"Teaching Shakespeare Through Exercises on Acting and on the Basic Emotions"
Students were asked to direct a speech in their journals, spelling out in detail just what the characters do, how they interact with other characters, what changes they goes through, and how the speech relates to the rest of the play.
At one point the class was divided into groups, each of which was assigned a scene from King Lear to present, discuss, act out, or otherwise bring to life for the rest of the class.
Each student was asked to choose one character from each play to study closely. Then, in journals, each student was asked to make a catalogue of that character's major lines and comment on what these lines tell. In addition, students wrote up a full characterization and brought in real-life parallels. I grouped the class according to character, and asked them to discuss the various ways they saw the character they had chosen. Once we tried to follow this up with a milling-about improvisation in which each person tried to play the chosen character and interact with any other "character" as they encountered in the room. This exercise happened not to work well, though it might with a different group.
Once or twice I tried to put on an act for the class, in order to illustrate some point. For example, just after the Spring break, I gave them a scathing lecture about laziness and set up a stern series of tests, papers, quizzes, and extra assignments. After a long scene of this, I abruptly returned to my usual, easy-going self, confessed that it was all an act, and asked them to write about what they had felt.
Since they had come to expect very different, more supportive feelings from me, this act surprised them enough to lead into a discussion of how King Lear begins by expecting one kind of world, and finds his expectation rudely shattered by another kind of world. Their various responses to what I did provided some lead-in to Lear's way of responding.
Unfortunately, students are so accustomed to arbitrary authority that some of them simply accepted what I said as "one of those things teachers do" and did not allow themselves to respond at all. Again, here is an exercise that did not work as well as I hoped, but I like the idea behind it: to create an in-class experience which leads into the experience of the play.
From this point, I asked people to consider what happens when the world seems to fall apart. Has it ever happened to you? Have you seen it in somebody else? What was it like? -- I had them write in their journals about this experience, then tie it into what Lear goes through when his world falls apart, and how, if at all, he resolves this experience.
Helped, I think, by the exercises, a sense of trust developed in this class, which led to some moments of remarkable sharing. While we were discussing Capulet's threats to disown Juliet for loving Romeo, a young woman ventured, faltered, then with encouragement from friends she had made in the class, revealed that she had been disinherited and banished from her father's house (she was now crying openly) for becoming engaged to a man of a different religion.
On that day, we didn't read Shakespeare. He read us.
After the class had finished King Lear, I performed a synoptic reading of the play, delivering major passages and summarizing in between, enacting all the roles myself. This was the second year I had given such a reading as a memorial to a friend who had died the previous year (something I did not tell them until just before reading the part where Lear and Cordelia are reunited).
By now, I felt that students were ready to think about life, death, and art on a deep level, so before performing the ending, I told them how reading King Lear at the end of my freshman year in college had probably saved me from suicide. That class began with, "I am alive today because Shakespeare wrote King Lear."
Much of the semester, though, was taken up with classes and discussions of a kind that would not look unusual anywhere. We simply held classes to discuss the plays. However, the core exercises on the basic emotions and the recurring techniques from actor-training brought into the class an atmosphere of energy and response that is unusual in my teaching experience.
I tried to bring Shakespeare into the experience of my students, not merely into their thoughts. Perhaps these students will remember, in their muscles and nerves, an experience of the highly-charged and highly-ordered world of Shakespeare's plays.
I first wrote this account in 1972, at the conclusion of the course described. I am reviving the account of this class now, 25 years later, because it still rings true to me, because the methods I used then have not been widely adopted, and because anyone who has been "read by Shakespeare" can never fully repay the debt.
Perhaps you can use some of these ideas when you teach.