When I was in college, I took Chaucer because I didn’t want to have to deal with Shakespeare. I didn’t like Shakespeare. Generally speaking, I hated Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Taming of the Shrew with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, but that was a movie not the written version. Little did I know that I would end up teaching Shakespeare. Specifically, teaching Romeo and Juliet to high school students.
Since I teach two self-contained SPED Freshmen English classes and I have the side-by-side version of Romeo and Juliet, I figured that I would be able to make it through. For those of you who don’t know, side-by-side is where Shakespeare’s writing is on one side of the page and modern English is on the other side of the page.
The first thing I did was have the kids read, in small groups, a cheesy graphic novel of Romeo and Juliet so they could get the general idea of the story. There are better graphic novels of Shakespeare’s plays, but there isn’t money in the budget to buy them, so I went with what I had. One day, perhaps, I’ll be able to get the good graphic novels.
While the kids agreed that the graphic novels were cheesy, they had fun with them. They were skeptical about Shakespeare, in general, and felt that it would be too hard. The graphic novel did its job and gave them the chance to have a bit of fun with Shakespeare.
Next, I started reading the modern English version aloud. I asked the kids to follow along. If you remember, Gregory and Sampson, servants from the house of Capulet, were talking. At this point, I introduced my students to the term – double entendre. We discussed how Gregory and Sampson were making fun of each other and what else “sword” could refer to. I had their attention. There was a lot of laughing and blushing, but they were getting into things.
Then we got to this part –
Now, I was reading the modern English, but it was very similar to the Shakespearean English. When I finished these lines there was silence. I didn’t expect silence. So, I read it again. Still silence and puzzled looks because I was reading it again.
After much digging, I discovered that my students didn’t know what a maidenhead was and therefore, didn’t get the lines. Imagine trying to explain maidenhead to a bunch of immature freshmen who only got that a “sword” could be a sexual reference mere moments before. Imagine the looks on their faces as they realized how “swords” and maidenheads went together.
At that point I waited for them to settle down and focus. A couple of kids continued to giggle and shake their heads through my question, “Who is more interested in Shakespeare now?” They had learned that Shakespeare was a “dirty old man” during our research about him, but the kids hadn’t but together what that meant for his plays. But now I had their attention and would keep it through the entire play.
The kids continued to giggle for a day or two whenever I said sword, but that was the extent of their immaturity. At times they were confused and asked me to explain if it was a real sword or a “sword” because they were honestly confused. The kids also learned about euphemisms and were surprised that they used them already.
Once the kids got the idea, some, who were picking things up faster, would “translate” for the class and put things in ways the whole class could understand. I don’t think that I ever laughed so hard while teaching! It was quite funny to see the astonished looks. The kids laughed a lot too. It was really a rewarding experience for the kids and for me.
I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me that Shakespeare was bawdy. Perhaps if they had, I would have read more Shakespeare and enjoyed it.
Now I need to decided if I am going to teach Romeo and Juliet to my Sophomores, as they didn’t cover it last year.