English - The Bard's easy, innit

Relate Elizabethan language to that of modern teenagers

Fran Hill

I once taught Romeo and Juliet to GCSE pupils at a private school and decided to show them Baz Luhrmann's film version. Five minutes in, one boy asked me, in a cultured Surrey accent: "Could I request that you put the English subtitles on? I am having some difficulty comprehending."

Aside from the irony that he expressed himself in somewhat cumbersome language, he had made a fair point. Even in a selective school, pupils have difficulty comprehending the Bard.

Pupils need to understand that language changes over time, that almost every modern reader has trouble at first in understanding Shakespeare and that, with a bit of effort, they can understand a lot more than they think.

So I start by showing them a text in Old English, Middle English (Chaucer's time), Early Modern English (Shakespeare's time) and a modern translation. The Lord's Prayer is one that is widely available in all versions. At first, they are stymied. But after tracking backwards and forwards, and trying to match up words they recognise, they find they can gradually read more of the earlier versions. Then they list the ways in which words have changed.

That done, I ask them to write a list of words they consider to be "youth speak" - there are usually several for which I need a translation. I then give them a list of words in common use when I was their age and which they think hilarious ("discotheque" and "record player", in particular). But they can no longer claim that they are not personally involved in language change.

Then I show them what a cheat Shakespeare was, abbreviating phrases like "is it" to "is't" just to sort out his scanning, and lengthening other words like "loved" for the same reason. No one, I reassure them, walked up to another Elizabethan in real life and said, "Is't true th'art bunking off? Does thy mum know'st?" So they can also no longer claim that they are the only ones who look for an easy way out in extended writing.

Something else to clear up is why Shakespeare endeth his words in such a weird way when he wroteth his plays. It raises the issue of the fast-disappearing apostrophe - our modern equivalent of dumping inconvenient inflections.

In the end, teaching Shakespeare is never going to be easy. But there is a delicious irony in the fact that he is rumoured to have invented the phrase (in Julius Caesar) "It was Greek to me." Even the least able students can comprehend that.

Fran Hill teaches English in a Warwickshire secondary school and is a freelance writer and performer.

What else?

Teach students to sing their own sonnets and learn Shakespeare's rhythm, rhyme and style with LolaBee's sonnet and similes exercise.

Is Shakespeare's lingo really that different from ours? See if your students can tell which quotes rang out at the Globe theatre and which echoed through the streets of Gotham in MissEmmiski's humorous quiz.

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources028

From the forums

There's chat about how the GCSE results are looking so far on the TES English forum with conversations about the WJEC and the Edexcel syllabuses.

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Fran Hill

Fran Hill is a writer and part-time teacher of English at a girls' independent school. 

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