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Shakespeare "for all time": Using Primary Sources in the Present-Day Classroom

Shakespeare, Ben Jonson wrote, "was not of an age, but for all time." I can't help but think that if Jonson had been a schoolteacher, he would have been less confident in this statement. It can be a challenge to convince students that Shakespeare is relevant today. They often balk at the language, before they've even read a line. How could I-in 21st-century speak-make it real to them? It took twenty precocious children and one funky chicken dance to give me an idea.

As part of a "Twelfth Night" family program at the Folger last January, I taught a group of children an Elizabethan dance called the branle. One little boy, decked out in a jester's cap and bright blue pantaloons, arms and legs fluttering, couldn't believe the move I was demonstrating. "Did the Elizabethans really duck-waddle?" he exclaimed.

Truly, the branle contains an undisguised duck-waddle, with a toe-to-toe and heel-to-heel step.

"Just like the funky chicken," he confidently declared.

It was less than five minutes into the activity, and the kids had already discovered a link between their own time and the one in which Shakespeare wrote. Even better, they had concluded that the Elizabethans knew "how to have fun." I couldn't have imagined giving them a more appropriate introduction to "Twelfth Night," Shakespeare's comedy of love and mayhem.

The kids in that Twelfth Night workshop illustrated for me an essential piece of pedagogy: what's important is not just knowing that the Elizabethans duck-waddled, but recognizing that we too dance, well, like fowl. In other words, the past is instructive, if students can make a link between it and their own world. Once the children understood that the Elizabethans-like themselves-were apt to act like ducks, they easily recognized the playfulness of Shakespeare's language and reveled in the tomfoolery of Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek. In a study of Shakespeare, knowing what the Elizabethans thought permits students, first, to relate Elizabethan ideas to their own lives and, second, to better understand the implications for those beliefs in the play. Ultimately, a well-chosen primary source enlivens the text.

Take, for example, Thomas Heywood's illustration of "A Curtaine Lecture." (See handout 1) It's a far more serious source than the branle-cum-duck-waddle, but equally illuminating, I think. The "curtaine lecture" image mockingly represents a woman berating her husband in bed. To my mind, viewing this image in conjunction with the reading of the second act of "Julius Caesar" illuminates the interesting sexual politics at play in Caesar's Rome-or, at least, Shakespeare's version of it-and reveals parallels to the politics at play in our own society. I created an accompanying handout (handout 2) to help me guide students through a comparison between Calphurnia's exchanges with Caesar and the primary source document. Students find that the early modern image reminds them of a political cartoon and, particularly, of a political cartoon lampooning Hillary Clinton's influence over her husband. If an Elizabethan playwright causes us to think about our own political environment and, more specifically, about a prevalent mistrust of women in power, then Shakespeare is a man "for all time" indeed.

About the Author

Julie Kachniasz team-teaches the Folger Library's Shakespeare's Sisters seminar for high-school students and is the designer of the Shakespeare for Kids Web site.


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Teaching Shakespeare with Primary Sources

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