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Shakespeare's Wars Meet Star Wars

I dreaded the inevitable apathy that would creep over the classroom. I was committed to exposing my students to a professional performance of the history plays that we'd been studying. There were no opportunities to go to the theater, though, so I'd fallen back on that old stand-by: showing the movie. My intentions were good, but the results always left something to be desired. As the lights went down and Kenneth Branagh flickered on the screen, the air in the room seemed to grow warm and drowsy. Even the most engaged students drifted. But the time the lights came back on, my students were in kind of a stupor. Yes, they liked the movie; no, they didn't have much to say about it. Something was missing; instead of enhancing my students' understanding of the play, the film seemed to mute it.

How, I wondered, could I use film to begin the journey into the play, rather than to end it? How could this start and not finish our discussion? I wanted them to analyze each moment, savor each scene; instead, they simply gorged themselves on images and feel asleep.

The solution came to me not in the classroom but rather at home. I was watching-for about the hundredth time-Star Wars, my husband's perennial favorite. As Darth Vader made his first entrance, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu: I had seen this somewhere before. The connection finally hit me: it was the same visual set up as Kenneth Branagh's first entrance in "Henry V." Dark figure silhouetted against the light, a sense of power, even moral ambiguity: it was all there. With very different subject matter, the two directors had made strikingly similar choices.

I returned to the classroom with a new way into the task at hand. Without telling my students what film we'd be watching, I simply instructed them to take notes on the short scene I was going to show them, recording all the visual information they could. Although there were a few snickers as storm troopers appeared on the screen, the kids soon warmed to the task. They were, I realized, astute observers of the visual world, with skills gained from countless hours watching television and cruising the Internet. Although we only studied a minute of Star Wars, at most, they were able to note a great deal of detail.

To help them in the process, I gave them a handout with basic film terms. This cheat sheet with precise language encouraged them to say things like "that was really dramatic because of close-up and the high contrast," rather than, "wow, that was really intense!" I gently encouraged them to use terms from the sheet when their comments became too vague.

I then showed an equally brief clip of "Henry V," and the students went through the same process. They caught on quickly to the game, noting all the similarities. But they also noted some key differences, such as the dark door frame in Branagh's film. Now attuned to the kinds of choices being made by the director, they had the tools to analyze the scene, and the discussion moved back towards the issues of the play itself: what do we know about Henry at the beginning? What kind of power does he have? How do power and morality interact?

I now keep an eye out for such filmic parallels. The opening of Disney's "Aladdin," for example, provides a nice connection to Olivier's "Richard III." Music videos create an effective counterpoint to Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo+Juliet." Students will occasionally come up with their own parallels.

I no longer feel the need to show students the whole film-indeed; I'm realizing it may be counterproductive to their sense of ownership of and engagement with the play. Instead, I offer up instructive scenes as a way into the task of critical viewing. The purpose of our film time is no longer simply to see another version, but instead to get at those deeper questions of what a "version" of the play is. What kinds of choices do we make when bringing a text to life? How do those choices reflect back on the larger themes of the play? The air is clearer and the apathy has lifted-and the students, it seems, have a lot to say.

About the Author

Anne Turner has taught at the elementary, secondary, and college levels, and is the former Assistant Head of Education at the Folger.

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