Keep it short, simple and dramatic

Nigel Bakker teaches English methodology at the University of Cape Town’s School of Education. and is editor of Maskew Miller Longman’s new Active Shakespeare series. He spoke to SEAN O’CONNOR about teaching Shakespeare.

What are your favourite memories of teaching Shakespeare?

I have one favourite memory that is repeated over and over, each time I do it. It’s when the class is suddenly involved, and interested, and discussing, improvising.

How does that happen?

One of the things you have to do with Shakespeare is forget about the text. Let me explain that. If you spend day after day reading and analysing the text, very little of any value is going to come out of the exercise. It becomes a kind of word play, a word-game puzzle that students often find very tedious. I would try and read the whole play in about two weeks, straight through, without any other English activities, and not worry too much about difficulty. You get a sense of the plot by reading aloud together, doing it as dramatically as possible, and not worrying at this stage about videos and things, because that can be very dangerous.

So you wouldn’t show a video to familiarise the kids with the text?

Never. We need to create our own images of the play first. Videos tend to become definitive if seen straight off, and then it’s very difficult to get students to imagine things. Videos should happen afterwards, as something to discuss.

What should the teacher be doing during the reading?

At this early reading stage, start asking those loaded questions, the why questions: why is she doing this, why does this happen now? When you’ve finished the first read-through it’s very important to use simple methodologies that are very student-centred. These allow them, either on their own or in very small groups, to be able to take specific moments in the play, pick up on specific themes and examine and explore them themselves. Then to have the teacher conduct the discussion after that, with the class, around the important issues that you want to raise, so that they’ve had a chance to talk about it first.

If you have to get beyond the text, can you use abridged and modified texts to teach Shakespeare?

The first time you read Shakespeare through, you should abridge the text. Decide beforehand what you’re going to do with the class out of each of the five acts, and read. If it’s with the more junior classes, you can cut quite a lot, with the more senior standards you can’t cut quite as much, but you can cut quite well, and get through the play easily. One must never forget that adults battle with this stuff, so you’re never going to overcome the difficulty of understanding the text, and to try to do that is a useless task. You need to get them to become familiar with certain aspects of each section of the text that you’ve chosen. They can often work on their own.

So these are segments that you string together?

Yes, but it will only work if the teacher gives enough support.

How much can learners gain from the notes supplied in the text?

There are some texts that have very simple, very clear notes which kids can read. Any text of Shakespeare’s that is absolutely crammed with notes is simply doomed to cause ultimate despair. The annotations carry a message. The more annotations you have, the more the reader is convinced that they’re dealing with a very difficult thing, whereas a well-annotated text just gives you enough to keep the meaning. You’ve got to move fast through the stuff. The other material, the activities, are meant for after you’ve read it through.

What do you do after the first read-through?

I take the key parts and hand out roles to students. The more they read and hear the language, the more they’ll understand. I would often take the role of director in the classroom, and pretend that it’s an audition, and some important scenes we’d read two or three times, with different actors, and I would suggest different contexts, so that we’d play it differently. In Macbeth, the opening scene with the three weird sisters can be played in all sorts of ways. You can play them as inherently evil; you can play them as flippant, and silly and giggly; you can play them as three modern women, planning the murder of a man they hate.

Are those people moving around the class when you read?

It all depends on the space you’ve got. Kids are often quite self-conscious about acting. Just sitting around and reading is usually enough. Your enthusiasm as a teacher, though, is absolutely crucial. You need to have energy and be well prepared.

I see that your Active Shakespeare editions have a range of activities, but many of them concentrate on the fact that the works are plays.

We continually try to see Shakespeare as something on the stage. Every page has something called “the Director’s Notebook” which encourages students to see the play in their mind’s eye. It asks them to consider how to stage things and asks questions like, where are the performers and how do we turn the action into a visual medium? Shakespeare was never really meant to be read.

Yet one can study it as literature.

Oh yes, Shakespeare was a poet. We’re dealing with poetry here, of the very highest order, which is why it’s difficult stuff.

If the language level is simply too difficult for someone?

Choose another setwork. Really, there’s no compulsion to do Shakespeare.

What kind of things do kids like about Shakespeare?

It’s the whole range of emotion. Of course they’re very susceptible to generation stories. They love the discussion about whether adults should get involved, whether a father should treat his daughter that way. Love is an important theme. But the whole concept of death and tragedy is always fascinating.

‘I think if he hadn’t written all his poems then English wouldn’t be so good. He started lots of expressions. I don’t think it’s good enough for teenagers though. Most teenagers aren’t into it.’

Hiresh Barbhoo (15)

‘He wrote pretty deep plays. He’s very good with language—he uses puns and alliteration and so on. He was a great man who has helped me to think.’

Alana Boulle (15)

‘I try to teach it so it’s relevant to them, so they can learn life skills out of it. We should actually emphasise modern African literature, but his ideas and themes are still completely relevant now.’

Antoinette Scoble, English teacher

‘It’s not so much a dead language as poetic. And it’s important how you examine Shakespeare—we don’t treat it like a vocabulary test. The themes are still very relevant.’

Nicky Whyte, English teacher

‘I don’t think he’s still relevant because he’s really boring and I can’t understand his language. I know it’s got to do with history, but I think that literature about the African renaissance would be more relevant.’

Palesa Mooi (16)

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, February 3, 2000.

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