Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said “Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place; if we do not understand him, it is our own fault.” Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with inventing humanity. Certainly there is no writer I enjoy teaching more than Shakespeare. Part of what makes Shakespeare special is the way that people from all walks of life can find themselves in his works and can connect their own lives to those of characters created hundreds of years ago. One of the more compelling stories I’ve heard regarding Shakespeare’s ability to impact lives is that of Prison Performing Arts, an organization I’ve discussed before. If you aren’t familiar with their work, please listen to this episode of This American Life and come back. I will wait. You must hear it.
Anyone who has ever listened to that program can never forget James Word, the man who played Laertes and credits Prison Performing Arts with helping him “see options” and to express himself. He says that “The delivery of the message, through Shakespeare and mythology, taught me life’s lessons.” I receive a newsletter from Prison Performing Arts as a supporter of their organization, and in the recent issue, Ann Haubrich has written an update on James Word. He has been released from prison and is attending college full time. He mentioned earning an A on his first English paper, which absolutely thrilled me to learn, and he discussed his desire to start a theater program for young people at his father’s church. As Word says, “If you can catch them while they’re young, before they get sent to prison, they can recognize their potential and be saved.”
It may sound idealistic, but it obviously works. Prison Performing Arts works with people that most of society has given up on, and it’s encouraging to read about their successes. I came home to find this letter in my mailbox after a great day teaching Shakespeare. My students have finished Act 1 of Macbeth, and I gave them a quiz over Act 1 from Shakespeare Set Free Volume 1. I read an article in the September 2010 issue of English Journal by Timothy Quinn and Todd Eckerson about collaborative reading quizzes. I applied this strategy to this quiz over Act 1. The students talked about each of the quotes and came to a consensus about who said the lines, to whom the speaker was speaking, and what the context of the quote was. Both of my classes earned perfect scores on the quiz. Obviously, it means that the methods in the Shakespeare Set Free unit work for helping students remember the language and learn the story. If you could have been a fly on the wall listening to my students talking about the play, I think you’d have enjoyed their discussion. It was especially interesting to hear them figure out when they were initially mistaken about a quote and discuss it. I never said a word. They conducted the discussion and reached the answers on their own.
I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach Shakespeare to my students. Shakespeare belongs to everybody, from prison inmates to Jewish high school students. As Ben Jonson observed, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” His ability to teach us about ourselves, and the richness of his language and his themes never grow old. To paraphrase Domitius Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither [him], nor custom stale / [His] infinite variety.”