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Teaching World Geography Can be Loads of Fun!

Shakespeare’s Language

Oh yes, Shakespeare’s language presents problems for modern readers. After all, more than four centuries separate him from us. During this time, words acquired new meanings. For example, a competitor, in Shakespeare’s time, referred to a partner or to an associate. To let meant "to hinder," passing meant "surpassing," and by and by meant "immediately."

Furthermore, some words used by Shakespeare have dropped from the language altogether, and sentence structures have become less fluid.

Of course, our present-day language also evolves constantly, and words take on new meanings. You don’t have to go back to Shakespeare’s time to remember that cool was simply an indication of temperature or lack of enthusiasm such as a "cool reception." Your teenager, however, uses cool as a sign of approval.

Shakespeare’s language may be daunting to most of us. And you know all too well the feeling of having to teach your youngster a subject with which you, yourself, aren’t all that comfortable. Relax, as someone recently said, "Help is on the way!" Lorenz Educational Publishers have created the Access to Shakespeare series of plays. The original Elizabethan version of each play is featured alongside a translation into contemporary English, making those numerous footnotes unnecessary.

What, for instance, does Caesar mean when he asks Casca, "Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?" No, Brutus was probably wearing his sandals. But who would have guessed that Caesar meant to say, "Didn’t Brutus kneel in vain?"

The translation of the play into contemporary English allows your youngster to read Shakespeare the way people in Shakespeare’s time did. They didn’t need any distracting footnotes to understand the text. And neither will you or your child.

You have discovered the difficulty of making a subject lively and interesting during lessons. Learning should be an adventure and not a struggle. The Access to Shakespeare series of plays will ensure that your student will say, "What a great story!", rather than being turned off Shakespeare forever because of the frustration of being bogged down in some unfamiliar language.

Stage Directions

In drama written for the modern stage, the playwright usually provides detailed directions for the actors - how to move and speak, and what emotions to convey to an audience.

In the plays of Shakespeare, stage directions are sparse. One reason for this could be that Shakespeare was more than just the playwright. He was a shareholder in the theatre company for which he created the plays and he was himself an actor. Therefore, he was on hand to tell the other actors how to say a line or what gesture to use.

An attentive reading of the dialogue offers clues to actions or gestures. For example, Capulet in Act One of Romeo and Juliet, breaks off his scolding of Tybalt to compliment the dancers at his party. He says to Tybalt,

You’re a cocky lad, aren’t you?

This behavior will harm you. I know that.

If you disobey me, then it’s time -

Oh, good dancing there, friends - you show off ...

The actor playing Capulet obviously must turn from Tybalt, look to the dancers as they go by and then turn back again to continue scolding Tybalt, although the printed text contains no such stage directions. You have to try to picture the characters in your mind.

Actually, the lack of stage directions is often considered a boon by directors and actors who have considerable freedom in interpreting an actor’s role and how it should be played.

Shakespeare’s Theatre Then and Now

A theatre in Elizabethan times was called a playhouse. The picture of a typical playhouse is featured on page 47. The Globe theatre in London, where most of Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced, was a circular or polygonal wooden structure of galleries surrounding an open courtyard area.

In the middle of this courtyard was a covered wooden platform. Immediately in front of this platform was the area designated as the "pit" where the so-called groundlings stood. These were the rowdy, uneducated rabble who paid a small fee to attend a play and they literally stood on the ground. The low comedy elements in Shakespeare’s plays were directed toward that audience. Patrons who could afford to pay more sat in the surrounding galleries or even on the stage itself.

There were no curtains to conceal the main stage from the audience, so plays flowed from scene to scene without interruption, or perhaps with only the slightest pause or brief musical interlude to indicate a change of time or place.

The elaborately constructed and painted scenery that one often sees in a modern production of Shakespeare was missing from the original setting of the plays. Also, costumes were not as lavish as in many modern productions, and the players were almost certainly dressed in Elizabethan style rather than Roman togas or Egyptian wigs we might have expected.

The original Globe theatre, built in 1599 of largely flammable material customary of the times, burned down in 1613 due to a cannon shot used as a prop during a performance of Henry VIII. The theatre was finally rebuilt as a faithful copy of its original, but this time using fireproof materials. Because it is still an outdoor theatre, performances at the Globe are only held from May through September each year.

No Women

A lot has changed since Shakespeare’s time when plays were performed exclusively by men and boys who were apprentices in the company. As one looks at the cast list for the plays, it is easy to see that the male characters outnumber the women, and for a very practical reason. Modern-day performances, which include actresses to play Desdemona in Othello or Ophelia in Hamlet are certainly even more moving than the Elizabethan all-male version.

Solo Speeches

There is another difference between the plays of Shakespeare and most modern ones: The solo speeches. These are the asides and the soliloquies in which a character reveals what is on his or her mind.

Contemporary dramatists seem to feel that the solo speech is artificial and unrealistic. Oddly enough, modern novelists frequently use a variation of the solo speech. Some critics feel that this convention allows writers to probe deeply into the motives of their characters.

One thing is certain - Shakespeare’s plays without the solo speeches would not be as powerful as they are. Would Hamlet be the same without the famous solo speech, "To be or not to be ...?" That is the question.

Versatility of Access to Shakespeare

Translations into contemporary English are available from Lorenz Educational Publishers for Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. These translations have been used by numerous high schools and colleges for the past ten years.

A teacher’s manual/study guide is available for each play, giving parents additional information on Shakespeare’s life, suggestions for teaching or even staging the plays, summaries of every scene, and questions and answers for every act.

While the translations into contemporary English were initially created for students, they are also an easy way for adults to brush up on a play before attending a performance. This writer was humbled a couple of years ago. Tickets for an original version of Macbeth had been ordered when a little voice inside my head suggested that it might be wise to reread the play. Thinking that I work constantly with these Shakespeare plays, I smugly dismissed the thought. Unfortunately for me, there were quite a few passages whose meaning escaped me, and I would have enjoyed the performance a lot more, had I read that play beforehand.

Because Shakespeare’s original version presents difficulties for most of us, the translation lends itself ideally when staging the play, especially when the audience may not be all that familiar with Shakespeare. Admittedly, a well-directed and well-acted production can do much to clarify Shakespeare’s language. And yet, there will be numerous references and lines whose meanings are not accessible on a first hearing.

Furthermore, people in real life don’t talk the way these characters do. Most people are not nearly as articulate as the ones in Shakespeare’s plays. It would probably be disconcerting if the people one met at the bank and the supermarket, in school or during meetings spoke in the style of the great poets.

Shakespeare’s characters are anything but foggy-minded. Rather, they are concentrated and fully in command of their verbal resources. In their world, the brain and the heart and the tongue are directly connected, one in which people have fully realized their potential -- for good and for evil.

To have imagined such a world and to have put it on paper is Shakespeare’s achievement. And it is why he is still read and performed today. You want to make sure that your child gains an understanding of this world. Who can resist being charmed by this conversation between Romeo and Juliet:

JULIET I’ve forgotten why I called you back.

ROMEO Let me stand here till you remember it.

JULIET I will forget, just to keep you here,

Remembering how I love your company.

Access to Shakespeare will take the mystery out of Shakespeare, but not the magic. It’s a new way of teaching, a new way of learning. -- Irene Walters, Publisher, Lorenz Educational Publishers.