How To Study Shakespeare

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1999)

I am not attempting here to define *the* way to study Shakespeare. But since people have asked me what I have done, I thought might write it up briefly. If you find this helpful, fine. If you have better ideas or would like to suggest modifications in what I offer here, please send me an email and let me know what you think.

My first presupposition in studying Shakespeare with young people is that Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels. I personally did not enjoy reading Shakespeare when I was in high school (just a few years after the plays were written) and I doubt that many young people today enjoy sitting down reading something like Hamlet. Plays are meant to be seen. This is especially true for the high school or first year college student, who may have little experience either with deeper literature or with stage plays. In my opinion, it is only after one has become acquainted with plays and has seen a number of them performed that he is able to appreciate the plain written text. At least that will probably be the case for most students.

What I have done, therefore, is first to purchase video versions of various plays to view with my students. For any single play, I try to get a hold of as many relatively good videos as I can. My students come to class with their own text and they are expected to have an open book during the viewing of the video. We view one scene at a time, sometimes repeatedly in a single version, always in at least two versions (with Hamlet we compared six versions). After going through a scene two or three times, we discuss the logic of the narrative and compare the different interpretations of the scene and characters by the different versions. After we have given what seems to be adequate attention to a particular scene and considered the various interpretations together, we move on to the next scene and repeat the process.

For a homework assignment, students are required to read the play and, in the case of the six plays Leithart has discussed, they are also required to read Leithart. (Those who have read Leithart will note that I am not strictly following his method. I am not suggesting that my approach is better. I simply prefer more viewing and the opportunity to compare different interpretations.)

We study one play for ten weeks, one three hour class per week. Sometimes discussion takes more time and a class goes on for four hours or more, but we try to keep each class within three hours. The whole time devoted to a single play, then, is a little over 30 hours.

For the last session of the course, we view the play in our favorite version from beginning to end, without stop, followed by a final discussion in which we rethink our interpretation of the play in the light of the final re-view. I have found that thirty hours is enough to give the students a decent introduction to the play, but I have always felt at the end that we needed to spend more time. I do not view this, however, as a negative factor. I prefer to end the study with the students still having some questions and perhaps enough interest in the play to want to study it more, rather than leaving them exhausted.

The different interpretations suggested by different versions of the plays provoke a great deal of discussion and help students appreciate the complexity of the characters. Polonius has been played as an utter buffoon, a decent old man who is slightly senile, and a corrupt political manipulator. Hamlet is seen by some as actually loosing his wits and by others as perhaps sliding in and out of sanity. It seems to me that actually seeing how different interpretations work out on the screen helps students (me, too) think through the material more deeply.

Well, that is it. A rather simple way of doing things, perhaps, but lots of fun.

Copyright 1997 Ralph Allan Smith.  All rights reserved.