Teaching Shakespeare: Best Play to Start?

I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare a lot recently–I’ve been getting into theater, I saw Something Rotten and read Twelfth Night this summer, I’m getting deeper into learning to teach English, and now my brother’s in high school and will be reading Romeo and Juliet this year.

When I heard that last item, I was a little disappointed…I saw a production of it my freshman year of high school, and there’s certainly a lot of dramatic momentum and memorable words, but it’s gained a bit of unfair stigma as a trivial, quick love story between teenagers (which is basically societal reflection on teenage relationships and the romance genre anyway). I’m worried my brother wouldn’t enjoy it as much as, say, Macbeth.

So this prompted me to reflect and I’d like to share my experience with Shakespeare in school and open up the discussion to those who have read more than me. Please comment!

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (freshman year): This was a great introduction. It’s wacky, fun to act out, a good exercise in keeping characters straight, and we got to say “ass” a lot and act out a play within a play.
  • Much Ado About Nothing (sophomore year): We watched the movie of this first (the 90s one), which definitely helped when we read it. This we were less concerned with the language and everything, anyway. Less wacky, but still fun?
  • Macbeth (senior year): On the serious side, here’s a lot of blood and murder and witches and dramatic tension and irony. Captivating and fun to act out.

I also had a good although not immersive experience (because I spent less time on it) with Twelfth Night this summer–definitely another fun, wacky one, and its use of gender can certainly open up discussions, engagement, and inclusivity in general.

What has been your experiences with Shakespeare in school? What plays engaged you and with what activities?

 

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Pride Month(ish) Wrap-Up

So I’m late to this because I’ve been working a lot. I’ve added the “ish” because the first two books here I read in May, but since they were also Pride themed I decided to include them, especially since I haven’t talked about them yet, either!

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

simon coverYes, I finally got around to this, and it was one of those books I read in just a couple of days on my Kindle. Simon is about the titular character who communicates through email with another boy known as “Blue” who goes to his high school but whose identity is unknown. This becomes discovered, however, by one of Simon’s classmates who uses the information to blackmail Simon if he doesn’t try to get this classmate together with his friend Abby. What makes it such a quick and enthralling read is that it functions as a personal mystery with a lot of cute moments.

I especially appreciated the discussion of coming out, because it’s a much more nuanced thing that it sounds like. Simon is worried his parents are going to make a bigger deal out of it than it should be. Is coming out still necessary–and should it be? Also, outing people is TERRIBLE.

I also read Albertalli’s second novel (and companion to Simon), The Upside of Unrequited, but I’m not including it as a separate entry because, as many pointed out during Pride month, that while there are many queer characters, the main characters are cis and heterosexual. I didn’t like it as much as Simon. I really appreciated the many discussions in it, though, from sexuality to anxiety (the routine of taking pills in the morning!).

We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

we are the antsThis book is by no means for everyone, but it struck a chord with me. It follows Henry, a teen who happens to be occasionally abducted by aliens who tell him the date of the end of the world but give him the option to save it if he presses a button. The thing is, he’s not sure he wants to press the button. He’s also dealing with the suicide of his boyfriend, relentless bullying at school, friendships both old and new, and his family’s various struggles.

This was a welcome antidote to all the discussion about 13 Reasons Why (which I talked about here, and which Hutchinson has talked about himself), because while it is about guilt, Henry eventually realizes there’s really no one to blame–not to mention his own Henry sees the other characters and his relationship to them as increasingly more complex. I also really appreciated the inclusion of the grandmother with Alzheimer’s, as an ailing grandmother with memory difficulties is something I’ve been going through for a while, and Ms. Faraci who was a great teacher ally.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

color purpleHere’s a classic I’ve known I need to read since the 2016 Tony Awards (this performance, wow!), and it applies to both Pride month reading as well as my African American reading goals. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while now, but I was worried that it would be too heavy and complex reading while I was still doing my school readings. It’s true that it’s written in dialect from an under-educated woman (in the form of letters to God…well, mostly, but I won’t spoil it), but once you figure out who everyone is, it reads quite quickly. Plus, I really appreciated the writing and voice.

The Color Purple is Celie’s story as she struggles to find herself in rural Georgia in the 1930s amidst physical and sexual abuse from her father, her sister Nettie’s disappearance, and an unhappy marriage. She meets a singer, Shug Avery, who becomes more than just a friend. I shipped them SO MUCH and it’s beautiful. Also, the discussion of female sexuality was frank and included more than your typical book–even those published nowadays.

I haven’t seen the movie, directed by Spielberg and starring Oprah, but I did listen to the musical cast album and quite liked it. The OBC includes LaChanze as Celie, who I already loved from If/Then (which I talked about here), and Renee Elise Goldsberry (aka Angelica Schuyler) as Nettie.

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

star crossedThis is a middle grade book about a girl discovering her bisexuality while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet for the eighth grade play with a really pretty girl. Some of the discussion surrounding this book (including a time Dee was asked not to speak of the subject matter at a school visit) sparked a very personal post about the role of LGBTQ+ books for kids and in schools, and now I’ve finally read it.

It is, indeed, adorable, and I was totally rooting for Mattie and Gemma. It’s also a love letter to Shakespeare and theater nerds, which I very much appreciated. Heck, I think I understand Romeo and Juliet better now than when I saw a production of it over 4 years ago. I also really appreciated that the teacher was a major character and portrayed positively and mechanistically…yay for English teachers! (I mean, I’m going to be one, I’m kind of biased.

I do wish the word “bisexual” was used, though, as it certainly seemed within the characters’ vocabulary. One student gets called out (by the teacher!) for using “gay” as a negative descriptor, and Mattie wonders if liking Gemma means she’s a lesbian at one point, though she late tells her friends that it doesn’t change the fact she likes guys, too–but that’s it. And that rang a bit strange. Everything else, relationship-wise (crushes are a big deal!), was perfect for the target age group.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

if i was your girl.jpgThis book is about a trans girl, Amanda, starting her life anew post-transition when she moves in with her father in a different town, and refreshingly it’s a trans book also written by a trans person. Unfortunately, major houses publish seldom few of these. Russo highlights aspects of the experience I hadn’t given as much thought to before–how, yes, awareness that one is trans and maybe “found out” occupies Amanda’s thoughts, but so does avoiding sexual harassment and other misogyny and specifically transmisogyny. And while she had gone through the ringer and continues to have some struggles, she’s allowed to be a regular teen, too, and start a happy relationship. Because even if you’re marginalized, you’re entitled to happiness in stories.

There is a major bisexual character and I’m not sure how I feel about that representation (as someone also bi). She was great for a while but then took a huge left turn. I don’t want to majorly spoil things, but there is something HUGE and terrible that happens at the end (which is why people need to stop saying this book is too happy??). And while it’s true that this horrible thing happens, and it’s good to show that not all LGB people are good trans allies, the bi character’s problem throughout the story result from her sexual attractions and desire for people, and having her being the most sexually active character was just kind of a stereotype I’m tired of? As is her being [SPOILERS] a backstabber. Especially with her being the ONLY bi character. So…alas, I’m conflicted and was a little disappointed

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

anglesinamerica-poster-09e5123a460579745d30d01cd781ea0aI’ve been reading more and more plays lately because I’m on quite the theater kick (both musical and not), so naturally Angels in America was on my list, and it was especially on my list for Pride month. (Note: I read the omnibus edition published in conjunction with HBO’s 2003 movie/miniseries. I know they were revised several times, especially Part 2, and I think I read the latest versions.)

Angels in America is one of those things that’s difficult to describe…yes, it is a two-part play that, in total, often runs close to 8 hours. It’s set in New York during the mid-80s height of the AIDS crisis. There’s Prior Walter, diagnosed and health deteriorating in the hospital, visited by his ancestors and an Angel. His lover, Louis, is terrified and leaves him. Roy Cohn, a real person (now starring in thinkpieces about how he was Trump’s lawyer), is dying from AIDS but is deeply closeted as he equates homosexuals with a lower class with no influence. Oh, and he’s haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenburg, who he sent to the electric chair. There’s Joe, a Mormon, struggling with his sexuality while his wife, Harper (my dream role; she gets some fantastic monologues), is agoraphobic and addicted to Valium. She spends quite a bit of time in a probably hallucinated Antarctica and meets Prior in one of her hallucinations and one of his dreams. And the 8 principal actors play all of the minor parts, too, adding parallels between characters and some female drag roles. So…it’s epic, it’s weird, it’s moving, and it’s funny at points. Part 2 might overstay its welcome and gets much more ephemeral, but the fact the Angels were present and spoke in verse reminded me a lot of Shakespeare and his supernatural-tinged plays (like Macbeth and The Tempest). It’s very theatrical, and that’s what I loved about it.

I’m also attending the National Theatre Live recordings in (movie) theatres. Part 1 has aired so far and it was AMAZING–like I knew the dialgoue was great from reading it, but seeing it acted out with amazing performances? Even better. Plus, there were great effects and lighting for the more magical elements, and there’s a scene between Joe/Harper and Louis/Prior that takes place simultaneously, resulting in a lot of parallels and phenomenal coordination that you don’t completely get from just reading the play. Unfortunately my theater had a sound problem (a loud feedback noise) possibly from the file itself, but they were able to fix it, though they just had to stop and start a couple of times. When there wasn’t that sound, though, I was utterly engrossed, and I’m excited to watch the second part this Thursday.