In “Home-Thoughts, from Abroad,” Victorian poet Robert Browning declares wistfully, “Oh, to be in England / Now that April’s there . . .” Well, it’s April again, and this month would be an especially great time to be in England since it’s the four-hundred-year anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616. It’s also the month to celebrate his birth. We don’t know exactly when Will was born in 1564, but he arrived one day in April, and the rest is literary history.
Considering William Shakespeare’s contributions to world literature, it’s fitting that we should celebrate his birth and observe his passing, but interestingly enough, the writer, who has been dead for four hundred years, is still very much alive. He breathed his last in 1616, but he’s still with us. We read his poetry and watch his plays on stage and film. We quote passages from his work and use the expressions he coined. We make movies about his life and debate whether or not he actually wrote everything attributed to him. The idea that one man could produce such a brilliant, comprehensive, and compelling body of work is more than some critics can accept. How could anyone have been that good? they wonder. Here’s how: literary genius! That, and a complete and abiding understanding of human nature.
Shakespeare lives because his work endures, especially his plays. Among them are some of the most remarkable examinations of the human psyche to be found in world literature. Also among them are some of the most entertaining celebrations of human silliness. People can be really ridiculous, he often points out. From being plagued with tragic character flaws to being defined by amusing human foibles, Shakespeare’s characters reveal the human condition as it has always been and will always be.
When students first encounter a play by Shakespeare, their initial reactions are pretty predictable: “How can we read this since it’s written in a foreign language?” and “Why should we try?” They throw down the gauntlet, and the challenge must be met! The first order of business is to make Shakespeare relevant to students by pointing out that human nature doesn’t change. Ever. The feelings and conflicts explored in his plays are timeless and universal. Kids become more open to Shakespeare’s plays when they learn what he actually wrote about: love, death, violence, fear, friendship, betrayal, insecurity, greed, ambition, courage, desire, pride, revenge—and the ever-present conflict between parents and children. What could be more contemporary or more relevant to their lives than all that? Making students understand that their conflicts and feelings are not unique to them or to modern life is an important first step in introducing Shakespeare, and it’s arguably the most important reason for having them read his plays.
Another way to make Shakespeare relevant to kids is to bring him out of the seventeenth century and introduce him in a context they understand: Will was a celebrity, a media star! The most popular playwright in London, he entertained commoners, royalty, and everyone else in town. A Shakespeare play at the Globe was a hot ticket! If the Internet had existed in Shakespeare’s day, he would have been all over it, and who knows how many Twitter followers he would have had. Let students know why Shakespeare wrote his plays (for money) and for whom he wrote them (not English teachers). Let them get to know him as more than a guy with a pointy beard. Also, build an appreciation for Shakespeare as a playwright by pointing out what he had to work with in staging a production, or more precisely, what he didn’t have to work with—no lights, no sound system, and certainly no special effects. He had an essentially bare stage, and words.
For kids who haven’t mastered Elizabethan English—and that would be all of them—a Shakespearean play does indeed seem to be written in a foreign language. It’s filled with archaic words and expressions and obscure allusions. The syntax is confusing, and on top of that, the play is written almost entirely in iambic pentameter. No wonder they’re put off by it at first. It is, however, written in English. Most of Shakespeare’s vocabulary consists of standard English words, and much can be done to help students manage the language they don’t understand.
Most texts are annotated to explain the allusions and archaic expressions and to define especially challenging vocabulary words. All that is helpful, but the most effective way to make Shakespeare’s language seem less foreign and intimidating to students is to have them listen to the play while following the text, matching what they hear with what they read. An actor’s voice brings the words to life through dramatic interpretation, inflection, and tone. The more kids listen to Shakespeare, the more familiar his language becomes. They begin to catch the rhythm of it, and they soon recognize many of the expressions. After a while, they’re caught up in the drama or the comedy without having to understand every word.
Taking students into Shakespeare’s world, and bringing him into theirs, is a challenge, but the rewards are more than worth the effort. His having remained with us for four hundred years surely attests to that. Shakespeare lives, and kids deserve to meet him. They’ll love him! To borrow from Othello (1604), it’s a foregone conclusion!
This is a post from eNotes Staff Writer, Susan Hurn. Susan is a former high school English teacher and college instructor. She loves writing for eNotes and also enjoys good books, creative writing, and all things related to history. Let us know if you’re interested in contributing to the eNotes blog.