Saturday, 29 September 2018

O Benvolio, Benvolio, wherefore art thou, Benvolio?

One of the big things I have been concentrating on more in the last two years is characterisation in key texts. I feel spending good quality time looking, and I mean really looking, at the characters and how they are used reaps rewards. I am forever reminding students that each character is a construct and should be seen as a tool. A spanner. A hammer. A screwdriver. It just so happens they might seem, act and behave like real people. Their role in the story is important.  

Added to this, I have a soft spot for the side characters. The minor parts. I call them the easily forgotten characters. Peter in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Porter in ‘Macbeth.’ Caroline and her husband in ‘A Christmas Carol’. They are the interesting characters for me. My classes know that I find Juliet interesting to an extent, but I find Romeo really boring. He doesn’t interest me. I don’t neglect him, but I can’t seem to get on with him.   

A sign for me of a good writer is their ability to make the smallest of characters interesting. Take Benvolio. As an actor, you might be miffed if you got Benvolio instead of Tybalt, Romeo or Mercutio, because you don’t get to fight, or even die.

 O Benvolio, Benvolio, wherefore art thou, Benvolio? We know his name means ‘good will’ and all that jazz, but there are some interesting questions to be had when we look at the character’s usage in the play. For me, there are two interesting questions:

Why do we not see Benvolio after Act 3?

Why does Shakespeare introduce new friend Balthazar in Act 5 in a role that Benvolio could have fitted in to?

This week we were exploring these two questions. 

Why does Benvolio disappear? A

fter Act 3 Scene 1, we hear nothing from him. His last words are: 

Tybalt, here slain, whom Romeo's hand did slay;
Romeo that spoke him fair, bade him bethink
How nice the quarrel was, and urged withal
Your high displeasure: all this uttered
With gentle breath, calm look, knees humbly bow'd,
Could not take truce with the unruly spleen
Of Tybalt deaf to peace, but that he tilts
With piercing steel at bold Mercutio's breast,
Who all as hot, turns deadly point to point,
And, with a martial scorn, with one hand beats
Cold death aside, and with the other sends
It back to Tybalt, whose dexterity,
Retorts it: Romeo he cries aloud,
'Hold, friends! friends, part!' and, swifter than
his tongue,
His agile arm beats down their fatal points,
And 'twixt them rushes; underneath whose arm
An envious thrust from Tybalt hit the life
Of stout Mercutio, and then Tybalt fled;
But by and by comes back to Romeo,
Who had but newly entertain'd revenge,
And to 't they go like lightning, for, ere I
Could draw to part them, was stout Tybalt slain.
And, as he fell, did Romeo turn and fly.
This is the truth, or let Benvolio die.
The character is always seen as the peacemaker and a foil for the other characters. He’s just such a ‘good’ character. Why can’t Romeo, Tybalt and Mercutio just be like Benvolio?   

I do but keep the peace: put up thy sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me.

He is a wannabe peacemaker, but he isn’t THE PEACEMAKER or even a peacemaker in the play. He is only good in name and not in action. The play’s opening conflict is resolved by Mr Shouty, the Prince, and later the Prince arrives just too late to fix things in Act 3, but he at least makes things less violent for a short period of time by banishing Romeo.  In truth, he is the closest thing to a peacemaker we have, but it is really death that is the peacemaker in the whole play. And it takes a rather large number of deaths to create peace.

A lot of study guides describe Benvolio as the ‘peacemaker’. We should be clear that he tries to pacify people and events. He doesn’t actually fix things.  

I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire:

The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,

And, if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl;

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.
Then, what happens to Benvolio? His last word is ‘die’. After relaying the details of what happened to Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo, he gives himself up to the Prince’s mercy. Does he die under the Prince’s instruction? As Romeo’s cousin, it doesn’t seem unlikely. Plus, Shakespeare isn’t going to miss an opportunity to plunder drama from a situation and place Romeo in more torment.  So, what happens to him?  

My students believe that Benvolio’s inability to live up to his name could possibly lead to his suicide. Benvolio failed in Act 1 to fix things and the fact that he failed a second time with disastrous consequences changed his outlook on things. The class suggested that his last word echoes his thoughts. He failed and so must die.  He wanted the Prince to kill him. This would leave us with yet another suicide in the play. One that takes offstage. Something that Shakespeare liked to do a fair bit in this play. Bye Mercutio. Bye Lady Montague.

Adding fuel to this theory of Benvolio’s death is Balthasar’s appearance in Act 5. A guilt ridden Benvolio could have easily informed Romeo of Juliet’s death and possibly stopped Romeo from doing anything rash. Instead, we have a new friend (and a servant) introduced at the eleventh hour. It is like Benvolio regenerates into Balthasar. Ironically, Balthasar was one of the wise men and means ‘The Lord protects the king.’  In this case, he doesn’t really protect anybody and just guides Romeo to some kind of star – stars in the shape of his death.

I believe that Benvolio’s exit represents the point of no return in the play. Benvolio was the voice of reason and his disappearance signals how all reason disappears in the play and how things start to defy reason.  A fake death. A planned meeting at the exact point Juliet wakes up. A plan masterminded by a friar nonetheless. Yes, reason has packed its bag and said it has had enough of this rubbish, and taken the kids too.  

Benvolio is a foil for Romeo.

Benvolio is the voice of reason and caution.  

Benvolio is Romeo’s very ineffective ‘good angel’ on his shoulder.

Benvolio is the most visible Montague in the play apart from Romeo.

Benvolio is the Romeo’s family.  

Benvolio is a very, very bad peacemaker.

Benvolio is led by his head, but halfway through the play he led by his heart.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a play about the battle between the head and the heart. Benvolio is the epitome of this battle. He is the voice of reason in the sea of emotions. Maybe he discovers in Act 3 that the heart is stronger than the head. A small character with so much depth.  So now let’s stop peddling this lie that he is a peacemaker!

There’s so much to be explored with the small characters. I’ve spent lessons exploring Edna’s silence in ‘An Inspector Calls’.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 2 September 2018

Precision and patterns thanks to dual coding

I have never been a fan of turning a poem, novel or play into a story board. The results have always been underwhelming and slightly disappointing. We are often led to believe that ‘visualising’ is a key part of reading, yet what is usually ‘visualised’ on paper is nothing like the original text. Not even something that would pass off as a cheap carboot sale copy. Story boards had always been a nice filler for a lesson. From a learning point of view, the teacher learnt who could draw and who couldn’t. The teacher could also work out who read the text and who only read the opening. But, sadly, you didn’t get much else than that. You did, however, get some display material to get somebody off your back.

Last year, I decided to draw and use ‘dual coding’ to cope with the demands of the new exams. To successfully discuss the examined texts, a student needs to really know the text. And, I mean really know the text. Really, really, really know the books. I wanted to see if I could use ‘dual coding’ to address this issue. ‘Dual coding’ is simply using more than one channel to process and recall information. These two channels are often referred to as ‘visual’ and ‘verbal’ channels. Other people can explain it better than me, so I won’t go through it in too much detail. Anyway, I wanted to look at what I could do to support the learning of the texts using visual cues as well as reading the text and so I started drawing. I broke down each of the texts into components and created a pictorial map of the story. See below for an example. Warning: I am not an artist.

My key thinking behind some of the ‘artistic’ choices are:

·         Use of letters to signify the names of character so that students would have a visual cue but they’d have to recall the name.

·         Use of one item of clothing or hair style to signify a difference between characters. Or in some cases a connection between characters.

·         Setting wasn’t important unless it was a change of setting, which I signified by a building.

·         All scenes must be included and all events in some capacity.

·         If the positioning of a character in stage was important, then I’d add some detail to help reinforce this point (balcony)

·         Thoughts were always signified with thought bubble and dialogue with a speech bubble.

·         Where possible, entrances and exits were marked on the map. However, some texts it is too much.

·         Words would be used, but only to a minimum and often one word.

·         Symbols were used rather than words.

Then, I started to use it in my teaching. I scanned my drawing and gave a copy to all students as we worked through ‘Romeo and Juliet’. They had it at the start of the reading of the act so as we read they could follow and link visually to what is going on. It also made retrieval practice easier. Instead of a list of questions at the start of a lesson, I’d put the scan up on a PowerPoint and ask students to tell me what happened at each point. We’d keep going back to the pictures throughout a lesson. I’d get to the point that students could recall events without having to consult their notes. The great thing about this is that it kept the knowledge of the text at the forefront of the student’s thinking and it supported the weaker students.

Initially, I wanted ‘dual coding’ to just make the students know the text better; however, as things progressed, I discovered it did far more than that and it actually supported and developed the understanding of how the texts is structured and written.

[1] Precision

The difference between the top and bottom answers in literature is precision. The best answers use precise evidence to support a point. The use of these story maps allowed students to build up that precision. How many characters do students forget? How many events do students forget to recall? Usually, I make a sheet of the ‘easily forgotten characters and events’ to combat this. Every student remembers the balcony scene but not every student remembers the scene where the Friar tends his plants.  

When mapped out like this, all events are equal. No stone is left unturned. But, as a teacher, I could keep going back to those ‘easily forgotten characters and events’.

[2] Structure

The structure of texts is a funny aspect to cover. We tend to refer to tension graphs and the odd question here to address it. This approach put the structure at the foreground and put it in people’s faces. If you couldn’t see how Act 1 and Act 2 both start with a prologue, then you need to get your eyes checked. It also allowed students to see how the acts where structured and how characters were used in the plot. They’d see how Act 1 starts with Romeo and then ends with Juliet.

How do we show the structure of the story? I found presenting it visually allowed for more meaningful discussions than when I approach structure with a summary of the text. Structure is a visual dimension of a text. It needs to be presented visually. Here the story maps do just that.

[3] Patterns

Another benefit of this approach was the increase chance of finding patterns. When you have the whole text mapped out before you, there is a better chance of seeing threads and patterns rather than when in isolation. One such pattern students discovered was how the character of Juliet and Romeo are introduced. There is a pattern of characters talking about them before they are seen on stage. Another spotted how two characters talking on stage was incredibly common in the play.

[4] Themes

Themes tend to be taught as discrete lessons. This lesson we will explore the theme of conflict. When you have the whole text before you, you can pinpoint the cogs that make the theme. A highlighter is a thing of beauty. Highlight all the things related to the theme of conflict. Students saw how a theme develops and changes across the play. They see how a theme is pushed to the foreground in the opening and then how it is in the background until Act 3.

The new GCSEs could be about anything and we need students to have a more immersive experience of the texts and to really know them.  

[5] Decluttering and links

I have mentioned this before. There is an issue with the number of images we use from different versions of the play or novel, which can confuse things. I found that using my simplistic images generated more relevant discussion of ideas, than photographs of lavish productions. My simple drawing of Juliet on a balcony engaged students to think about the use of positioning on stage. Why is she higher than Romeo? Why is she closer to the stars? There was no obsession of clothes and facial expressions, but serious choices about what Shakespeare would have a control of.

For this year, I have placed all our story maps in the various booklets we use to teach students. They are there for revision, retrieval practice and as an aide memoir. They are going to be the pillars for the teaching of the text. The students are going to really know the text, so they can be precise in their ideas. There has been a reduction of sifting through what students can recall from the text this year. I am not doing so much of the old ‘can you remember….?’ as I used to.

For KS3, I am going to get classes to create their own. I had much fun with a Year 8 class and we, together as a class, created our own story map as we read Macbeth. A visualizer and blank sheet in an exercise book is all you need. The great thing with story mapping live is that students can see how each event connects to the other, or doesn’t as the case may be.

We are endlessly surrounded by stories. Students will probably experience numerous stories in the course of a week. Our frustration centres around students remember the key bits of the story and the less memorable ones. Is there any wonder they forget things when they have watched a film, or followed a soap daily? Another story with another set of characters and easily forgettable characters and events. We don’t want to be teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year from Year 7 onwards, so we need to be thoughtful in how we teach the story. Rereading a text alone doesn’t secure memory. It just uncovers the forgettable stuff.

I was surprised how much discussion my rubbish pictures generated. It shows you how much can be gained from very little. And, not all the discussion was based on whether my attempt to draw a leg on a character was dodgy or possibly phallic.  

Thanks for reading,


I have included some of my drawings. They are not perfect, but they give you sense of what I did with each text. It took me hours – what do you mean you can’t tell?- to do, but I recommend, as with all things, you try to do it yourself. 

Romeo and Juliet 

A Christmas Carol 

An Inspector Calls