Just in time for October, I’m offering an online class for kids ages 13-18 about Shakespeare’s most spooky and cursed play:
If you follow this blog you know I’ve written a lot about this play before. Though this class will be more like a game where I teach the class using multimedia, games, and a digital escape room!
I’ll start by speaking to the students in character as Shakespeare, and tell them the story of Macbeth using a multimedia presentation.
I will then test the students’ knowledge with a fun quiz that was inspired by the popular mobile game Among Us. As you know, the game is similar to a scene from the play, so I thought it would be an appropriate way to test the kids’ knowledge.
The final part of the class is a digital escape room I’ve created. I don’t want to give too much away, and you can’t play it unless you sign up for the class, but let’s just say it’s fun, spooky, educational, and challenging!
If you want to sign up now, the course is available every weekend in October, and then by request after that. Register now at Outschool.com. if you take the course, please leave me a good review.
I’ve been working on a remote learning class for Outschool.com where I take some of the audition advice I wrote in Creating A Character: Macbeth, and some of the other acting posts I’ve published over the years. This will be a weekly virtual acting course for kids ages 13-18, starting September 12th at 10AM EST.
This class will outline the tools and techniques of Shakespearean acting such as projection, articulation, and imagination. Each We’ll also go over Shakespeare’s own advice on acting in his play “Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.” The course will culminate with the students choosing their own Shakespearean monologues and scenes, which they can use going forward in auditions, school plays, and classes.
The best thing about the course is that each week builds on the previous week’s experience, but you don’t need to go to all of them. I’ll be flexible and work with the student’s schedule so everyone gets as much out of the class as possible.
If you’re interested in signing up, go to Outschool.com. If you have any questions, email me by clicking here:
“She’s got…it, hasn’t she? The pestilence?” (O’Farrell, 105). As this quote, (and the subtitle) suggests, Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet: A Novel About the Plague, focuses on the terror surrounding the plague and its devastating consequences on families. I really respect this book for its historical authenticity, it’s clever prose, and O’Farrell’s command of style, but I should warn you that this novel is definitely not for breezy summer reading.
If you are looking for a novel about William Shakespeare, this isn’t it; the Bard only appears in flashbacks. The action mainly concerns his wife and children. While Will was living and working in London for most of the year, his family lived in Stratford Upon Avon, along with the playwright’s mother and father. The novel has follows the characters across two times: 1582, when Shakespeare and his wife first met, courted and married, and around 1595, during an outbreak of plague that would (Spoiler Alert) eventually claim the life of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet.
The novel has a very dour tone, but that is by design. The author herself writes that the premise of the book was to create a realistic (albeit fictional) account of the Shakespeare family as their only son fell sick and died.
The premise is intriguing from a historical point of view. We have no diaries or correspondence that express how the Shakespeares dealt with this catastrophic loss, but many scholars believe that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was a direct homage to his son, since in Elizabethan England the names Hamlet and Hamnet were used interchangeably. Still, it must have effected Will in other ways, and it had to have had an effect on Hamnet’s mother and sisters, and that was O’Farrell’s focus when adapting this story as a novel.
I would describe the novel’s tone as ‘haunting,’ which is appropriate since it’s based around how a child’s death effected his family. It reminds me of a passage Shakespeare himself wrote about the death of a young boy in his play King John:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, Remembers me of all his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form; Then, have I reason to be fond of grief? Fare you well: had you such a loss as I, I could give better comfort than you do. I will not keep this form upon my head, When there is such disorder in my wit. O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son! My life, my joy, my food, my all the world! My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure! King John Act III, Scene iv.
Like Constance in the quote above,, All the characters in Hamnet are haunted. [Hamnet is pursued by plague. Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway are haunted by their abusive parents. Will’s father John by the loss of his business and social standing, and of course, everyone is haunted by Hamnet’s death.
Although the novel is mainly about Hamnet’s decline and death, my favorite parts of the book are flashbacks to the courtship and marriage of Will Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about their real courtship, so O’Farrell borrows the plot from Shakespeare’s Taming Of the Shrew. Like Lucentio in Shrew, The 18 year old William Shakespeare is a Latin tutor, (having not yet become a writer), who woos a misunderstood woman whom the town calls a shrew. In the book, Anne Hathaway is known as Agnes and (like many unmarried women of the period), is looked on as odd and somewhat wild. Many single women of this period would likely face discrimination, and sometimes. In this video, you can see how cunning women like Anne had an uneasy relationship with the local community; some saw them as an asset to the community, but others believed their abilities came from The Devil. For more information on Anne’s life, click here.
Anne is further isolated because of her strange abilities- in the book she owns a falcon, not a ladylike hobby for 1580s England. She is also skilled with medicinal plants and knows how to read palms. In essence, though the town ostracizes Anne, Shakespeare admires her cleverness, and the book implies that Shakespeare would later use her skills in characters like Kate from Shrew, Friar Lawrence (the skilled potion master), and maybe even the witches from Macbeth.
The reusing of Shakespeare’s plots doesn’t stop there- Before Anne and Will get married they are handfasted- that is they make a mutual promise to get married in front of witnesses. Anne knows that her family will not consent to their marriage given Shakespeare’s low economic prospects, so she convinces Will to get her pregnant. This mirrors Claudio and Juliet in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, who are publicly shamed and arrested for fornication, even though their only crime was not waiting until they had given a dowry to the groom’s parents before consumating the marriage.
One final master stroke of O’Farrel’s historical fictive tapestry is how she engineers the father son conflict between Will Shakespeare and his father John. Shakespeare loves to explore the power dynamic between boys on the cusp of manhood, and their already powerful fathers. In the case of John Shakespeare, O’ Farrell depicts him as a man who has worked, schemed, scammed, and clawed his way to the highest wealth his birth can allow him, but is now falling from grace, who has nothing but contempt for his son who seems like a worthless dreamer, incapable of hard work. This most closely echoes Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and King Henry, a son who must prove his fitness to be king to his father and to his nation. Watch this exchange from “The Hollow Crown” where the sick and aging John of Gaunt (Patrick Stuart), chastises his weak, effeminate nephew, King Richard II:
Infant mortality in Elizabethan England:
Even before Hamnet is born, his mother and mother in law are painfully aware that he might die young. Sadly this is very historically accurate. Infant mortality rates were high in Elizabethan England. According to Ian Mortimer in his book The Time Traveler’s Guide To Elizabethan England, mothers had to keep their children at arms length and not get too attached. Being a mother in this time meant dealing with the constant knowledge that your child might not survive:
In Stratford in the 1560s, there are on average, sixty-three children baptized every year- and forty-three children buried.
John Shakespeare’s fall John Shakespeare was more than a glover- he held a position in the Stratford Guild Hall- basically a city council position. He was in charge of hiring constables, keeping the peace, overseeing the brewing of ale, and approving theatrical entertainments for civic events. Probably John got his son interested in theater by letting him tag along to the sort of private performances he would have watched to determine whether a play or troupe was good enough for, for instance, the visit of a peer. However, by the 1580s, John was losing his business and selling off his land assets. Scholars suspect that either John was a closet Catholic, forced to pay fines every time he failed to attend protestant church, or he was avoiding church and his alderman council meetings because he knew his creditors would be there. In any case, O Farell takes this historical tidbit and turns John Shakespeare into a bitter, broken, abusive man whom Shakespeare can’t wait to get away from. Shakespeare and his wife bond over their abusive parents and dream of succeeding financially so they can get away from their parent’s influence. Malt and wool The novel hints at John Shakespeare’s secret side business selling wool and malt, but never explicitly states that this practice was illegal. All wool was controlled by the Elizabethan government so it was illegal to sell it without special permission, and in 1570, John Shakespeare was caught selling wool illegally. He was also found guilty of money-lending, hoarding grain, and selling malt. This is why he tells his son to forget the wool he saw in the attic.
Historical Events Mentioned in Hamnet
1556 Anne Hathaway born. She’s referred to as Agnes in other court documents. Her father Richard owned a sheep farm in Hewland. At some point, her mother died and her father Richard married a woman named Joan, whom the novel portays as a bitter, controlling witch.
1564– Will Shakespeare born, third of 8 children. His father started out as a local glover, who quickly rose through the ranks of local government to become the mayor of the town. They owned a house in Henley street, which also doubled as the glove workshop. For more informaition on this fascinating building, visit the Shakespeare Birthplace trust: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/shakespeares-birthplace/
1582– On November 27th, 1582, William married Anne Hathaway. He was 18, she was 26. It must have been a hasty and stressful situation. Shakespeare had no job, and based on the timeline, Anne was already pregnant with their daughter Susanna. For more information on marriage in the period, please visit my website on Elizabethan society:
The Shakespeares were granted a marriage licence by the Bishop of Worcester. They were married at Temple Grafton, a village approximately five miles (8 km) from Stratford.
Notes On Shakespeare’s Wedding Day:
We know that Anne’s family paid a dowry to Shakespeare’s family, which annoys Shakespeare in the book. He feels furious that his father uses the marriage to help his business interests.
According to Michael Wood, the priest left out the reading of the banns, and suspected the marriage was intentionally catholic. The book also makes it clear that this was a catholic ceremony, deep into the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.
May 26, 1583– Susanna Shakespeare is baptized, which means she was probably born three days earlier.
February 2nd, 1585– Hamnet and Judith are baptized.The twins were named after two very close friends of William and Anne, the baker Hamnet Sadler and his wife, Judith. The Sadlers became the godparents of the twins and, in 1589, they in turn named their own son William.
1586– John Shakespeare is booted off the Stratford board of Aldermen for not attending meetings. Michael Wood suggests that John might have been avoiding the meetings because he was in debt, and the creditors knew where to find him. The novel seems to agree with this theory- the first time that we meet John Shakespeare, he is on the verge of beating his own grandson for sneaking up on him. If he was hiding from his creditors, he’d have a reason to be jumpy. 1592 – Shakespeare makes it in London? 1593 Outbreak of Bubonic Plague- 15,000 people died in London alone. O Farrell does a great job of portraying the visceral terror people must have felt during an outbreak, the same terrified panic that gripped our world in 2020. As I’ve written before, not only did the disease itself instill fear, but also the Draconian measures of quarantines, and the grotesque and ineffective methods for treating the plague. To see how you might be treated for plague in the 1590s, take my quiz: https://sites.google.com/d/1iLSGjbllxU-ZwyrUya_xHtjojSCg9pd6/p/1xzNm37sGbHsQJgsnx4irZHJVp9YscVVJ/edit?authuser=2
Because of the contagious nature of the disease, the theatres were closed, which forced Shakespeare to write poems instead of plays. Around this time he also probably wrote Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis
1596 Hamnet dies
C. 1599– William Shakespeare writes Hamlet, his longest play, widely regarded as the greatest play ever written in the English language.
I hope this post helped increase your understanding and enjoyment of the book, and Elizabethan History in general.
For a fascinating look at the life of an Elizabethan woman, check out this documentary about Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, created by scholar Michael Wood:
I’m working this summer with the good people at Outschool, an online learning platform for kids ages 3-18. I’m designing a series of Shakespeare classes that you can sign up for. We’ll be doing acting exercises, reading Shakespeare’s text, and making Shakespeare props Cost is $3 per child.
The course is ala carte, that is, you can sign up for as many courses as you like. Each course builds on the last one, but you don’t have to have taken the previous ones to enjoy any one particular course Let me know in the comments which class(es) you are interested in, and/or what suggestions you might have. I can’t wait to hear what you think about these summer Shakespeare courses, and I hope to see you online soon!
If you like these courses, let me know by leaving a comment below. If you’re interested in signing up, visit my teacher profile page: https://outschool.com/teachers/The-Shakespearean-Student. New classes will be added every week, and I’ll work around your schedule when planning the dates and times. Hopefully this will be a great chance for me to share my expertise with a young group of future Shakespearean students!
I played this character back in 2010 as a college production and not to brag, but I want award both for my performance and also my role as dramaturg for that particular production, so I did a lot of research in into the character and I tried to bring my own spin on the part. So unlike my other Crafting a Character posts, I am going approach explaining the character as a series of questions instead of talking about it https://youtu.be/-ocOfP16tdw
Who Is Friar Lawrence?
A friar is a monk who belongs to a local monestary. Francis belongs to the Franciscan orders created by Saint Francis of Assisi. It was known for its naturalist philosophy, and St Francis himself is often depicted in paintings as being friends with birds and rabbits and things like that. He was also a strict vegetarian and believed the spirit of God is in all creatures.
Francis’ work was a reaction to the other orders of Catholic monks who, the Franciscans believed, had gotten corrupt and lustful. So the Franciscans in reaction to that corruption, tried to embrace poverty, plain living, and duty to the poor.
The Franciscans were also famous for not wearing shoes; Shakespeare calls one of them “[our] barefoot brother.” Again, the Franciscans value humility before God, and because of that, they shaved off part of their heads, (known as a tonsure hairstyle); it was way of stating that they were not concerned with their appearance, (so yes, it’s supposed to look stupid).
Why does Romeo hang around him? Friar Lawrence is supposed to be Romeo’s tutor, but really he is in the play because Shakespeare needed a convenient way to get Romeo married to Juliet without his parents finding out. He is also a neutral party who can be sympathetic to both Romeo and Juliet, without being tangled in the politics of the Capulet/ Montegue fued.
Friar Lawrence also acts as a character foil to Romeo. While Romeo is rash, passionate, and impulsive, Friar Lawrence is calm, slow, and contemplative, (appropriate qualities for a monk). During my production of Romeo and Juliet, the director beautifully explained their relationship by having Romeo trip and fall when he is excited about his impending marriage. I as Friar Laurence turned around and said calmly: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.”
My Interpretation Shakespeare makes references again and again to the character being old, yet the director and I made a conscious choice not to portray him as such. I portrayed him as just a few years older than Romeo, who is supposed to be a teenager. I played him as sort of about 25-26, the same age that I was when I played the part.
We did this because even though Friar Laurence acts as the voice of age and experience, he also seems very naive. He seriously believes that he can singlehandedly stop the feud between the Montegues and Capulets with one marriage. he never consults anybody else, and he leaves Friar John in charge of sending the all important letter to Romeo that Juliet is not dead, and never checks up with him on that.
Rather than being an old priest who is aged and experienced, I portrayed him as a young idealistic priest who doesn’t know better. In some ways, his love of God has blinded him as much as Romeo’s love for Juliet. The Friar thinks that being a peacemaker is something that God wants him to do. He thinks that bringing together souls is part of his heavenly mandate and he doesn’t think about the practical consequences of his religious fervour.
What is his role in the play?
Friar Laurence engineers the plots to get Romeo married to Juliet and hopefully settle the feud. When we first meet him, Romeo convinces Friar Lawrence to perform a secret wedding between Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene iii).
In Act II, Scene vi, Friar Lawrence secretly marries Romeo and Juliet, but first warns them to “Love moderately,” because he believes that an over abundance of passion can have disastrous consequences. He even compares Romeo and Juliet’s love to gunpowder.
In Act IV, Friar Lawrence has two scenes where he stops Romeo and then Juliet from killing themselves. First he stops Romeo, filled, with grief and remorse after murdering Tybalt, and being banished.
In Act IV, Scene iii, Friar Lawrence concocts his plan to give Juliet a secret potion with which to fake her death. Juliet demands that he find a way to prevent her marriage to Paris or she will kill herself.
Is Friar Lawrence To Blame For Romeo and Juliet’s Death?
I am actually working on my own mock trial activity which I will share by the end of this month, but for right now I will summarize the major arguments:
The Defendant (Friar Lawrence) tried repeatedly to prevent Juliet and Romeo from committing suicide. In Act III, when Romeo tries to stab himself, Friar Lawrence stops him and convinces him to go to Mantua:
Romeo. O, tell me, friar, tell me, In what vile part of this anatomy1985 Doth my name lodge? tell me, that I may sack The hateful mansion. [Drawing his sword]
Friar Laurence. Hold thy desperate hand: Art thou a man? thy form cries out thou art:1990 Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote The unreasonable fury of a beast: Thou hast amazed me: by my holy order,1995 I thought thy disposition better temper'd. Hast thou slain Tybalt? wilt thou slay thyself? And stay thy lady too that lives in thee, By doing damned hate upon thyself?
Likewise in Act IV, Friar Lawrence stops Juliet from killing herself and gives her the vial of sleeping potion.
Throughout the play, Friar Lawrence attempted to keep Romeo and Juliet alive and together, but was thwarted by what could legally be interpreted as and ‘Act of God’:
What the prosecutor might say-
Friar Lawrence performed a marriage illegally, without consulting the parents of two minors. He also harbored a fugitive (Romeo), right after he was found guilty of murder. Finally, he tried to deceive Juliet’s parents by giving her a dangerous drug. On paper, though Friar Lawrence was certainly acting out of compassion for Romeo and Juliet, his actions were highly suspicious and could be considered criminal.
An English class can learn a lot putting Friar Lawrence on trial for his role in Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, as long as they are responsible in the way they portray teenage suicide.
Who Originally Played Friar Laurence?
I don’t have any substantial evidence to prove this but I do of have a theory: some of Shakespeare’s parts require a great amount of stage business; singing, dancing, swordfighting, improvising that kind of thing. Hamlet for example has to sing, dance, sword fight, and remember copious amounts of speeches and dialogue. Will Kempe had to dance and dance and sing. Robert Armin had to improvise and dance with the audience.
My theory is Shakespeare didn’t have time to learn extravagant stage business, since he was also writing the plays and helping with the company’s business dealings. With this in mind, he probably gave himself the parts that had long speeches. That’s why I think that Shakespeare himself might have played friar Laurence.
Plus Shakespeare had an edge playing the role over other actors. Since friars are supposed to shave their heads, and since we know that Shakespeare had thinning hair, he could have easily played the part himself.
So those of you who get cast as Friar Laurence and wish that you were cast is somebody young like Romeo or Tybalt, at least your consolation prize is that you might be playing the part that Shakespeare himself once played.
I hope you found this insightful and maybe helpful if you find yourself cast in Romeo and Juliet. I’ll be sure to post about the Friar Lawrence mock trial I’m currently working on. At the very least, I hope this information helps you see Friar Lawrence as more than an old guy who hangs around teenagers.
Thanks to WordPress’ new interface, it’s easier for me to read what other bloggers have to say about the topics I write about. One trend I’ve noticed is the question that’s been boiling underneath the surface of a lot of people in our culture: “Should Shakespeare be ‘cancelled’?” It’s an interesting question and definitely merits discussion.
It is also a question that has some basis reality: Shakespeare was taken off the list of required reading of of schools in New Zealand. In 2007, The American Council Of Trustees and Allumni published a report called “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” about the number of colleges who no longer require English majors to take Shakespeare courses. If you read my post on Romeo and Juliet, you will recall that one of the main reasons why we have Shakespeare as a requirement in American high schools is that he is required reading in many colleges. So this could be part of a trend that extends to primary as well as secondary schools as well.
Many academics, (myself included), are wondering about Shakespeare’s status in education, and whether or not he will continue to be a staple of all English language curricula. So what I want to do with this essay is to ask the question, “Should Shakespeare be cancelled,” as well as”Should he not be cancelled? and “What even is cancelling and how does apply to somebody who is already long long dead now?”
First off, cards on the table: I am a white man, (with a beard), who has been studying Shakespeare for 20 years. I have a very clear bias; I would never advocate for Shakespeare being taken out of any schools. That said, I see merits to parts of the argument, and I do not believe that these teachers who are reexamining Shakespeare’s place in education are inherently wrong. Nor do I believe if that there is no merit to changing the way educators teach Shakespeare in our schools, (more on that later). My point is to write a thoughtful reflection about the nature of Shakespeare as a writer, his status within our culture, his status within the educational establishment, and how changing that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Part One: the arguments for cancelling Shakespeare
When I read the article “Why I am rethinking Teaching Shakespeare In My English Classroom,” by teacher Christina Torres, I noticed a lot of her arguments centered around diversity quotas and simply not having the class time to devote to Shakespeare. This is entirely understandable. Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, which means language has changed a lot since his heyday.
Shakespeare poses several unique challenges in education. He wrote in an obscure form of poetry that is no longer fashionable. You have to read footnotes. Although 95% of the words he used are still used today, they are used in a very unique syntax. Furthermore, I come to teaching Shakespeare from the perspective of somebody who studied theater, acting, Elizabethan history, and everything that that is required to teach Shakespeare, but many teachers do not. My point is I can understand why a teacher feels that he or she does not have the time, energy, or the learning required to give Shakespeare the space that he so clearly demands.
The question of Shakespeare’s status in our classrooms also raises subtle questions about diversity. Many curricula these days emphasize diverse writers and try to highlight the cultural contributions of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, and as far as we know, Shakespeare fit into none of these groups.
This educational initiative is a part of the anti racist initiative and I as an educator I am fully on board with this. I love to be in a classroom where Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lorraine Hansberry, Mary Shelley, and Truman Capote share the same shelf is William Shakespeare, but ever since the 18th century Shakespeare and cultural nationalism have been inexorably linked.
Almost since the beginning of Shakespearean scholarship, American and British critics have sought to venerate Shakespeare as the peak of British culture, and thus the peak of human culture as well. It’s not a coincidence that we celebrate National Poetry Month the same month as Shakespeare’s birth and death. Also, even though we don’t know for sure when Shakespeare was born, we celebrate it on April 23rd, St. George’s Day, thus forever linking England’s greatest poet, with its patron saint. George Bernard Shaw, (an Irishman), coined the term ‘bardolotry,’ to describe the treatment of Shakespeare by the English as if he were a god and the evidence is quite damning:
Just look at this painting where Shakespeare is portrayed as in the same pose and with the same reverence as the baby Jesus. This reverence carried over to poetry, music, festivals, and of course, to the classroom. As I wrote in My Romeo and Juliet post, since the beginning of American public education, Shakespeare was an indispensable fixture in American schools, and thus, prompting American writers like Mark Twain to grumpily refer to Shakespeare and other classics as “Something everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.”
Countless textbooks refer to Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language, and possibly the greatest writer ever. Ralph Waldo Emerson once preached that Shakespeare was: “Inconceivably wise.” The god-like aura around Shakespeare has made him nearly impervious to criticism and English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic have claimed Shakespeare as their gospel. Being an English speaker means having the God-Shakespeare on your side, and if you have God on your side historically speaking, you can justify anything.
The British were keen to elevate Shakespeare to this godlike status partially because it showed that their culture was superior to others. Let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest is about a man with book learning who goes off and colonizes an island whose inhabitants seem savage and uneducated. If our goal as educators with adding anti racist education is to show that all voices are valid, to highlight the contributions of every ethnic group, and to refute the notion that white culture is in any way superior to any other, then to a certain degree, we must knock Shakespeare off his literary pedestal.
We also should not a take a blind eye to the anti-POC and mysoginist language in some of Shakespeare’s plays. For instance one line I deeply despise in Romeo and Juliet is the line where Romeo refers to Juliet by saying she “Hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear” (A black woman wearing an earring).
This statement contrast beauty, specifically the beauty of white skin, with the “ugliness” of a black woman’s ear. Shakespeare uses this metaphor several times in several plays, establishing white as beauty and black as the aberration.
I bring this up not to say that Shakespeare should be cancelled and hated because of this racially insensitive language, because he’s not the only one who does it. All you have to do is Google “Who’s the fairest one of all?” to realize that for centuries, fair skin, beautiful skin, and white skin meant the same thing. As Dr. Grady says in the video above, having an honest discussion of Shakespeare’s language and his culture’s attitude towards race is an opportunity to teach critical race theory in the classroom, and to teach students to recognize and deplore dehumanizing language, which though poetic to white Elizabethans, is hurtful and dehumanizing to people of color. In short, banning or condemning Shakespeare is counter productive, but examining his language, culture, and politics with a critical eye is a very useful and important exercise.
Part 2 why Shakespeare doesn’t deserve to be cancelled
I’ve established that Shakespeare has connections with some very dark moments in a European history and he should not be celebrated merely because of he was white or because he was British. I believe that Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language as well as drama and the arts still makes him worthy of study by students. As this video from the New York Times shows, students need at least a basic understanding of Shakespeare to understand western culture:
I believe that, as long as we educators don’t indulge our bardolotrous tendancies, and keep Shakespeare in the context of the period in which he lived, we can still teach him in a way that will benefit our students.
One small way to put Shakespeare in context is very simple: STOP USING THE TERM “RENAISSANCE.” Most scholars now refer to Shakespeare’s time period as the Early Modern Period, not The Renaissance, which was an honorific term that people used during Shakespeare’s time period. The term RENAISSANCE, meaning the rebirth of classical learning and by extention the rebirth of sophisticated European culture, can give the impression that it was only a period of study and artistic achievement, leaving out colonization and racial and political tension. I find Early Modern Period a very useful descriptor because like it or not, Shakespeare’s culture influenced ours, therefore an understanding of him is very much understanding of where we came from. Learning from Shakespeare is like learning from history- we cannot shy away from the mistakes of the past, nor should we flat out reject its benefits.
it should be noted that a lot of the good scholarship in the last to the last 50 or 60 years has been tasked with putting Shakespeare back into his historical context and trying to reclaim his staus as a man of his time. Dr. Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University helped coin the term ‘new historicism’ which emphasizes learning about the culture of a writer’s time period. To New Historicists (such as myself), Shakespeare is no longer considered a great man of history, but a man shaped by the culture of his time, which is to say a man who had good parts and bad parts much like history itself. This is the approach that I think should be taught in American schools highlighting how Elizabethan culture shaped Shakespeare, and how he shaped our culture in turn.
Comparing Shakespeare to history, especially American history, is very useful in American schools. Like the founding fathers Shakespeare reached towards an ideal. He wrote plays about ideal kingship, even though kingship is a cruel and autocratic system of government. He wrote romances about young lovers who follow the wonderful idea of love at first sight, even though in reality that concept is somewhat rare, and very often fraught with peril. And like Shakespeare, people often ignore the flaws and human failings of the founding fathers too. Look at this mural painting of The Apotheosis of Washington, which still looks down on mortals from the US capital building in Washington DC.
Much like the founding fathers’ document that declares that all men are created equal, we can appreciate Shakespeare’s plays but also be aware of their flaws. Both documents were written by a flawed human being with a very narrow understanding of the wider culture and world in which he lived, but one who did his best to try and write works that would benefit all of mankind. As educators we can teach students to be inspired by this work, and seek to have a greater understanding of “The Great Globe Itself,” with the benefit of hindsight, so they may become enlightened citizens of the world, true Renaissance Men, Women, themselves.
So if I truly believe, (and I do), that Shakespeare is still relevant and has something to say to people regardless of their culture or cultural and racial backgrounds regardless of what time period they were born in and regardless of gender, how then can we teach him in classrooms in responsible and nuanced way?
-Give students the chance to rewrite or reword the more problematic elements, such as Romeo’s creepy stalking of Juliet,
-Highlight Shakespeare calling attention to patriarchial issues: Capulet in Act III, v, Friar Lawrence comparing love to gunpowder. Juliet raging against arranged marriage, etc.
Celebrate Shakespeare’s positive contributions to race relations: Othello was the first black hero on the London stage and the role helped generations of black actors get their start in theatre. There’s your modern bardolotry, Shakespeare not as “Inconceivably wise,” Inconceivably woke! You can also look at the proud tradition of color blind casting in Shakespeare’s performance history, such as Orson Wells’ “Voodoo Macbeth.”
Do some research on modern productions that translate the themes into a modern concept.
To sum up- cancelling Shakespeare doesn’t mean vilifying him. It means re-examining his role in our culture, and teaching students to appreciate the benefits, and try to correct the damages that his culture has brought to our own. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. As for Shakespeare himself, no amount of legitimate criticism will keep people like me from enjoying his plays. If anything, I appreciate even more the breadth and depth of his writing the more I learn about the culture in which he lived. I like to think that, if Shakespeare knew people would be talking about him in school, he’d echo the way Othello said he wanted to be remembered, to “Speak of me as I am, Nothing extenuate.” And that we heed the words of Ben Johnson in the dedication to the First Folio, when we think of treating Shakespeare as an icon.
I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.
So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.
For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.
My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.
If you’re reading this as I post it, there’s a Shakespearean nerd in your life and your wits are about to turn trying to find a gift. I’ve already written about printed editions of Shakespeare and educational apps, so you can consult those if that’s what you are looking for. Now I’m covering the kinds of stuff that die-hard Shakespeare fans will kill a king and marry with his brother for, basically nerdy swag that no Shakespearean fanatics should be without!
For anyone: Immortal Longings.com- This company is very special to me. If you’ve seen any of my Play Of the Month posts, you’ve seen the gorgeous artwork for Shakespeare’s plays by the artist Elizabeth Schuch. Not only do I love her work, my wife and I put her prints on the decor for our wedding day, and wrapped some of my presents in wrapping paper with her designs on it. If you go to her website, she sells Shakespearean art printed on and inspired by Shakespeare’s plays on everything from tapestries to clothes to iPhone cases. I highly recommend checking her work out, and patronizing it as much as possible: https://society6.com/immortallongings/s?q=popular+framed-prints
I also want to give a shout-out to the website Good Tickle Brain, a weekly Shakespearean comic that satirizes the Bard’s work with love. I feel the best way to introduce anyone, young or old to Shakespeare is through a healthy dose of satire and parody. Mya Gosling loves Shakespeare and it comes through in her simple, funny retellings of his plays. If you go to their shop (spelled Shoppe to appeal to nerds like me), you can get some of her comic books, funny T-shirts, and a few educational posters for teachers too: https://goodticklebrain.com/shoppe/
Bards against humanityMost people know the raunchy card game where you try to encapsulate a disgusting word or phrase with a description written on your card. Well, there’s a Shakespeare version too! It makes sense that someone made a card game inspired by the king of the Elizabethan put-downs, (and the inventor of one or two modern curse words!)
Wine🍷 Though I was unable to find actual wine with Shakespeare’s name on it, practically every other part of the wine drinking experience has been branded with Shakespeare- wine bags, glasses, corks and bottle stoppers, and even whole bars! If you spend a few minutes looking online, you can find tons of Shakespearean wine merch. By the way, here’s a convenient list of quotes Shakespeare wrote about alcohol: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/faq/shakespearedrinking.html
Pen and ink There’s a lot of good versions of pen and ink with Shakespeare’s name on them. Imagine the fun you can have writing sonnets with your own Shakespearean pen and ink!
Shakespearean Comic Books. I’ve written reviews about some of these books and I’m very impressed by the artwork and the clever adaptations. Click here to read my review of the Romeo and Juliet Comic.
Pop-Up Shakespeare by the writers of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I’m a huge fan of The Reduced Shakespeare Company and they have created an amazing new popup book for kids of the entire Shakespearean cannon!
Barbie and Ken as Romeo and Juliet. Ok, so this is a bit of a stretch, but hey, I’d get it for my daughter.
Board books 📖 Yes, even toddlers can get into Shakespeare. I actually read this to my daughter a lot. It’s not the story of the play, but it does introduce some of the characters and famous lines which can help a child to become familiar with Shakespeare.
King 👑 Of shadows (Ages 8-12) This is an excellent young adult novel that teaches a lot about Shakespeare’s theater and the time period in which he lived. For a complete review, click here:
This was one of my favorite books growing up. It tells the story of Shakespeare’s life and work, with special attention to the creation of the Globe Theater in 1599. It’s gorgeously illustrated and a great read for kids!
So there are some gift ideas for the Shakespeare nerd in your life. Merry Christmas!
Here’s one more gift that you could give a Shakespeare nerd ages 13-18: A class from ME!
Go to my Outschool profile and Get $5 off the following classes:
Since this is national poetry month, I thought I’d talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s poetry. Shakespeare wrote 154 short love poems called sonnets. What follows is kind of a do-it-yourself poetry manual that would be great if you want to write a poem for a spouse or a loved one for Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Mother’s Day or any other time, to show that you care. Sonnet writing has been a time honored tradition for showing the people we care about just how much they mean to us.
If you’ve never written a sonnet , don’t worry, the kind of sonnet Shakespeare wrote is pretty easy to write, and it follows just a few simple rules. I don’t want to lie; it takes a lot of patience and thought to craft a sonnet, but the rules are easy to follow. So let’s get to it!
What Is A Sonnet? A sonnet is a short poem that’s only 14 lines long, written in what is called Iambic Pentameter, Shakespeare’s preferred form of poetry. I’ve written before about Iambic Pentameter, but just to be clear it’s a 10 syllable line that goes da-Dum- daDum-da-Dum-daDum-daDum. So all you need is 14 lines that follow a particular rhyme scheme. You’ll notice that in the sonnet above, every other line rhymes except the end. This is called an ABAB rhyme pattern, and it is the trickiest thing about writing a sonnet. One reason Shakespeare has this rhyme pattern is to draw your attention to the last two lines, then draw the sonnet to a close with the simpler rhyme of the couplet.
Sonnet Form A sonnet’s 14 lines are arranged into three short groups or quatrains which are four lines long. Usually around line 9, there is a kind of “turn” or change in the direction of the argument, like at line 9 in Sonnet 8 above, where Shakespeare stops talking about summer, and starts talking about the person to whom he’s writing. If it helps, you can think of this as the “But…” part of the sonnet, because it’s the part where he changes the argument using the word “but,” (and what a but it is). The sonnet then concludes with two rhymed lines of Iambic called a rhymed couplet. These last two lines are a way of wrapping up the main idea of the poem in a short, catchy way.
Step by step Tips and Tricks:
Start by planning out your sonnet.
It’s often useful to consider your sonnet like a speech or a short argument. The three quatrains give you a chance to come up with an idea, then develop the idea, and then come to a conclusion, much like any other form of persuasive writing that you might’ve had to do for English class. For example, Sonnet 8 pictured above, (one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets), begins with the question: “Shall I compare the to a summers day?” He then goes to flatter the person he’s writing about by talking about how much better they are than a summers day, saying that actual summers are too windy and too hot, and the flowers of the summer are all too brief. By contrast, Shakespeare argues that the subject of the sonnet has beauty that will last forever, particularly if that person goes on to have children. This is the form that Shakespeare sonnets often take and I would advise you to try and make your sonnet into a clear argument.
Example Of Sonnet Writing: Since Mother’s Day is coming up, if you wanted to write about the mother of your child, and thank her for her for being there for your child, you might want to structure your sonnet by using the three stanzas to express three simple ideas like:
1. Thank you for being the mother of our child(ren)
2. A specific time she did something awesome for your child (give examples!)
3. Thank you from you, me, and our child(ren).
Tip 2: Plan Out The Rhyming Couplet: As I mentioned before, the last two lines of every sonnet are called a rhyming couplet; two lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme together and help conclude the sonnet. Just like a English paper, a good conclusion is very important, which is why it’s it’s often useful to work on this these two lines first before you get into writing the meat of your sonnet. For example, here’s a couplet I wrote about preparing breakfast in bed and doing chores for one’s wife on Mother’s Day.
All chores this day will I do in thy stead
Commence I shall with breakfast in thy bed!
Tip 3: Writing Poetry Now that you have the ideas you want to express now comes the hard part: putting them into poetry. I often find it helps to just get a piece of paper, write as much as possible to express the three ideas in your sonnet in prose, then get down to translating your ideas into iambic pentameter.
Quick Tips to help you along:
Make sure the important words are on the right beats. Remember, in a normal Iambic line, every other beat (2, 4, 6, 8, and 10) are emphasized. This means the important words/ sylables need to be on those beats. You might have to invert the order of a word or two to keep those beats clear. like I did in my couplet when I wrote “will I do” instead of “I will do”
You don’t have to use iambic in every line. Shakespeare was never a slave to a particular verse form, and a whole poem in iambic pentameter can sound a little dull sometimes. This is why, if you really want to, you can change a line or two to emphasize different beats
Trochees A clever way to wake up your audience is to start off with a few regular iambic pentameter lines, and then change it to a line where the first beat is the one that’s important. Like a dance or song that suddenly changes tempo, this creates a sense of excitement in the reader.
Spondees Sometimes you can emphasize two syllables at the same time, as Shakespeare does in lines 1 and 3 of Sonnet 8. You wouldn’t pronounce “Shall I” as “SHALL I or shall I,” and the phrase “rough winds” demands that both words are important, so Shakespeare is clearly changing the verse a little just to make the poetry more interesting.
Tip 4: Use Literary Devices: I find Shakespeare very often tried to express an idea by using metaphor and allusion to create images in the listeners mind. Sonnet 8 which we’ve been discussing, is structured around creating a contrast between the speaker and a pretty day in summer. You can do this kind of flattering comparison yourself, but, as we’ve seen, it’s often useful to put a “but” in the argument around line 9, to make it clear that you love the person more than for example a warm summer day. Imagine getting a sonnet that claims that someone loves you more than ice cream!
Sometimes Shakespeare uses contradictory images in his poetry for dramatic effect. Romeo often and talks about “Oh brawling love, O loving hate”. He uses this to express the wildness of his passion. This is called antithesis, and it’s very useful when you want to add a little spice to your poetry. Try comparing your beloved to both ice and fire! Alliteration and assonance: Remember, Shakespeare wrote for the theater not for people reading in the book this is why he often plays with words that sound a particular way and worked very hard to come up with sounds that would grab a listeners attention rather than readers. When a word when several words start the same letter it creates a sense of order and gets the readers attention. Assonance is when consonants are repeated within the middle of a line.
Thesaurus.com– useful if you need another word that fits into iambic better.
Kotsheet.com- a website for teachers with lots of useful worksheets to help you organize your sonnet. Useful for writing or teaching sonnets!
I hope this post was helpful. If you have any questions, please comment, or email me in the “Ask the Shakespeare Guru” page. If you write any sonnets yourself and wish to share them on this site, let me know and I’ll gladly re-post them!
Till Next Time,
-The Shakespearean Student.
The Sonnets Edited by Rex Gibson. Cambridge University Press, 1997.