In Language Arts 1, we are learning to struggle with Shakespeare and fall in love with language.
Nothing captures the artful evolution of the English language from the time of Shakespeare to our contemporary usage like the radical transformation of “artificial.” While it has gone on to acquire negative connotations (signifying contrived or false), in Shakespeare’s time, it meant something altogether different: artfulness, indicating craftsmanship. Its pejorative associations were once taken as laudatory.
I open with this shift in the way a word is used because it gets at the heart of the difficulty of reading Shakespeare. Words in his works had different meanings, and sometimes radically so. He wrote with poetic declaration, even in the midst of the most prosaic moment. And when it comes to his plays, he wrote for the stage, fully aware of the wild stunts patrons were capable of in the Globe Theater.
Our focus on Shakespeare this block in Language Arts 1, then, is a focus on translating “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” We fully engage the various ways we can translate. Students are translating words and phrases, figuring out the panoply of thou’s and doth’s that dot his play, and rewriting key passages into modern English. But we’ll also do larger translations, turning the play into a fold-out book replete with images and graphics that document our smaller translations of the play’s language.
On that note, one student brought me a graphic novel version of the play, with the original text of Shakespeare. I found the graphic novel to be a great example of another kind of translation, so I bought copies for all the students. I also wanted to reward students for their effort to “struggle with it!” (our class motto this block, thanks to Kathy’s Maker Studio). So I arrived one Thursday morning on campus at 6am, gift wrapped each book, and wrote a personal note to each student. I then had “Shakespeare” write a letter with that day’s project, sealed them up in envelops with “Air Mail” stickers, and asked Dr. V. to do a mail call during our morning meeting. Sometimes, a kid just needs small surprises like these to work up the energy to “struggle with it!”
Wrapping books for each student and writing them personal notes.
There are, of course, many examples that make Shakespeare hard for contemporary readers—and worth struggling with it! Words have changed, syntax was different (and deliberately made more “artificial”), and even the orthography of writing behaved by different rules. For instance, in the original folios of Shakespeare, students would find f’s in place of many s’s, u and v virtually interchangeable as different ways to write the same letter, and no distinction between i and j. (This is why those letters look so similar to one another!)
Indeed, during Shakespeare’s time, the entire English language was under vast and fast evolution. With the advent of the printing press, publication became rampant, equivalent in effect to the boom we’ve seen with our age of the internet. There weren’t yet many standardized rules for spelling or writing. On a bigger scale, the English language was at the tail end of the Great Vowel Shift, which began in the 1350s.
All of this is to say that, during Shakespeare’s time, the English language was just beginning to emerge out of its past to form the beginnings of the modern era. This “renaissance” period, in fact, is better known to scholars as the Early Modern Period, which helps us see the time period’s connection, but in admitted infancy, to our modernity. All of these forces conspire to make reading Shakespeare much more like reading a foreign language, even if it has a much stronger and direct lineage to our current use of English.
To "struggle with it” with energy and smiles, we’ve broken up into teams once again. There is very little in the way of “teaching" going on; instead, I have given each team a set of puzzles and sheets for them to work on and then present to me, and once I see they have solved that particular puzzle, they get the next one. You wouldn’t believe the energy in the room when smart, motivated kids are given puzzles to solve and a very long runway.
It captures, in large part, what I mean when I say education is about opportunity. With kids like these, they need structure and goals, that’s for sure. But what they also need is the chance to shine. Each group has done incredible work. Most important, each student knows that he or she made the accomplishment. Students know they own what they’ve learned about the structure of Shakespeare’s plays, the structure of his phrases and sentences, and the use of his words.
In the end, struggling with Shakespeare is worth it, because he was a master of the artful use of language, of human nature, of his cultural and political era. But how do you animate a young middle schooler to see it's worth it? In our class, struggling with Shakespeare is worth it when students don’t feel they’re being directed by me but by their own internal compass. Struggling with Shakespeare is worth it when they see his language is a code that has a key—and it's a key they can help write. Struggling with Shakespeare is worth it when they see they are doing it together, when learning is made social and interactive.