“Thou hast cleft my heart in twain”. Gertrude’s avowal to Hamlet is also a symbol of the dialectical relationship we hold with Shakespeare, both as learners and teachers of his plays. There is a sense of awe with Shakespeare. While his characters and stories have been venerated across temporal and geographical boundaries, there are numerous challenges to understanding Shakespearean drama.
A complex language – albeit rich in dramatic intensity – but delivered in what many have termed as an ‘ancient tongue’ in a remote historical context has been perceived as the biggest hurdle. Caught in the intricacies of deconstructing language and verse lines to understand Shakespeare first before facilitating students’ understanding, and dictated by the pressure of syllabus-coverage, our teaching of his plays often becomes a detailed, tedious, one-way transmission process that sums up Shakespearean drama in a word: bulky. Whilst this, no doubt, weighs heavily against our prime concern of ‘what’ we teach, it might be interesting to reconsider ‘how’ we teach Shakespeare, as a more effective way of negotiating the bard.
The premise of all Shakespearean drama is that he never wrote his plays to be read, but to be spoken. What this calls for is a re-thinking of Shakespeare teaching. ‘Active Shakespeare’ – a methodology to include drama/performance techniques in the Shakespeare classroom has been advocated: not as a substitute but, rather, a complementary, teacher-directed approach of tapping upon different opportunities that the Shakespeare ‘script’ (or the text, in the conventional classroom) offers to students for re-enactment.
Active methods enable students to play around with Shakespeare, and thereby, to ‘own’ Shakespeare by connecting imaginatively and emotionally to characters and situations. All good drama – be it in film or soap operas – is built around conflict. So are Shakespeare plays. That students will, therefore, respond to conflicting situations through sympathy or empathy is highly probable, should they be given the right platform. Engaged in a process of rendering and communicating emotions, students experience Shakespeare’s language directly through physical action and acting. Students need to feel (rather than be told about) a tension-laden ‘Who’s there?’, the opening lines of Hamlet, to better understand that ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. Active Shakespeare seeks to promote personal interpretation, and in so doing, the learner plays a greater role in a meaning-making process.