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Teaching Shakespeare in the Digital Age

By Susan Gustafson
 | Feb 06, 2019

shakespeare-digital-age“To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die—to sleep,”

Five lines are all I can recall from the 33 that comprise Hamlet’s Act III Scene I soliloquy that I memorized and performed in my high school English class. What was Hamlet questioning? Mortality? Why? How did this soliloquy fit into the context of the play? Well, I don’t recall. In fact, I’m not sure I ever knew.

As I was about to teach Macbeth for the first time, I reflected on my soliloquy performance. Besides the sand through the hourglass, another reason for my lack of recall was my lack of comprehension at the time. I didn’t learn that there were signals in the text to help me understand what Hamlet was saying and how to say it. There was also the issue of having to perform from memory. I was only concerned about saying the correct words in the correct order. In the end, the recitation was more of a droning than a performance.

Twenty years later, I was able to use technology to support my students’ demonstration of their comprehension of soliloquies and Macbeth’s character. Instead of standing in front of the class to recite one of Macbeth’s soliloquies, students produced an audiovisual performance of the soliloquy of their choice.

Close reading of text

After reading a soliloquy once for general comprehension, we analyzed clues in the text to dig deeper into its meaning. We also learned how to perform the clues to enhance the audience’s understanding of the character. During subsequent rereading of the soliloquy, we searched for the clues. Then, we annotated what the clues revealed about the meaning of the soliloquy and how to perform the clues for the audience. We used the gradual release of responsibility framework with multiple texts until students were ready to analyze a soliloquy in Macbeth independently for their audiovisual performance.

During our close reading, we looked for the following and completed the tasks under each:

Alliteration and assonance

  • Annotate for nearby repeating sounds and what they reveal about the character’s state of mind.
  • Mark to emphasize the repeated sounds to communicate the character’s emotions.

Change of direction

  • Annotate words such as “and,” “but,” “if,” and “yet” when they show a change in a character’s thoughts. Question what this change in direction conveys about the character.
  • Mark to emphasize these words for the audience to hear the change in direction.

Opposing words

  • Annotate the purpose of the opposing words in nearby lines. Question what the character might be facing.
  • Mark to stress the opposing words to highlight the conflict for the audience.

Punctuation

  • Annotate locations of all ending punctuation.
  • Mark to pause after ending punctuation at the end of a line to indicate the character is thinking. Mark to continue speaking without a pause for ending punctuation in the middle of a line.

Repeated words

  • Annotate for repeated words in nearby lines and their purpose in the meaning of the soliloquy.
  • Mark to emphasize repeated words to help the audience notice them.

Performance practice

After closely reading the text multiple times and annotating it for meaning and the performance, students used their marked-up copy of the soliloquy to practice the audio performance. In class, students used whisper phones to play around with the language. 

During the practice, I provided feedback. For instance, one student was reading the entire soliloquy in exaggerated iambic pentameter. In earlier lessons, we analyzed which lines used iambic pentameter and Shakespeare’s purpose for using the rhythm of the heartbeat in those moments. This provided an opportunity for reteaching.

Recording

Students recorded the audio of the soliloquy in a web-based video platform. Audio recording has some benefits over live recitation. When students made mistakes recording, they were able to delete and rerecord.  They were also able to chunk the recording of the soliloquy. There was no pressure to be 100% accurate on the first try. These benefits may reduce anxiety among students who fear performing for the class.

Another benefit was that students were able to listen, evaluate, and revise their performances prior to publication. As students listened to their recordings, they noticed places that needed more emphasis or a pause. Then they were able to rerecord to enhance their performance. 

Adding audio and visual elements

In the same web-based video platform used for the audio recording, students added images, background music, and sound effects to enhance the production. For example, in Macbeth’s Act II Scene I soliloquy, some students used the sound effects of Macbeth’s footsteps when he asks the ground not to hear the direction of his whereabouts and the sound of a bell for King Duncan’s death knell. 

Publication

Students had the option to publish their audiovisual performance on our learning management system for their classmates to view and provide feedback for each other.

Reflection

Students were asked to reflect on how their audiovisual production demonstrated their comprehension of the soliloquy. They also reflected on how the close reading of the text helped to deepen their understanding of the soliloquy.

Upon my reflection of the audiovisual performance process and the products, I learned that teaching students how to use Shakespeare’s text clues to derive meaning reduced some of the mystery and anxiety of interacting with Shakespearian language. Students felt more confident and able to crack the code. 

Twenty years ago, my high school English teacher did not have the capability for all students to create an audiovisual performance. Today, we can use technology to redesign curriculum and ask student to use it to enhance their learning. To redesign, or not to redesign, should not be the question.

Susan Gustafson is a middle school reading and language arts teacher in the Chicago area. She is also certified as a reading specialist and is pursuing a master's degree in educational leadership. You can follow her on Twitter at @MiddleMsGus.

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