elizabethan stage to mixed reviews (the diarist Samuel Pepys called it ‘a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life”).

The attraction of the narrative of course isn’t simply that we find it entertaining or ‘dramatic’, but that we are able to recognise in it some universal truths about the world and about ourselves, whether that truth is about age, death, love, lust, family obligations, gender roles, loyalty, or any of the narrative’s numerous other themes. To put it simply, it has many lessons to teach us about the meaning of life.

The narrative of Romeo and Juliet itself dates back at least as far as Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in the first century AD, a story of forbidden love which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep, but the earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale which we might recognise from the events of  Shakespeare’s play is the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, in the 33rd novel of his Il Novellino published in 1476. As Christopher Brooker would have it, Romeo and Juliet ‘unfolds precisely through the five stages of the tragic cycle’ and thereby fulfils the criteria for one of the seven basic plots.

As the example of Romeo and Juliet amply demonstrates, there is more than one way to tell a story, but how many are there exactly? In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau made a humorous attempt to answer the question in Exercises in Style, a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Standing on a crowded bus at midday, somewhere in Paris, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him. When a seat becomes vacant, the first man takes it. Later, the same man is observed in another part of the city with a friend who is advising him on the style of his overcoat.

A page from Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story

Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form through Cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives in 99 Ways to Tell a Story. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘Public Service Announcement’ and even ‘Paranoid Religious Tract’.

Experimenting with very short stories in the way that Queneau and Madden have done is a fun and engaging way to teach young  learners about narrative, and because the basic plot has to be as simple as possible, it is an inclusive exercise – everyone can try it. Similar success can also be found in setting young people challenges such as the Six-Word Story (where the writer has to compose a powerful story in only six words), the Six-Picture Story (the same exercise using six randomly selected pictures) and the 50-word mini-saga, in which writers have to compose a story of epic proportions in exactly fifty words, not a word more and not a word less.

For more on this topic see previous posts Every Picture Tells a Story and Stornoway Saga.

Midsummer Madness

What a wonderfully uplifting story in The Guardian this week about Grasmere Primary School’s outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not a ‘version’ of the play mind, nor ‘Shakespeare for Children’, but a full-blown production involving all 46 children in years 1-6.

Way beyond the capabilities of the average ten-year-old you may think, but in fact, far from fearing that the children would be unable to cope with what is an extremely demanding challenge for adults to pull off, the headteacher Johanna Goode put faith in ‘Shakespeare’s ability to talk to everyone’, a faith which paid high high dividends for the children, staff and parents of the small community set in the heart of the Lake District, and surrounded by the ghosts of another of England’s literary giants. What makes the story even more inspirational is that these children are not some priviliged elite, but the kind of children you might find at every other school in the country; a third of them are regarded as having ‘special educational needs’.

Reading the story I was reminded of an episode in my own teaching career. I had taken up my post as Depute Headteacher in a new school, and was pleased to discover that it would still involve some teaching duties ( a practice with which not all of my colleagues agreed, and which I understand is still the cause of much debate in secondary schools today). A few weeks into the term I was reflecting smugly on my ability to engage my fourth year class (15-16 year-olds) in the delights of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and happened to express this satisfaction at a departmental meeting. Sitting back to receive the accolades of my fellow teachers, I was met by a few seconds of silence, before the head of department asked with a mixture of shock and revulsion, ‘Don’t you know that Macbeth is a fifth-year play?’

This comment stuck with me – as you can tell – because it demonstrates everything that is wrong with an examination-driven curriculum, when young people ‘study’ Shakespeare from a page rather than a stage, and when we restrict the young person’s natural curiosity and creativity by pre-determining what we think they should be able to do at particular ages and stages. This is why I am so fully supportive of a curriculum which puts the learner at the centre, is described in terms of outcomes rather than inputs, and which sets ambitious targets  for all young people, no matter how challenging and messy that may be in the short term.

Read the full story, and watch a short film clip of Grasmere Primary School’s Midsummer Night’s Dream here.

Big Guns Line Up Behind CfE

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence received a massive boost this week when one of the 2oth Century’s greatest icons came out and declared his wholehearted support for the innovative reforms. The man whose working vocabulary is second only to that of Shakespeare, couldn’t hide his admiration for an education system which has always been seen to lead the way. Check out the video for yourself or create your own message.