In our article in the Summer 2022 issue of Educational Leadership, my colleague Ann C. Holm and I…
I was just 10 years old when I attended my first Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew. My guess is that buying a ticket for me was cheaper than hiring a sitter. There I was, though, up in the first row of the balcony of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater with one of my big brothers, watching Shakespeare.
I didn’t understand a single word of the first scene. I was not some sort of geeky, born-to-love-Shakespeare genius. I was truly wondering if staying awake was going to be worth it.
And then—something clicked in my brain. The language, the gestures, the plot, even the humor made sense. Katherina, Petruchio, Gremio, Bianca all came alive. It just took awhile for me to catch on.
My point? Shakespeare wrote his plays to be watched, not read.
When they’re well acted (huzzah for Kenneth Branagh and St. Crispin’s), students can enjoy them as intended. On paper, the words are foreign, stilted. Spoken, they can work their magic. Listen to a couple of examples of how Shakespeare sounded in the original to see what I mean!
I saw the same magic happen to high schoolers sitting in front of me at the Guthrie for As You Like It. I knew two of them from a research project I’d done at their school. “Yeah, Dr. Kise,” they said, “can you believe we’re going to have to sit through this whole dumb play?” Act I, they slouched in their seats. Act II, they sat up rather straight. At the intermission, they turned to me and said, “I can’t believe our teachers are letting us watch this—isn’t it like R-rated?” Act IV, they bowled over with laughter.
Yet how often do we make students read the plays before seeing even a movie clip? Assuming that they can’t understand it? Oh, let them learn Lear through Ian McKellen!
And while I’m on the subject, what about novels? If you’d lived 150 years ago, no one would have asked you to read the hot new book Bleak House by that Dickens fellow in just a few weeks. No, you’d have had to spread your reading out over 20 months, waiting for each installment.
Try downloading Bleak House and reading just a chapter a week (for me, the classics are easier on my e-readers, perhaps because the small text windows slow down my brain!). What happens to your speed, the images the descriptions conjure in your mind, your understanding of the dialogue nuances? It’s a different experience than when I read all 700 pages in a week for a college class.
That’s why I started a group at goodreads.com called Dickens as Writ. So far, members have chosen Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, or Nicholas Nickleby. Just a chapter a week. Chewing on the words and the messages and the art of his writing. Join us and post about your experience with these books or another of your own choosing.
And ponder where else we’ve taken something meant to be savored one way and turned it into torture by delivering it in a manner that sucks the life out of it.
What else might we be better off using as directed?