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Rare Words vs. the Facts

Tuesday morning, fourth period: twenty-two boys, six girls. Academic mix: heterogeneous; hormonal mix: raging.

"Isn't this is a particularly lovely passage?" I said as we read the quarrel scene between Oberon and Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

Long silence. "Oh, right," said Dan sarcastically, "it's really be-yoo-tiful. I bet Jasmine loves it."

"Yeah," added Edwin, "She eats that stuff up."

"You're both jerks," Jasmine responded. "Shut up, Dan."

I looked on and sighed.

On the one hand, one of the pleasures of teaching high school is observing kids' intellectual growth; on the other hand, - well, sometimes it's a challenge to get them to accept your point of view.

Variations of fourth period frustration played out in my classroom for several years before I caught on to the fact that, no matter how heartfelt my own enthusiasm, it wasn't enough to convince my skeptical students that Shakespeare was special. Glumly looking over my lesson plan for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" 2. 1 on a Sunday night about two years after the classroom scene above, I tried to get beyond my intuitive emotional response to formulate a rational explanation for why I like the language of this play so much.

Minutes passed and no answer came. I typed one of the speeches into the computer. Still no ideas. Idly, I started deleting random words and phrases to see how their absence affected the speech. Then I cut back to the essential thought units that underlie the language. Stripped down, the speech more or less meant the same but lacked the force and beauty of the original. I began to wonder at what point -- and why -- the words lost their power. What would the mind's eye see? What would it miss? How would the missing words change the sound of poetry?

Bingo! As I sat there, I realized that if this was an authentic and meaningful exercise for me, then it might similarly be valuable for my students. I put my new idea (see handout) into action with my sophomore class after lunch on Monday. There, my challenge students were Jasmine and Keith. On the previous Friday they had talked about their hatred of last year's play, "Julius Caesar," each trying to top the other with accounts of the awfulness of it, while they groaned at the prospect of more long boring speeches this year.

I chose a speech from "A Midsummer's Night Dream" that comes after the long argument between Oberon and Titania, when Titania describes a friendship, a loss, and its aftermath that explains why she befriends the little Indian boy desired as a page by Oberon. I did not say that this passage was beautiful or powerful; I did not editorialize in any way. Finally I recognized the importance of kids drawing their own conclusions whether or not they were the same as mine.

Students began by reading the passage aloud several times, defining terms as needed. To clarify meaning, they paired up: one student mimed lines depicting action while the other read aloud; then they switched roles. To focus on word choices, as a group they stripped the text of its modifiers and imagery, reading the excised version aloud and comparing it to the original. They discussed what was still there and what was missing - and then began to put words and phrases back in. What had to be there and what could go? Why? Arguments developed about what was essential. Students suggested synonyms for Shakespeare's words and considered how the substitutions compared to the original.

We closed by reading the original passage again, singly and together. "What do you think of this passage?" I asked them.

"Cool," said Erika.

"Very cool," said Keith.

(Note: This technique works well with many passages, but works best with a selection rich in detailed imagery like Mercutio's Queen Mab speech in 1.4 of "Romeo and Juliet," the description of Cleopatra in 2.2 of "Anthony and Cleopatra," or Prospero's renunciation speech in 5.1 of "The Tempest.")

About the Author

Judith Elstein taught at Atlantic City High School in Atlantic City, New Jersey for many years. She is retired but remains in Shakespeare education.

Handout

Rare Words vs. the Facts
Shakespeare's Language

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