For language students, lessons often “creep at this petty pace from day to day”. Grammar, and grammar, and grammar makes their brain sore with the effort of learning something that can only be learned through the use of itself, and there seems to be no end in sight. After all, are you ever really finished being a student, even of your own language?
To break up this monotony, it’s important to do things other than grammar exercises, writing using the grammar, speaking using the grammar, and listening to faceless voices on the textbook CD speak using the grammar. Sometimes, you have to prove to your students that they’ve learned a good deal of English grammar. Sometimes, you have to show them that, as difficult as English grammar is, it’s beautiful.
What better way to do that than to read passages from Shakespeare, a man renowned for his ability to manipulate English grammar, pronunciation, and lexicon to suit his own specific needs?
Actually, Shakespeare is wonderful for upper-level English language students, especially if you’re only looking at one passage at a time. One thing you’ll notice when you travel abroad is that everyone knows Shakespeare – he’s not one of those authors who’s famous with readers of his own language and no one else. Most people abroad will have read his works in their own language for school, so they’ll be familiar with his works. However, most of them won’t have read his plays in English. If they have, it was probably with a teacher who barely spoke English and did very little to help them understand the older form of English Shakespeare used (linguists call Shakespeare’s language Early Modern English, not Old English – that would refer to the language that Beowulf was written in).
My students were very keen on the idea of reading Shakespeare in English, and, as for me, it would take all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to keep me away from a Shakespeare reading. As it was, I was the proctor of the meeting, and so it fell to me to decide how we should organize the gig.
I decided to talk about two different speeches, both of which deal with one of Shakespeare’s most famous similes, comparing life to a play. In my opinion, if you’re going to expose students to Shakespeare, the first lesson should be about something that English speakers quote all the time. I also wanted to show them Shakespeare’s skill with the language, so I chose speeches from opposite genres: one tragedy and one comedy. Whether we, as English speakers know it or not, we are very familiar with the two speeches I chose. First, the “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy from Act V, scene v of Macbeth. Secondly, the “All the world’s a stage” monologue from Act II, scene vii of As You Like It.
To start things off, we read through Macbeth’s soliloquy. I thought it better to do the tragedy first, and send the students home on a happy note with the comedy. I gave the background of the play, recapped the context of the speech, and explained some of Shakespeare’s linguistic quirks. With the “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, the major quirk to explain to students is how Shakespeare unabashedly makes up words to make his meter work, following that fine tradition of bards. For example, Macbeth talks about hearing a “night-shriek.” If you look up “night-shriek” in the dictionary, you’ll come up with a big fat load of nothing. Because it’s not a word. He used two existing words to create a third word, which better encapsulated his meaning than either of the two words alone.
At this point, one of my coworkers stepped in to assist me, and demonstrated what a “shriek” is for our students. In fact, she skillfully demonstrated all the sounds and actions that Shakespeare describes in these two speeches – including “mewling,” “whining,” “strutting,” and “fretting” – much to our students’ amusement.
With As You Like It, I tried to explain why a speech that ends on such a sad note (“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”) could be funny. For this, I had to explain Jacques, the melancholy companion of the Duke (this gave my students a chance to practice their vocabulary, as I had given them the word ‘melancholy’ for a personality description). The man is chronically sad, and he decides he wants to be a fool, a jokester, a comedian. His speech, which we all know the first two lines of, is his attempt at comedy. It fails miserably.
The speech starts off grandly, with “All the world’s a stage / and all the men and women merely players,” then goes on to describe puking babies, whining children, sappy poetry, the deterioration of the body with age. Again, there was more skillful sound support from my colleague. Even with the comedy of my friend producing mewling, puking, and whining sounds, the speech reads rather like Eeyore had tried to make a joke, which is in and of itself funny. With a bit of dramatized reading on my part, my students got it.
Naturally, poetry and food go hand-in-hand, so to round out the evening we had some focaccia, chiacchiere, and beer together.
Macbeth’s soliloquy (Act V, scene v):
Macbeth: I have almost forgot the taste of fears;
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t: I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me.
Wherefore was that cry?
Seyton: The queen, my lord, is dead.
Macbeth: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Jacques’ monologue (Act II, scene vii):
Jacques: All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.