Russell Harris says ‘Teaching Shakespeare leaves you breathless.’

Posted June 21st, 2012 by James Stredder and filed in Uncategorized

Russell Harris writes:  I am an English teacher at a central London academy, who also enjoys writing. I’ve had one or two small contributions published in the TES (and some longer articles in other publications) and would like to try to develop this interest.

Teaching Shakespeare leaves you breathless

 by  Russell Harris

Teaching: doesn’t it leave you breathless? One minute you’re involved in day-to-day drudgery, such as counting dictionaries and prising up crusty globules of chewing gum, while the next you’re discussing the intricacies of a Shakespearean couplet. For an English teacher, it is of course the latter that provides the excitement (usually). Let me explain.

Recently, my year 11 class were tasked with comparing a modern adaptation of Macbeth with the original: we went for Goold’s 2010 film starring Patrick Stewart and it certainly forced my creaking brain into gear. Picture this. Panicky questions ricochet around the classroom; while some of the boys almost fall off their chairs in erotic excitement when I introduce the idea – from an essay by Stephen Greenblatt -that Lady Macbeth is a sexual terrorist. (Those last two words are perhaps among a teenage boy’s favourites.)

No, I reassure my class, I’m not a sadist; I’m just trying to inspire you to explore, interpret and – above all – to imagine. (Oh, and achieve a good grade in your GCSE.) Look – “Fair is foul and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air” – isn’t this the epitome of language that both defies and creates meaning? Isn’t this the Shakespearean equivalent of that incredibly rich, intercultural North London dialect that surrounds us? One or two eyes flicker in understanding.

But what do I write next, Sir? Well, try to connect the points you make about Shakespeare’s original text with detailed comments on how that scene is depicted in the film. Think about it. The film opens in a grim military hospital, wounded soldiers scream in agony and lights flicker as the thunder of modern warfare crashes through the shaking walls. And who are the nurses here? That’s right – the modern equivalent of the witches: medical practitioners who fatally inject their patient. A silent moment descends… That’s deep, Sir.

And here’s my example paragraph: what do you think? Have I met the assessment criteria? Or missed the point altogether? Suddenly, the injured man is alone with the nurses, and the audience realizes that something utterly appalling is occurring. Electric ceiling lamps switch off one by one – seemingly at the invisible will of the nurses – and the light focuses on the three women as they fatally inject their patient. The supernatural potency of Shakespeare’s original text has become the power of perverted Science to kill. A modern audience is terrified: the dominant sound of the heart monitor enhances this terror; while the dramatic lighting focuses our attention on the nurses, whose costumes remind us disturbingly of nuns. Goold succeeds in creating a horrifying start to his film just as Shakespeare terrorized his audience: both create an atmosphere of profound fear. 

My students look quizzically at my triumphant face. Just have a go, I urge. Be creative. Take a risk. Then, slowly at first, pens begin to move, words start appearing and a hush falls. It dawns upon me that this is another exciting aspect of teaching Shakespeare: taking that shared plunge into new ideas.