Books in the Blood # 13: How to make teenagers love Shakespeare

Sandals? In Scotland? The man was clearly deranged. Image: Pixabay

Sandals? In Scotland? The man was clearly deranged.
Image: Pixabay

There’s no more attractive sight than seeing a man in costume. Well, certain costumes. Not clown ones with massive feet and red noses and the whole scary white make up thing.

I was thinking more along the lines of historical costume. There were just certain periods in history when fashion got it right so far as accentuating the finer points of the male form goes.

A while back my husband went to a big work do. As the party was fancy dress and the theme Pirates, the staff were able to hire clothing from a stage costumiers and my husband came home with a beautiful 18th century style frock coat, complete with brass buttons and braid and breeches to match. And a tricorn hat. To say he looked dashing was rather an understatement. I tried to persuade him to hire it for an extra few days over the weekend, but he demured. Coward.

It’s not just 18th century costume either.

Anyone remember Blackadder? Course you do. Remember Rowan Atkinson’s transformation between series’ one and two? He went from a snivelling dweeb with a bowl haircut and an outrageous selection of positively aggressive codpieces in the first series to an Elizabethan gallant, all trimmed beard, black doublet and hose and pearl drop earring in the second.

Now, I’m sure no one would ever class Rowan Atkinson as a heart throb. One of Britain’s greatest comedy actors? Yes. Sexy? No. Not until he was strung into that black velvet. Or is that just me? (No – it’s definitely my mother as well.)  

Which kind of brings me to this week’s Books in the Blood:

SHAKESPEARE PLAYS.

I loved Shakespeare at school – eventually.

But you see, people start the study of Shakespeare all wrong.

We’re introduced during those turbulent, troublesome teenage years, when your body’s like a chemistry set, a frightening jumble of hormones shaken together in all the right quantities to produce mental instability on a cosmic scale. And the way schools ease us into the works of the greatest British writer, with his themes of social climbing, cross dressing, regicide, suicide and murder, murder, murder is by showing us the text first.

Clearly, I get this. As a lover of words I know that what makes Shakespeare great, what makes him endure through four centuries and presumably into the distant future for as long as man exists, are his use of words, his prose and poetry, the way he describes the human condition.

I get this. But I’m not sure most teenagers do.

What teenagers get is difficult (occasionally impenetrable) language, loaded with Classical, mythological and medieval references they don’t recognise and jokes that just aren’t. They and their classmates have to take on roles, to read the text in class and if there’s anything less romantic than a self-conscious fourteen-year-old stumbling through

If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

while his mates are laughing and lobbing spit balls at him, I don’t know what is.

But I have a radical solution.

Before teachers hand out text books, before teen eyes settle on a single letter of the great man’s work, before the kids have had the chance to feel bamboozled, flummoxed, lightminded or just plain bored by the Bard experience …

TAKE THEM TO A LIVE PERFORMANCE FIRST

Shakespeare wrote plays. Plays which were meant to be performed and watched and gasped at and laughed through. They were NOT meant to be read and analysed, line by line, couplet by couplet, in one hour chunks in enclosed, dusty classrooms with the lure of sunshine and break time taunting you through the window.

Let them feel that adrenalin rush of a live performance. Preferably take them to see a tragedy, because all that intrigue, sex and violence that accompanies Macbeth, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet tick every box in the teen brain stem. Let them hear swords clash, see the actors stumble and spit their lines and argue and kiss.

The students won’t understand every line. They will miss some of the references. But they might just leave the theatre with an initial good impression of Shakespeare. Then at least when they do look at the texts they might remember that sword fight, that kiss. The text might make more sense and they might realise Shakespeare isn’t boring.

And as they plough through iambic pentameter, they might remember the dashing hero in the doublet and hose too.


Every time I discuss Shakespeare I share alink with Desperately Seeking Cymbeline – and today will be no exception.

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16 thoughts on “Books in the Blood # 13: How to make teenagers love Shakespeare

  1. I found something similar as a classroom music teacher trying to interest 12- and 13-year-olds in — you must be joking — opera and ballet. All that weird singing and tippytoe dancing, do us a favour and put on some real music, sir!

    So, the best way I found was to introduce videos (this is pre-DVDs we’re talking about) by saying it was all about sex and violence (the intrigue took care of itself, with a little help of pre-prepared worksheet furnished with blanks to fill, to check they were still awake).

    ‘Carmen’ for the Year 8s, with Placido Domingo as the mentally tortured Don Jose, and ‘Tosca’ for the Y9s (ditto Placido, the literally tortured hero). Not a lot of sex but a lot of passionate love, and not a lot of onstage violence but certainly murder by stabbing and firing squad, along with bullfighting and fighting with daggers. As for ballet, Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with swordfights and suicide and young love was, with judicious fastforwarding, just the right introduction for Y7s, leading to ‘West Side Story’ later as a double intro to Will to supplement what the English and Drama departments were trying to cover.

    Did it succeed? I’d like to think so, and so much more enjoyable than a dry analysis of the music. Failing a take-up of trips to live opera and ballet this was the next best thing, and certainly kept the majority riveted to the screen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! A great approach. Carmen and Tosca are great choices – proper opera, full of conflict and blood 🙂 And stuffed with tons of ‘tunes’ that if they don’t recognise are very catchy. I love both of your choices.
      And Romeo and Juliet’s the same – how could you not hum along to Montagues and Capulets? Same with the entire score for West Side Story.
      There’s nothing like seeing any kind of performance – it makes the work leap from the page and just makes it sing.
      I always loved going to plays with school, especially at the Crucible in Sheffield with its 360 staging. I remember seeing Edward II there – lit poker and all 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your approbation, Lynn! ‘Edward II’: I saw a young Ian McKellern in the role in Southampton in the late 60s, both thrilling and shocking in the full-blooded way he performed it. (And there was a red-hot poker too!)

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      2. Genuinely sounds like a good idea 🙂 Ah, Ian McKellern – he must’ve been amazing. And to see great people before they get so well known – magic. Very envious of anyone who got to see him opposite Judy Dench in Macbeth diring the 70s. That must’ve been a hell of a production.

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  2. I could not agree more! Shakespeare was meant to be heard! If you can get a few actors to come to your class to read a scene or two, it is a better experience. If neither is possible, try the Manga Shakespeare Editions by Adam Sexton, Eve Grandt, and Candice Chow. They use the actual text and their Hamlet is so cute! They ‘get it.’

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Try introducing Shakespeare to French student trying to wrap their head around English even in Y5 or Y6 of studying the language. The French education system is bad (to remain PG) at teaching languages. By the time we hit grade 10 and have 4 years of English/German behind us we can barely line up 10 words. And they want us to study Shakespeare? Really?

    As far as I am concerned, the only reason I didn’t literally bark at the teacher was that I’d seen the movie Much Ado About Nothing on TV and quite literally loved it. Even recorded it and kept it for years at my parents. It was the very first time in my life that I saw a movie in English (because everything’s dubbed in France and a teenager won’t get out of their way to see a movie in its original version). I loved the rhythm and the flow of the words. I loved the timing and the irony. Oh and the singing too (Hero’s death song in that movie is poignant). And – relating to how you introduced your post – I found the men dashing (most particularly Denzel Washington as the Prince).
    I should mention that I loved Emma Thompson’s performance. Her line “he’s hanging up on him like a disease” talking about Brannagh’s Benedict had me in stitches… just because of her tone when she delivered it really. But their back and forth banter was hilarious. Michael Keaton also fantastic. I couldn’t tell you who played Hero though.
    That year we studied the Taming of the Shrew. After a couple of lessons, our poor teacher gave up and had us read it in French. I’d purchased the bilingual version and really enjoyed it. I asked my parents to rent the movie with E. Taylor and R. Burton. I liked it ok, but not as much as Much Ado. That year Romeo + Juliet came out and then Brannagh’s Hamlet. Not live performance but good work nonetheless.

    Performance is crucial. It makes everything make sense. Because the words come to life in a way kids can rarely imagine. In a classroom it’s cut and dry more often than not, even more so when it’s not your native language. I love Shakespeare’s works and words. And when properly translated they can be as powerful in other languages. I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Comedie Francaise this year and it was absolutely fantastic.

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    1. Hard to imagine you having trouble with the language when your English is so perfect – though, reading Shakespeare is like learning a whole other language again, of course. That’s a tough thing to ask of you all, to study Shakespeare at that level of English experience. To be fair, I’m not sure our students would be any further on after four years. It’s not a lot of time in which to learn a language unless you’re actually living abroad and have to speak it every day. I’m not surprised you ended up reading Taming of the Shrew in translation.
      I’ve never seen Branagh’s Much Ado, but I’m sure he and Emma Thompson were married at the time, so her intonation may have come from a row that had over breakfast that day! His Henry V is very good as is Ian McKellern in the screen version of Richard III – tranferred to the 1930s with McKellern as a Nazi – esque dictator. Very interesting. There’s also a new version of Macbeth to be released here in October starring Michael Fassbender – looks very dirty, gritty, gory, as Macbeth should be!
      And yes, performance is key, isn’t it? Whether onscreen or onstage. Brings it all to life 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Why thank you 🙏🏻. I studied English a lot longer than most though since I have a bachelor degree in languages. Plus they always fascinated me. In fact I did read The Taming of the Shrew in English only going to the French when I didn’t understand (which arguably was quite often 😜).
        I don’t particularly like Fassbender but then again who knows? Friends of mine got to see Sean Bean in the role of McBeth in London about a decade ago. I shall remain jealous for ever and ever… I have always loved live performance. My very first one was Hello Dolly with Nicole Croisille at the Theatre du Châtelet. Our music teacher believed in bringing kids to live shows. May be why I loved that class 😜.

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      2. I do know what you mean about Fassbender – he’s not my ideal either – but the production itself looks so atmospheric, candle lit, gloomy … It looks worth watching for the production values 🙂
        And any live performance is impressive, isn’t it? There’s something ‘buzzy’ about it, the volume, the energy, that you just don’t get from a recording. Sean Bean as Macbeth must’ve been interesting. I wonder if he kept his own Sheffield accent or tried some Scots – I don’t think accents is his thing 🙂 Hello Dolly must;ve been wonderful too -such a spectacle

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  4. Totally totally agree that Shakespeare is much better performed than read – at my school productions or film viewings were usually an end-of-year treat rather than the pre-work I think they should have been. And surely in most schools a reading list which is films to rent would be waaaay more popular.
    I’m shocked you haven’t seen the Branagh/Thompson Much Ado, Lynn – it’s basically them and some mates having a romp in Tuscany, with Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves to sell it to the Americans, and it’s utterly delicious. Although I also have much much love for the recent Joss Whedon version.
    And I’m totally going to have to check out Manga Shakespeare too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Manga Shakespeare does sound a wonderful idea – a stroke of genius I’d say.
      Problem with me and Much Ado is I’m not so keen on Shakespeare’s comedies – I like darkness and tragedy much better! 🙂 Coupled with that, at the time the film came out, I though Ken and Emma were just a bit … lovey-celebrity-couple for my taste and Keanu Reeves has always had limited appeal for me too. He’s … pretty but limited. Looking forward to the new Macbeth, though. ‘Out, damned spot!’

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      1. Keanu Reeves was, in my opinion, stiffer than cardboard in Much Ado. Luckily his was a small part… It reminded me of Ben Affleck in Shakespeare in Love – you couldn’t but feel they were a bit out of their depth amongst all the British theatre luvvies!
        Macbeth should be awesome though. Can’t wait!

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      2. Aha! Poor old Canoo – he was good in the Bill and Ted films, but don’t make the poor boy act. And yes, Affleck was awful in Shakespeare in Love too – sort of unfair to put them amongst better actors, showing them up really 🙂

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      3. Yes, though I think you had to have good calf muscles to get away with a tunic. Always makes me think of the one off time travel episode of Blackadder with Stephen Fry as a Roman officer wearing a tunic so short it exposes his pants. Unflattering, but funny 🙂

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