Much ado about studying the Bard

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am

Centuries ago, when he penned those words, it's probably safe to assume William Shakespeare never imagined the phrase would one day encapsulate how many students around the world felt about his work. He is hailed as possibly the world's greatest literary genius, but the language of Shakespeare's work has tormented generations of students.

For Hong Kong teenagers, who are arguably more au fait with navigating Facebook than the worlds inhabited by Hamlet and Macbeth, Shakespeare's tales of tragedy, love and ambition may seem cloaked in an incomprehensible layer of iambic pentameter, alliteration and rhyme.

But as Chinese International School students prepared to take their bilingual production of Twelfth Night to Australia this week, educators maintained that Shakespeare still had much to offer today's students, including those who speak English as a second language.

The literary merits of the Bard's work have long been recognised, but the prestige surrounding the author often instils a level of fear when it comes to deciphering his plays.

'When people mention the word 'Shakespeare' they automatically think of Shakespeare as literature with a capital 'L',' said Gary Harfitt, a University of Hong Kong teaching consultant in the education faculty's division of language and literature. Mr Harfitt taught in Hong Kong schools for 10 years before joining HKU, where he shows teachers how they can use literature in the classroom. He says they are often intimidated by Shakespeare.

Although a broader range of Hong Kong schools are now using Shakespeare, Mr Harfitt said there was a misconception that his plays were only suitable for the top students. 'When you mention it to teachers, there's this regard that it's only for Band One schools,' he said.

The main concern was that students would not have the appropriate English vocabulary to understand the prose, but he believes Hong Kong students' English abilities are often underestimated.

'I think in many ways it's because the teachers themselves haven't been exposed to Shakespeare,' he said.

Mr Harfitt said teachers could use Shakespeare to look at various themes and poetic techniques, but should not expect students to understand every word.

'It's the themes and the ideas that are great to explore rather than killing interest by analysing every word,' he said, adding that he did not believe students should face exams on Shakespeare.

Mr Harfitt said there was often a perception that Shakespeare was difficult literature only meant for highly intelligent westerners, but once students achieved some success with Shakespeare it boosted their language skills.

'When students understand that they've been doing Shakespeare, their self-esteem and their confidence just rockets,' he said.

It's a view supported by a survey conducted on behalf of Shakespeare4All, a group that runs workshops for students and teachers in 29 primary and secondary schools and stages an annual student production.

The survey, conducted in 2005-06 by HKU's Policy 21 Limited research unit, found that students, parents and teachers believed Shakespearean drama classes boosted children's confidence in speaking English and improved their pronunciation.

It found that 93 per cent of teachers believed students had more confidence in speaking English and 92 per cent believed their pronunciation improved after taking drama classes. Among students, 77 per cent believed they had more confidence and 82 per cent said their pronunciation had improved.

It's results like these that must make all the exhausting rehearsals and workshops worthwhile for Shakespeare4All founder Vicki Ooi.

Dr Ooi, an English teacher, decided to establish the group in 2003 after she 'discovered with horror that spoken English in primary schools was not as good as it should be', she said.

'With spoken English you need fluency and confidence, and how can you get fluency and confidence? ... I discovered through experimentation that kids love drama. I thought, 'why not do drama in schools and why not do the best drama, which is Shakespeare?''

Shakespeare4All teaches students who range from those who can barely speak English to those who have a sound grasp of the language. It uses four different levels of scripts, from simple English to those that are almost the original version.

Each year, students perform a different interpretation of a Shakespearean classic. Last year, it was Romeo and Juliet set in feudal Japan. Previous performances have included a Beijing opera of Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice set in 1930s Shanghai. This year students will perform Taming of the Shrew set in 1950s Hong Kong.

Dr Ooi, now the group's artistic director, said the different interpretations gave students an idea of how plays could be adapted, and helped them study the culture of the place where the play was set.

She is adamant that learning Shakespeare is a fun way for students to improve their English.

'For two weeks when we do intensive rehearsals from nine to five we speak nothing but English, so they have at least two weeks in an English environment where they have to do everything in English,' she said. 'I think it works. They get fluency from there, and from fluency comes confidence.'

Dr Ooi advised teachers to assess their students' English standards and then use a script that was appropriate for their level.

'Most important of all, make sure the kids have a chance to act it,' she said.

Matthew DeCoursey, an assistant professor in the Hong Kong Institute of Education's English department, has produced a number of Shakespeare's plays with student teachers, some of whom go on to use Shakespeare in their own classrooms. He said teachers had to make a judgment about their students' abilities before introducing Shakespeare.

'If you ask students who don't have the level of English to deal with it to read unadapted Shakespeare, of course it can be a terribly frustrating experience and they can end up hating it,' he said.

But Dr DeCoursey said other factors apart from language skills could influence students' ability to understand Shakespeare. He said students who had studied Chinese literature could begin studying Shakespeare with a lower level of English and still succeed. 'Literature competency is intercultural,' he said. 'When students come with a good background in Chinese literature they cope with English literature much better.'

Dr DeCoursey said studying Shakespeare gave students a greater understanding of the English language and they got to know well-known phrases that were commonly used in modern English.

His advice for teachers is to ensure students know the plot first, by watching movies or reading short plot summaries, before they begin studying Shakespeare's language. Teachers could also consider using short extracts rather than reading the complete plays.

At HKFEW Wong Cho Bau Secondary School in Tung Chung, Shakespeare's work is used at the discretion of individual teachers. Principal Jenny Chung Sin-ling said the school had many bilingual copies of Shakespeare's plays.

'Shakespeare's work encapsulates not only the English culture, it also covers a good range of universal human conditions,' Dr Chung said.

She said some teachers used simplified versions of Shakespeare. 'Many enjoy the Romeo and Juliet story, especially the girls, and can see connections to events in their own society.'

Dr Chung said the challenges of teaching Shakespeare to students who spoke English as a second language included helping them grasp language elements and cultural concepts that may be foreign to them.

'Relating concepts of love and suicide to their own society can help,' she said.

The unique possibilities presented when studying one of the greatest English writers in history in a Chinese-speaking environment was on display this week at Chinese International School.

A group of 17 students had their last rehearsals before boarding a flight to Australia yesterday, where they will perform in the Adelaide Fringe festival next week. Students will perform Twelfth Night using a script that combines English and Chinese lines.

Drama and English teacher Brian Mulcahy said the length of Shakespeare's plays could be challenging, but teachers could shorten the plays without sacrificing too much of the original work. He said studying Shakespeare took patience.

'The word order, the syntax, is unconventional to us so they've got to be able to cope with that, with working almost with an entirely new language,' he said.

Shakespeare's tales may take place in a setting far removed from today's fast-paced world, but educators agree that his portrayal of universal themes such as ambition, justice and evil remain relevant.

Mr Harfitt said there were many modern interpretations of Shakespeare that could capture students' interest. Baz Luhrmann's 1996 movie version of Romeo and Juliet passed the world's best-known love story on to a whole new generation of fans. A more recent incarnation of some of the author's works comes in the form of 'manga Shakespeare' - abridged versions of the original plays in the Japanese cartoon style.

Mr Mulcahy said his students often recognised that Shakespeare's plots were echoed in modern-day stories.

'In that sense they realise that the stories don't really age at all, but are reinvented over time,' he said.