At Keystone, it’s easy to see why Shakespeare is eternal
“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.”
–Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
To say that watching Upper School students perform William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last week evoked a variety of emotions would be an understatement. Yes, the students acted beautifully, and Mr. Ciaravino’s directing was impeccable. The stage crew met the demands of the moment with a simple but compelling set, and the music established the mood and tone of the show. Equally impressively, the actors demonstrated an extraordinary sense of timing and comedic sensibilities. I glanced at my fellow audience members and saw many of us laughing so hard that tears streamed down our cheeks.
In any year, it would have been an excellent performance of the classic comedy. However, this being the first live theater at Keystone in two years made the three-night run even more moving. After so long, we were once again watching together as a collective act, and it felt wonderful.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help marveling that in our return to the stage we were reaching back to a play that was written in 1595 or 1596. What is about the Bard that keeps us returning to his plays again and again? Why, when there are so many plays written, do we go to Shakespeare?
According to several articles I read, the reasons for teaching Shakespeare in school can be summarized in four arguments. First, his plays contain universal themes that we return to again and again in modern works. For those of you who may be seeing The Lion King at the Majestic Theater, please bear in mind the similarities of this seemingly children’s tale with Hamlet and its ghosts and themes of grief and revenge. West Side Story retells Romeo and Juliet, and Mean Girls provides a high school version of Julius Caesar. Perhaps no play expresses the green-eyed monster in as sinister a fashion as Othello. We return to Shakespeare because we recognize the themes and emotions in his plays in our own world and in ourselves.
In her interview with University of California English professor Maggie Trapp, writer Lori Gray explains, “‘Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare’s work was ‘not of an age but for all time,’ which has proven to be prescient,” says Trapp. ‘There’s something about the plays that makes them more than topical, more than of their own time. They can teach us about the politics and the psychology of our current moment, about the intricacies of hubris and the fluidity of desire, the perils of blind ambition and the satisfactions of true connection. These plays have managed to speak complicated truths to all manner of audiences and readers for hundreds of years.’ ”
In turn, we understand the characters in Shakespeare’s plays because they exist in people we know. According to the “Top 5 Reasons for Teaching Shakespeare” by high school teacher Renee Ann Smith, “Shakespeare showed a thorough understanding of human nature with the characters he created. His heroes express the fears and desires of every thoughtful man. His bold heroines give the likes of Katniss Everdeen a run for her money. We learn more about ourselves from the personalities that people his plays.” The characters seem to be multi-valent like our friends or colleagues, so they invite our admiration, our disdain, and our empathy.
Perhaps a third reason for grappling with the complexity of Shakespeare comes from its being demanding. Again and again, we learn that students respond to challenges, whether they come in the form of an abstract math problem, a seemingly impossible translation, or a lab that just won’t work. This may be even more true for the motivated and hard-working students at Keystone. Similarly, wrestling with the language and plotlines of Shakespeare takes students to a new level of work, accomplishment, and growth. Just like our physical muscles grow after a straining workout, our intellectual skills move to a new level when we take on works like Macbeth or As You Like It.
Educator Sachel S. Bise says, “According to researchers at the University of Liverpool, Shakespeare “uses a linguistic technique known as functional shift,” which is when one element of grammar is intentionally altered. Shakespeare used functional shift frequently, especially when using nouns as verbs. When the brain sees this, there is “a sudden peak in brain activity and [it] forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.” Shakespeare’s language forces readers to develop stronger skills in order to understand what the text means. Those skills are vital to becoming a strong analyzer in math, science, history, and English. It can also help with social skills when adolescents are trying to figure out what their peers mean in the confusing and complex situations in which teenagers often find themselves. Students also develop stronger language skills that can be used in social interactions when peers use sarcasm or metaphors without realizing it.’
Finally, perhaps one of the best reasons to read and perform Shakespeare is for the love of the language. Some people say that Shakespeare created 7,000 new words in the English language. Watching the Keystone students speak the puns and engage in the wordplay last week offered some of the greatest joys of the evening. Shakespeare’s influence on the way we speak continues even today.
Here again, Lori Gray and Professor Trapp open our eyes. “Have you ever said, ‘wiith bated breath,’ that something is the “be-all and the end-all” or that you wanted to ‘break the ice’? Have you asked, “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” If so, you have quoted Shakespeare.
“If for no other reason, students today should study Shakespeare simply to appreciate how much of our daily discourse we owe to his wordsmithery,” Trapp asserts. “If you’ve ever said ‘green-eyed monster,’ ‘in a pickle,’ ‘tongue-tied,’ ‘standing on ceremony,’ ‘wild goose chase,’ ‘cruel to be kind,’ ‘hoodwinked,’ ‘to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve,’ ‘it’s Greek to me,’ ‘the clothes make the man,’ ‘forever and a day,’ or any of these other now-common sayings, you’ve cited Shakespeare. His turns of phrase were unconventional and ingenious, and today they’ve entered so fully into the English language that they seem to be beyond coinage. We’re so steeped in Shakespeare that we’re not even aware of it anymore. He was a deft crafter of the English language, and his metaphors have made each of us all the richer as readers and writers.”
Mr. C, the Upper School Theater teacher and director had this to say, “To act Shakespeare, is to know Shakespeare. Our students read numerous Shakespeare plays during their time at Keystone, but nothing quite exercises every part of their brains like acting Shakespeare. The complexity of his language and the gravity of his themes challenge our students to convert their analytical skills into acting choices. Every year I’m honored to watch them struggle and grow throughout the process.”
Gypsy Pantoja, or Ms. G as the students know her, concurred on the benefits of teaching Shakespeare in school. “I think it’s important for everyone, especially students, to learn and perform Shakespeare! The plays continue to be studied, rehearsed & performed to this day because the themes, characters and conflicts can be seen and experienced in our current world. And in every play, MAGIC abounds! Magic is creativity, and imagination! Learning and playing Shakespeare, indeed all theatre, allows the players to step into the shoes of others and role play conflicts that they may experience while using the magic of creative and imaginative problem solving. Shakespeare is timeless!”
As A Midsummer Night’s Dream concluded, all of us in the audience leapt to our feet to applaud the magic we had just witnessed. The students had proven their comprehension of Shakespeare’s play with witty repartee, perfect comedic timing, and well-coordinated staging. More than that, though, they reaffirmed the beauty and universality of his works in 2021. In addition, they reminded us that even on its best days, Zoom simply cannot replicate the wonders of live theater. It’s great to be back!