Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Bard Bits: A Turn of the Word

One of the major challenges faced when introducing Shakespeare to my teen students was the language barrier. They saw Shakespearean language as foreign and resisted it. Some backing away so quickly and decisively it seemed they had suddenly encountered a foul smelling creature and a speedy exit they did desire.

Admittedly I encountered my difficulties with Shakespearean turn of phrase when I first began my teaching. Having no previous o knowledge of Shakespeare beyond a 1960 something film version of Romeo and Juliet from my junior high days I struggled. This meant I needed to learn more about what made Shakespeare so Shakespeare.

My first adult immersion was Kenneth Branagh’s Henry film. It was so brilliant that I fell asleep. The fatigue of deciphering what everyone was saying wore me out. I brought this to my teaching: Shakespeare can be tiring.


David Suchet, that accomplished actor of stage and screen puts it so well:

“Speaking in rhyme is not natural to us, but it was to the Elizabethans, so we have to understand what language meant to them, and what language does not mean to us today.”

Basically, contemporary speakers get to the point, an A to B decision. Elizabethan folk wandered on their path to convey their meaning, adding subtle nuances, providing an opportunity to savor the many perspectives and dimensions the English language provides.

“Wow. She’s pretty.” To the point.

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear; Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows, As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.” Romeo takes a meaningful stroll, exploring the depth of his first impression of Juliet.

Of course we don’t speak like Romeo today, but you have to admit Romeo’s speech feeds our quest for romance and delight in beauty. Shakespeare dwelt in imagery. He provided a banquet in language; he lived in time where people were used to feasting on how words created a cadence of meaning. Today’s audience lives on a diet of abbreviations and emojis tapped out in thumb.

So—my first step in getting students to appreciate Shakespeare was to allay their concern about studying Old English, about encountering a foreign language. These were main points I began with:

  • Shakespeare is not a foreign language nor even is it Old English. It is the beginning of modern English spoken in an older England.
  • Many of the words Shakespeare used are words spoken today. And the fact he made known nearly 2,000 words that are in use today is impressive. I would drop how there would be no Assassin’s Creed if Shakespeare had not invented “assassin.”

The next step was to break down passages to literary terms because Shakespeare heavily played with imagery and components. I liked Danny Devito approach:

Finally, listening to trained actors speaking the rhythm of both iambic pentameter verse phrasing prose through film clips brough the passages alive. The cadence of Shakespeare’s speech is sizzling. Words jump up and get noticed. The front truth and back truth of the idea sits up and cannot be ignored. What is being said and what is really being said makes a difference.

In this scene Mel’s Hamlet is back truth to Ophelia: “You’re working for your dad. Women try to play men, but I am on to you.” Ophelia’s front truth is “You said you loved me, why so cruel now?” There are two conversations going on here: Hamlet’s agenda and Ophelia’s agenda. And Shakespeare let his audiences (and future English classes) figure out the real meaning of the scene.

How not to do a break up

Once students get immersed in the language they begin to see how Shakespeare is talking about issues they can relate to: parental control, unrequited love, betrayal—400 years hasn’t changed much in the emotional realm, language usage a bit more, granted.

Did I convince all my students that Shakespeare can be embraced and not reviled? Of course not. However, the intention was that they would be a bit more willing and able when they encountered the Bard next time.

It is indeed “sweet sorrow” I no longer teach Shakespeare.

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7 thoughts on “Bard Bits: A Turn of the Word

  1. I always preferred Gibson’s Hamlet to Branagh’s. Bragnah miscast most of the bit parts. Jack Lemon? Billy Crystal? A jillion others? I mean, come on, man! (That said, Charlton Heston was surprisingly good.)

    I also loved Ian McKellen’s Richard III (in spite of the dreadful Robert Downey Jr. scenes, which are, thankfully, few).

    Did you see Joel Coen’s Macbeth? It left me wanting more varied cinematography and a lot less Steven Root.

  2. Interesting to hear that you didn’t begin as a bard-lover. Out of curiosity, have you been to the Shakespeare Festival in Southern Utah?

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