Book Reviews - Making sense of Shakespeare

SEAN O’CONNOR reviews four annotated Shakespeare series designed specifically for schools, including Macmillan Communicative Shakespeare developed by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa, (Macmillan Boleswa, R 36,66), Cambridge School Shakespeare, series editor Rex Gibson (Cambridge University Press, R29,95 ), Active Shakespeare, senior editors Nigel Bakker and Anthony Parr (Maskew Miller Longman, R32,35 to R 39,95) and Oxford School Shakespeare, series editor Roma Gill (Oxford University Press, R44,95).

MACMILLAN Communicative Shakespeare includes Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, available in reader-friendly A4-size edition.

The unabridged play-text appears on the right.
The left-hand pages contain extensive notes, written in a fairly conversational tone, which provide a thorough explanation of the text. The notes cover virtually every line of the play, a feature intended primarily for English second language students. The effort to help students understand Shakespeare’s language is this edition’s most striking feature.

Each page of the play-text contains a kind of running questionnaire in the far-right margin. Here the reader is continually asked to consider the significance of the play’s staging. The questions are well phrased and revealing, although a little relentless, while other questions about character and motive are hidden in the notes.

Very brief sections on Shakespeare’s life and the theatre of Elizabethan England at the end of the book could do with some expanding, but they suffice as introductory material. Activities and discussion ideas precede and conclude each act of the play, doing well to emphasise anticipation and reflection on the reader’s part.

Cambridge School Shakespeare includes a large range of titles available in this series.

The unabridged text is presented in a clear and uncluttered fashion alongside a left-hand page devoted to activities, notes and a thumbnail summary of the action. The activities are placed centre stage, while the notes are discreetly stationed at the base of the page and kept to a minimum.

The activities are an excellent feature of these editions. They are very engaging and extremely varied, providing the teacher with many options for continuous assessment. Thoughtfully chosen and restricted to two or three per page, the activities never overwhelm, but stimulate readers to arrive at their own interpretations of the play.

Historical and contemporary illustrations provide intermittent variety and are integrated into the activities. They add to the emphasis on context, providing evidence of different stagings of the play. Short additional chapters placed after the text add substance. They address pertinent themes, explore Shakespeare’s language, make suggestions for projects and provide more concise summaries of the play’s meaning. All in all, this is a clear, well-produced book tailored towards first language students.

Active Shakespeare at present comprises Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julius Caesar, all in A4 format. Designed for both first and second language speakers, these books succeed in encouraging students to see themselves as actors and producers of the plays.

The layout is effective and highly original. The play-text is prominently displayed in the middle of each double-page spread, flanked by relevant notes.

The lower margin presents a variety of boxes. These contain a well-conceived set of activities and a scheme of pertinent information, such as the “Producer’s Notebook”, character files, and notes and questions on words and imagery. An enlightening box entitled “In the Background” presents a diversity of appropriate historical information.

Although the reading of the play and its performance are foregrounded, other features of these inspiring editions offer a variety of approaches. A selection of important quotes precedes each act, as well as reflective and predictive activities, and storyboard illustrations, photographs and other material combine in stimulating fashion. Good additional chapters situating Shakespeare and each play within the politics and culture of his time add considerably to the text.

Oxford School Shakespeare has a range of texts available in the series, in addition to helpful companion volumes dedicated to the teaching of each play.

Each of these editions begins with an informal introduction acquainting the reader with the themes of the play. A detailed scene-by-scene commentary follows, as well as an introduction to each of the characters, so that by the time the independent reader approaches the actual play, he or she is thoroughly prepared.

The layout is simple and effective. The play-text is clear and easy to read. It forms the right-hand column of each page, with accompanying notes in the left margin. The notes are thorough and serve the text well. Illustrations are not prominent. The section at the end of the book dedicated to “Classwork and Examination” divides its suggestions into “Discussion”, “Character Study”, “Activities”, “Context Questions”, “Comprehension Questions”, “Essays” and “Projects”.

This is useful for the teacher who wishes to accomplish specific activities with the class. A chapter entitled “Background” also appears at the back of the book, as well as a short but moving biography of the play’s author, the enigmatic genius we know as William Shakespeare.

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, March 28, 2000.