Haripersad Sewlall

    Former Assistant Superintendent of Education (Academic), House of Delegates (TVL)

    1.  Introduction

    How may the study of Shakespearean play be undertaken in the time available in a First-Language classroom?  The teacher is expected to spend no more than a term (approximately 16-18 periods) on the study of any one set work, even a Shakespearean play.  Most teachers, understandably, extend this period by resorting to ‘flexi-time’ – which in reality means poaching time from other aspects of English!

    A brief, theoretical background to the history of Shakespearean criticism can be helpful, Derek Traversi reasserted in 1968 a view he had advocated in the early part of this century:

    To proceed from the word to the image in its verse setting, and thence to trace the way in which a pattern of interdependent themes is gradually woven in to the dramatic action, unifying and illuminating it, is the most fruitful approach – the most accurate and, if properly handled, the least subject to prejudice – to Shakespeare’s art. (Traversi, p 17)

    In brief, Traversi underscores the shift from a psychological study of character, evident in Bradley and his adherents, to a study of diction, character, action, theme and motivation.  The danger of subjectivity will be apparent to anyone who has read some of the criticism of even an astute critic such as Coleridge who would condemn a play because he disapproved of the actor!  Teachers and students therefore need to be circumspect when using criticism from the Romantic and Victorian periods, often included in some editions used at schools.  Illustrations, maps, time charts, etc are invaluable for consolidation.  Even memorable lines can be displayed on charts to encourage (not compel) students to learn by heart.

    2.  An outline of the plot

    It would be ideal if all students had read the text before coming to the classroom.  Alas, this is not going to be the case, as many a teacher perennially laments.  It becomes incumbent on the teacher therefore to present the plot in an interesting manner.  No opportunity must be passed by to draw parallels with contemporary society as this gives the play relevance and significance for the student.  The playing of a recording or a video from beginning to end serves little purpose, unless punctuated occasionally by a commentary from the teacher.  An overview can be presented in the form of a brief story-cum-dramatization in order to plunge the student in to the sound and feel of the text as soon as possible.  Graphics, sketches and simple tasks on worksheets to consolidate the plot have been used to advantage by many a teacher.  A knowledge of the plot has to be established before a thematic study can be undertaken.

    1. 3. The opening scene/s

    In a thematic approach to Shakespeare, the importance of the opening scene/s of the first act cannot be over-emphasized.  The ability to assess the thematic significance of the opening scenes of a well-constructed play is a skill that has to be developed in students.  In As you like it, for example, Orlando’s complaints addressed to Adam introduce us to the themes of conflict and disorder in normal human relationships.  The next extract the teacher could focus on is the reply Charles makes to Oliver’s query about the latest news.  These lines reinforce the theme of domestic discord and carry it further.  Here, students have the opportunity of exploring human motives and establishing contrasts in character.  A study of plot, character, theme, conflict and human motive, is the crux of any Shakespearean play.

    Another skill that can be imparted at this stage is how to assess character:  by what a person says; what he/she does (action); and what others say about that person.  In Macbeth the function of the soliloquy and the aside as modes of characterization will be highlighted.  In As you like it, the lesson could be rounded off on an interesting counterpoint:  namely, the hostility of two brothers in vivid contrast to the loyalty and friendship of Adam (to be reinforced later by the relationship between Rosalind and Celia).  Once the theme of domestic conflict has been consolidated, the class is ready to embark on a study of disharmony in a country – a Duke banished by an unscrupulous brother – and its consequences.  Life-skills and parallels with contemporary life should go hand-in-hand with every literature lesson.  All this will not be achieved in one period.  Coming to grips with a Shakespearean play, especially at Std 8 level, will require patience and effort.

    What has been said about the opening scenes of As you like it is also pertinent to other plays by Shakespeare:  they generally announce themes and conflicts that resonate as the plays progress.  The teacher and students could then launch into an exploration of the themes, focusing on the thematic imagery and metaphor that are woven into the fabric of the play. To achieve this with economy, it is not possible to explicate every line in class.  Only a selected number of extracts can be examined.  Along this journey several aspects will have to be touched on incidentally and reinforced periodically.  Students’ attention will have to be drawn to Shakespeare’s use of prose and verse and their respective functions.

    4.  Reading the text

    Recordings by well-known stage actors may be used in class, but roles may also be assigned to pupils prior to the day of the lesson so that they may be able to ‘act’ their parts with confidence.

    5.  Worksheets, tests and assignments

    Worksheets should test pupils’ knowledge of context, theme, content, imagery and diction.  Teachers need to be wary of study guides which contain a battery of questions.  They need to be highly selective.  Nothing could be more counter-productive and soul-destroying in literature study than working through a plethora of questions during a weekend or vacation.  Contextual questions should relate to the gestalt of the play:  its meaning.  Therefore the extract chosen must have relevance so that the questions which are extrapolated from it may encompass the main themes of the play.  When setting essay-type questions for assignments, once again the main themes should be borne in mind.  Essay-writing skill must be revised and implemented.  The matric examiners’ comments over the years on this type of question should be heeded.

    6.  Conclusion

    To complete a Shakespearean play in the time allotted, the teacher requires the skills of a good story-teller so that even when chunks of the text are skimmed over, the integrity of the plot and theme is not sacrificed.  Admittedly, the endeavour will not be without its frustrations sometimes.  The creative teacher adapts, adjusts and expunges, but must avoid creating the impression that literature teaching should be teacher-dominated.  Further, the ongoing debate about the worth, or otherwise, of teaching Shakespeare to secondary-school pupils has been side-stepped, in much the same way as the issue of whether Shakespeare should be studied as literature or enjoyed as drama.  The hints offered here could also be pertinent to the study of any other genre of literature in an English (First Language) classroom.  The teacher is always in a time-bind, therefore it is impossible for him/her to read every page and chapter in the classroom.

    Finally, a word on Shakespearean plays for junior classes.  The head of a department needs to exercise judicious choice in the selection of the student’s first Shakespearean play for study.  Besides taking into account what would interest most students at this age, the teacher should consider other factors that may influence the students’ attitude.  It must be noted that Shakespeare’s work ranges widely in dramatic complexity, style, diction and even length.  Any teacher who has taught King Lear in one year and Julius Caesar in another, will know the difference in length between these two play, not to mention the differences in dramatic structure and diction.


    Traversi, D.  An Approach to Shakespeare, Vol 1/11, Hollis and Carter, London. 1968.

    [This article was originally published in CRUX: 27:3, August 1993, published by the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology – but it is still of value to the current English teacher.]

    Categories: Issue I