Last year, I did something different with a group of Year 7s with Shakespeare. I got the students to write about the experience of going to the theatre as if they were there. None of the boring and mindlessly irrelevant stuff about Shakespeare dying on his birthday. After several years of students telling me this, my response of ‘really’ is wearing thin. So, I got students to write about watching a play. Subsequently, in my trawling through the internet over the holidays I found that I am not alone in this idea. Great minds think alike. However, the resource on TES was focusing on descriptive writing, whereas I was focusing on contextual knowledge. (Sorry, but can't find it. When I do, I will put a link here.)
Understanding is more important than lots of mindless facts. The facts are important to understanding, but often the overreliance of factual information leads to some codswallop statements when students write. The facts are used to form ideas rather than applied to an idea. Shakespeare left his wife to work in London is used by a student to crowbar the idea that Shakespeare didn’t like women so makes Lady Macbeth a horrible character. Or, some students just throw contextual facts in like salt and pepper; they just end a sentence with, ‘this is because fathers decided who daughters could marry.’ I feel that something more has to be done with this factual knowledge to develop a real understanding of a situation.
Often, the context becomes a list of facts that we feel we need to impart to students before they fully understand something. But, I feel that the facts need more exploration and connection to other factors of the time. The whole chuck a load of things at them and, hopefully, something will stick doesn’t work for me. Take, for example, this simple fact:
Elizabethans commonly thought that the Devil was capable of taking over your body and any suggestion of devilish behaviour or costume (actors) caused fear in an audience.
In a nutshell, they were scared of the Devil. Some deeper thinking is need for students to understand the implications of that fact.
If they were scared of the Devil, what else were they scared of?
If they believed the Devil was real, then how religious were they?
If they were scared of actors being devilish, how did they react on stage?
If they thought the Devil could take over a body, how did they view their friends and family differently?
If they believed in the Devil, did they think all crimes had something to do with this?
A simple fact alone becomes something more. The exploration of that one contextual fact has lots of resonance in so many different ways. The questioning of the fact gives us a deeper understanding so that when we apply the questions to a play such as Macbeth, we understand the context better. You understand the world was one of fear. Look at the play and you see a fear of the supernatural, the fear of family and friends, the fear of things not being right. Then, add another fact such as James I’s interest in witchcraft and you understand the first fact better. If the King is interested, then the rest of the country would be interested by default. I am teaching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to Year 10s and the one fact that I have unpicked is the fear that the white community held at the time: they feared, incorrectly, of black men being unable to control themselves and attacking their women. The questions this leads to are far more effective than a small photocopy of history of racism in America.
Rather than listing lots of contextual facts, we should be unpicking them bit by bit and developing our understanding further. Then, we can relate them to other aspects or facts. Knowing one fact and its significance is much better than knowing lots of facts and not knowing their significance. But, maybe we need to give more time to unwinding the facts. I am guilty of rushing through things, as I plough through so many aspects in a text; but, maybe, I need to be a little more simple with how I approach context.
Anyway, how did I do the virtual reality Shakespeare? First of all, I had to explain what virtual reality is, as unlike me they weren’t around in the 1990s.
1] First, I started with the facts. Well, true or false statements. Students decided what was true and what was false in the following below. They are silly, but they help to give a sense of the time. Each statement could become a stimulus for exploring the context further. If they didn’t wee in a bag, where did they wee then?
When going to the theatre, people used to carry a little bag to wee in.When you sneeze, somebody else must say 'bless you' or the Devil will take over your body.
If you wear pretend horns on your head and said you were the Devil on stage, then people would think you were the Devil.
People used to carry a little bag of flowers to keep away diseases.
The actors used real explosives and fire on a wooden stage.
Women couldn't act on stage.
People couldn't watch the plays at night time.
You were not allowed to throw rotten fruit at the actors.
Actors were only given their lines the day before the performance.
2] Then students compared two pictures. One of a modern theatre and one of the Globe theatre. This provided a point of comparison for discussion. The longer I teach, the more I realise that we need to place more things side by side to draw knowledge from students.
3] At this stage I worked with students on the language of Shakespeare’s plays and we worked through a small scene from ‘Hamlet’. Year 7s seem to love the opening scene to ‘Hamlet’ for some strange reason.
4] By this point, I felt it was necessary to revisit the context, so we watched five minutes of ‘Shakespeare in Love’. Obviously, I made sure it was a suitable bit; and the bit I selected was the bit towards the end, where they perform ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Students jotted down what they would see, hear, feel, smell and taste, based on the clip.
5] Now the tricky bit! I had to explain what virtual reality is to students who had never heard of the concept. It surprises me, but they haven’t. In the 1990s, it was all the rage, but now it isn’t.
I then got a student to be blindfolded. He then walked (sorry, nervously stumbled) through the class and if he bumped into a student or went near someone, they had to shout out something they might expect to see. Now, I would hesitate to do this with an older group as you might get a few interesting answers, but, thankfully, the Year 7s were kind. The student bumped into a hawker, a baker on his day off, a boy that wanted to be an actor, and someone urinating on the floor.
We have so many visual stimuli for Shakespeare’s theatre that I think we need to employ our imaginations a bit more. This did.
6] After all that, I decided to narrow the focus on an object that might be seen in that experience. A handkerchief. A purse. A pie. A dagger. We then had a go at describing that object and experimenting with word choices and how to fit the object into a sentence.
Finally, they turn this all into a piece of prose.
Task: Write two sides of A4 paper describing the experience of watching one of Shakespeare’s plays. Your object must fit into the description somehow.
The final products were the most interesting things I have read about context in years. The writing was engaging and fun, but they proved how much students knew about the theatre of the time. These are some of the scenarios that students described:
· A teenage boy worried about going on stage.
· A noble worried that they would be robbed.
· A thief picking pockets.
· A man in the audience scared at the sight of the ghost.
· A woman in the audience worried about the weather.
· An assassin looking for a target.
All of these descriptions were to the backdrop of ‘Hamlet’, so there were constant references to what was happening on stage mixed in with the perspective chosen. In fact, the students were weaving in the context with the play. A few years later and I will be asking them at GCSE to do this and think about how the audience would react to a scene. Here Year 7s were doing it unprompted and with glee. Some of the more able students were writing using Elizabethan language and others just lifted lines from the play.
When marking these I could see that students had knowledge of the context, but also they had understanding. And, I think, understanding the context is far more important than the knowledge of it. I still need to work on things. But, from now on a few facts, for me, well understood are better than a paragraph of details that isn’t understood and isn’t related to the text.
Thanks for reading,Xris
P.S. Please read my other blog about context for more ideas about teaching context here.