When Words Fail, Shakespeare Speaks Up

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The daunting task of memorizing lengthy passages of text is a legitimate challenge that all actors, particularly Shakespearean ones, must endure in preparation for a performance.  For some, this can be a mere inconvenience or something one reluctantly accepts as a part of suffering for their art.  To others it can be a complete deterrent to ever take on a role again, but for a person with a speech or language disorder it can provide an outlet for communication. 

This unique perspective on text was shared with me by one of my eight-year old students.  As an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, it may seem that Shakespearean dialogue is a rather unorthodox instructional tool for young English Language Learners (ELLs); however, it has proved to be an engaging way for my students to fully experience language.  This particular student not only faces the challenge of adapting to a new language and culture, but also has an expressive language disability which significantly impacts his ability to express himself orally.  While portraying one of Clarence’s murderers in our Shakespeare festival production of Richard III, this student was not only able to execute and comprehend all of his lines, but was also able to express to me why Shakespeare made him feel “powerful”.  He said, “With Shakespeare, I never have to think of what I’m going to say.” 

My student’s experience allowed me to reflect upon some of my own Shakespearean epiphanies.  After time spent devouring the plays and sonnets, Shakespeare’s words do become your own as they permanently plant themselves in your subconscious and wind their way into your everyday speech.  Nothing falls so “trippingly on the tongue” as an appropriately slung Shakespearean insult at that dim-witted canker-blossom in your life that constantly vexes thee.  Or what about that attractive guy or girl you impressed by wooing with some borrowed lines from a Shakespeare sonnet you remembered from your school days?  There is something very empowering about uttering that perfectly-fitting Shakespeare quote to apply to the ordinary encounters of our everyday lives. 

Much like my students, I feel that Shakespeare often supplies me with not only the right thing to say at the right time, but also a script for life.  So many applicable life lessons can be gained from reading his plays today because human nature has not and will not ever change.  Sure, you may not be Macbeth faced with the decision to take someone’s life to gain power, but how many of us have been faced with similar ethical dilemmas over choosing to do the right thing and not the most tempting plan of self-advancement? 

One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Ben Jonson, wrote that “Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time.”  While we now live in the digital age, consider how revisiting or getting to know Shakespeare for the first time can give you greater self-awareness and insight into the world around you.  “Speak the speech, I pray you” and discover how Shakespeare’s language can empower you today.

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Author:Holly Rodgers

Holly Rodgers is an educator, musician, and writer in the greater Washington DC area that has worked collaboratively with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC to design lesson plans to promote the use of Shakespeare's works with English language learners. She has over a decade of experience in the field of education working as a band director, ESL teacher, presenter, and curriculum developer and is the founder of teachingtolkien.com, a blog designed as an education resource for teachers wishing to share the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with their students. Holly has presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library Elementary Educators Conference and their webinar and teacher-to-teacher technology sessions. Her elementary ESL students performed at the Folger in 2010 for the Emily Jordan Folger Children's Shakespeare Festival and were featured on the Verizon cable television program Push Pause. Holly has also presented her work with Shakespeare and English Language Learner (ELL) students at the WATESOL (Washington Area Teachers of ESOL), KYTESOL (Kentucky Teachers of ESOL), and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conventions and her work with Tolkien and ELL students at Mythcon, the conference of The Mythopoeic Society. Follow Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers
  • Holly Rodgers

    Thanks for reading, Monica!

  • http://www.thamesvalleysummer.com/ Learn English

    Good post, really interesting! I’ve also had some good moments teaching Shakespeare to ESL students — it definitely gives you a different perspective on his work when you see it through the eyes of a student.


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