“Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point…” Teacher and Hour-Long Shakespeare author Matthew Jenkinson offers his tips on approaching Shakespeare with young people

“All’s Well That Ends Well is funny – if you’re fluent in Shakespearean English!” protested one GCSE English pupil to me recently. It is not an uncommon complaint, along with assertions that Shakespeare’s plays are too complicated or difficult for many school children. Well, quite rightly Shakespeare is not going to go away; quite the opposite, as the new National Curriculum puts even greater emphasis on his works.

So how can parents or teachers aid in the understanding of Shakespeare among their pupils or children? The most empowering thing you can say, at first, is “Do not worry about understanding all (or any) of the words”. It is amazing how quickly a pupil’s brain can shut down because they are panicking about ‘getting’ everything the first time around. Understanding comes with time, re-reading, and patient explanation.

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It is also enhanced by watching Shakespeare on the stage. But parents and teachers need to be judicious about this. Watching a poor stage production will have pupils running a mile in the opposite direction, and they certainly won’t feel inclined to explore the text in any greater depth. Watching a great stage production can have the opposite effect.

There is no need to traipse long distances to Stratford or London these days either. The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively, have released some excellent DVDs of their recent stage productions. So you can now break up three-hour-long productions in the classroom or at home, pausing to discuss what is happening or to go to the loo.

Attending a live production can be exhilarating, but I would wait until the children have gained some traction. Making them stand in the rain at The Globe for three hours, as a first experience of Shakespeare, probably won’t have them begging for more.

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Watching a live performance enables pupils to work out plots by seeing the interaction between characters and hearing the tone employed by expert actors. I have used Roger Allam’s Falstaff scenes, performed at The Globe in 2010, to convey to pupils what happens in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I have been amazed at how much laughter has come from individuals who just would not have understood the text if we had merely read it from the page.

The other way to get children engaged with Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, acting out parts. Again, a sensitive and judicious approach is necessary here. First of all, the choice of play is vital. Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point. Parents and teachers also need to be understanding of the fact that many pupils, especially as they stumble through adolescence, will be quite reticent about standing up and delivering elaborate metaphors.

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There are two powerful ways to counter this. The first is to create a culture in school and at home where drama is an everyday feature – it is not nerdy or distant. The second – obviously – is to ‘differentiate’ the casting, ensuring that the allocation of parts reflects the confidence and ability of the pupils. Giving a reticent child the part of Macbeth will put them off Shakespeare for life, as will giving a confident actor the part of First Servingman. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays, in particular, is the number of roles available, with differing levels of intensity; every pupil can find their niche.

There are very few schools out there that will be able to stage a full three-hour Shakespeare play, which is why I have been editing a new series of abridged versions in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. As the title suggests, each play lasts about an hour when performed, with central characters and the overall narrative arcs preserved. This is by no means a novel project – the plays have been abridged since Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the discovery in 2014 of a First Folio in St Omer, France, in which Jesuits made cuts to suit their pupils.

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What is new about the Hour-Long series, aside from some original scene shifting (don’t use these texts in exams!), is the use of a Chorus in all of the plays. Shakespeare himself famously used a Chorus in Henry V, for example, but adopting this device in other plays enables any number of pupils to get involved as narrators, offering summaries of excised sections of plot, or acting as Roman citizens in Julius Caesar, the tyrant’s conscience in Richard III, or the witches in Macbeth – all with the text still in front of them.

Removing the pressures of learning vast amounts of lines, or spending too long on the stage, enables usually reticent pupils to engage with Shakespeare in performance. Maintaining juicy title roles with headline speeches attracts those keen actors who are ready for something more challenging. In sum, Shakespeare hopefully becomes more manageable for those who would normally be scared off.

Matthew Jenkinson is director of studies at New College School in Oxford. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Henry IV (Part 1), Henry V and Richard III is available now, priced £10. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Cesar will be published in September.

Lois Leveen, author of the novel Juliet’s Nurse, talks about the power of the plague in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet

“As Mercutio is dying he says not once, not twice, but three times, ‘A plague on both your houses!’ And that made me think about plague, which first came to Italy in 1348 and killed about 40 percent of the population.

LoisLeveenHeadshot by John Melville Bishop

“When I started the novel I never thought that we would be struggling with something like what’s happening with Ebola now. But certainly there is so much fear about contagion and disease. We understand contagion and infection much better, but in an era where understanding about why some people got sick and others didn’t, why some people died and others got better…

©Globe/Opus Arte

©Globe/Opus Arte

 

“Trying to imagine, not what it was like live through that – because the book is set ten years after that wave – but people are really dealing with what it means to be dealing with that aftermath. Cultural or social post-traumatic stress disorder that everybody in society is dealing with.

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“And trying to think about what it would be like to have to go on in the wake of that when you don’t really have a scientific understanding of what happened, and trying to make sense of the world.”

Read the full interview with Lois Leveen in Shakespeare Magazine 05.

Author Lois Leveen talks about the suffering that underpins the main character of her Shakespeare-inspired novel Juliet’s Nurse

“In some ways, I had to stop looking at what the core theme might be for Shakespeare, because I had to discover what it was for Juliet’s Nurse. There are plot points, and certainly characters, and even lines or riffs on lines, that I pull over from Shakespeare. But it really is ultimately Angelica’s, the Nurse’s, story. In that sense, the theme was really clear from the beginning – that line about having her own daughter who died.

©Globe/Opus Arte

©Globe/Opus Arte

“I remember talking to someone I know, a mother of young children, about the experience of having a child die and the mother said, ‘If that happened to me, I don’t know – I would lay down and die too’.

“And that was not an option for Angelica, or other women and men living who loved their children dearly in those centuries and centuries in which the death of a child was quite common. We shy away from suffering, and think of it as something to be avoided, but suffering is inevitable and survival is not something that happens in opposition to suffering. Survival is something that happens because we learn to assimilate suffering into our lives.

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“So again, on a social level what’s present for the Nurse and for the other characters in the novel, because it’s present in the play, is the question of how do you make sense of suffering and how do you find hope in what seems like devastating loss?

“I wouldn’t say that was Shakespeare’s theme in Romeo and Juliet, but it definitely became my theme in Juliet’s Nurse.”

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Want to find out more about Lois Leveen and Juliet’s Nurse?
Read the full interview with her in the latest issue of Shakespeare Magazine.

Issue 5 of Shakespeare Magazine arrives just in time for 2015 – and, yes, it’s still completely free!

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Yes, we made you wait for it (sorry about that) but the latest completely FREE issue of Shakespeare Magazine is finally here.

Our scintillating cover story celebrates the amazing Shakespeare documentary film Muse of Fire.

We also investigate Shakespeare and the Tower of London, and take a trip to Staunton, Virginia – home of the American Shakespeare Center.

Meanwhile, actors from Shakespeare’s Globe have teamed up with a crew of legal eagles to perform at the famous Inns of Court.

Lois Leveen rethinks Romeo and Juliet with her evocative novel Juliet’s Nurse, while the experimental Filter Theatre Company remixes Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol.

Plus! You could win a copy of Station Eleven, the thrilling post-apocalyptic Shakespeare novel by Emily St. John Mandel.

Go here to read Issue 5 of Shakespeare Magazine right now.

And a very Happy New Year to our readers all over the world!

Shakespeare gets a Pulp Fiction makeover with this irreverent cover art for new paperback editions of Othello and Romeo & Juliet – and we have 5 sets up for grabs!

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A glowering, ruffed-up Mr T as Othello? An inescapably post-teenage Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Romeo & Juliet? It can only mean one thing: William Shakespeare is receiving a cheeky remix from Pulp! The Classics.

With lurid, genre-splicing cover art from David Mann, the series already includes editions of classic novels like Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but Shakespeare is the first playwright to join their ranks.

And a spokesperson for Pulp! The Classics tells us they hope to release a complete set of Shakespeare titles in due course.

Priced £6.99, the Pulp! The Classics editions of Othello and Romeo & Juliet are on sale at bookshops from Thursday 6 November.

But if you don’t want to shell out your hard-earned groats, we have FIVE pairs of the Shakespeare titles to give away.

To be in with a chance of winning one simply send an email to us at shakespearemag@outlook.com with ‘Pulp Shakespeare!’ in the subject line.

Don’t forget to include your name, address and contact number. Closing date is Thursday 13 November – best of luck!

For more on Pulp! The Classics, check out their website here or follow on Twitter: @pulptheclassics

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet staged in Manchester’s historic Victoria Baths

Romeo and  Juliet (image: Jessica Tremp)

Romeo and Juliet (image: Jessica Tremp)

From Wednesday 10 September to Saturday 4 October, Manchester’s extraordinary Victoria Baths will be the setting for an original promenade performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The drama is retold as a contemporary fairy tale set in a criminal underworld of Eastern Europe and influenced by Eastern European stories, music and film.

The three atmospheric empty Victorian swimming pools will be transformed into a dangerous, seductive and entertaining world with an ensemble of bold and colourful characters and the music of Gypsy bands and Balkan choirs.

For more information and to book tickets, go here.

 

Free talk! Professor Tiffany Stern explores the meaning of Time in the age of Shakespeare

“The two hours’ traffic of our stage…”

Shakespearean time traveller Professor Tiffany Stern.

Shakespearean time traveller Professor Tiffany Stern.

What does Shakespeare mean when the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet announces that the performance will last two hours? Join Professor Tiffany Stern at London’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, as she asks how time was understood in an age of sandglasses, sundials and inaccurate clockwork. Considering the sound and the look of the instruments of time, this event will ask about Shakespeare’s works ranging from the practical to the editorial and to the analytical.

How long did Shakespeare’s plays take to perform? Why are Shakespearean characters associated with ways of measuring time? And what did terms like an hour, a minute, or a second actually convey to a Shakespearean audience?

Tiffany Stern is Professor of Early Modern Drama at the University of Oxford. Her books include Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (2000), Making Shakespeare (2004), Shakespeare in Parts (2007) and Documents of Performance in Early Modern England (2009).

The two hours’ traffic of our stage: Time for Shakespeare – with Professor Tiffany Stern

Wednesday 21 May, 6pm-7.15pm Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London

The talk is FREE to attend, but please register online here.