It might never have occurred to you, but the opening lines of Hamlet - the exchange between the guards on the battlements of Elsinore - are a blueprint for the teaching of Shakespeare in the 1990s. They bring together the five crucial ingredients of the Bard's plays: story (if only the beginning of one), character, themes (identity, delay, surveillance), dramatic effect, and language.
One hundred and ten practising and student teachers discovered this recently at Shakespeare's Globe in Southwark. They had given up a Saturday - and, in many cases, pound;20 out of their own pockets - to attend a conference, Shakespeare in the Contemporary Classroom, organised jointly by Globe Education and the London Institute of Education.
Although some were experienced in presenting Shakespeare in an engaging way for modern young people, they were all hungry for more ideas and, when the first session began, in the replica Cockpit Theatre, part of the Globe's education centre, they were not disappointed.
The proceedings were opened by Rex Gibson, academic, editor of the Cambridge School Shakespeare series, and inspiring teacher. Softly spoken, with a halo of professorial white hair, he will have no truck with a passive audience and, in no time, we were declaiming, en masse, the aforementioned opening lines from Hamlet.
Encouraged to approach Shakespeare as script rather than text - the first Gibson commandment - we were then treated to Gibson's "blueprint". He lays particular emphasis on students "owning" the language, converting it, in the Gibson terminology, from an unwelcoming enemy into a familiar friend. The word "ownership" occurs firmly ringed throughout Rex Gibson's notes for the lecture. But watering down of the language is never on the agenda.
Gibson recommends that students be introduced to the stories ("ripping yarns with high body counts") by watching films such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and Ian McKellen's Richard III. Teachers can then adopt a number of strategies: break the plays up into sections; tell the story in dumbshow (as in Hamlet); get students to enact short scenes (such as the witches' in Macbeth), observe and investigate storytelling within the play, such as the Bloody Sergeant's battle account in Macbeth, and notice precis of the stories, such as the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet, Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, or Horatio's report after Hamlet's death.
Don't be afraid, says Gibson (despite academic fashion), to revel in Shakespeare's characters. "Language is character," he says, and cites Coriolanus motivating his troops in the most unflattering vocabulary (compare with Henry V at Agincourt). Contrast belligerent Tybalt's 36 limited lines with Romeo's array of moods and language. Act out the adjectives Malcolm uses to describe himself (falsely) to Macduff - "bloody, luxurious, avaricious, false".
For some reason, says Gibson, "in a mixed class 'luxurious' is always done with boys supine and girls dropping imaginary grapes into their mouths". Not that we are to put up with sexism. Try, for instance, reorganising cast lists according to characters' importance, so that Romeo and Juliet begins with Juliet. Try "hotseating" (cross-examining a person in character), copying the format of Blind Date, seeing the story from a particular person's point of view, giving the students snippets of language to learn, to take possession of.
As for the plays' themes, these could not, says Gibson, be more universal: love, hate, power, justice, government. "Ownership" comes from relating them to contemporary parallels.
Dramatic effect, the way the words are realised on stage, is aided by Shakespeare's scene-painting. Being near the Globe, it is easy to remember that, with no artificial lighting, Shakespeare could invoke darkness in a phrase like "light thickens" (Macbeth) or take us into Lear's storm with "Blow winds".
Repeatedly we returned to "ownership", allowing students to feel a personal sense of understanding and control. Imagine, says Gibson, how to realise the toughest stage directions: "Exit pursued by a bear" in The Winter's Tale; or "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle" in Cymbeline. And don't forget the attraction of lists: Juliet's reasons for not marrying Paris, for instance.
Rex Gibson was followed by John Yandell, head of English at Kingsland School, Hackney, who has been researching his colleagues' experience of learning and teaching Shakespeare, with funding from the Teacher Training Agency. He returned to one idea of Gibson's talk - the different impact the plays can have on people from other cultures - and suggested that students could make their own versions of the plots. Many practical ideas were offered, such as comparing videos of productions or putting Macbeth and Lady Macbeth on trial.
Next, enter, with panache, a group of Year 10 girls from Haggerston School, also in Hackney. Accompanied on percussion by their drama teacher, they demonstrated in punchy, humorous style, occasionally including languages other than English, why they think studying Shakespeare is fun - and why it is often a yawn. With confidence, wit and chutzpah, they delighted the audience. Then, in groups, the teachers worked on making short passages accessible - with Haggerston students as advisers. This move was surprisingly popular, and nobody minded being gently put down: "No, sorry, that wouldn't work, actually". We tried breaking up "To be or not to be" into chunks, giving lines to different students, working out modern equivalents and then putting the text back together. We passed.
In the afternoon we were on our feet trying out some of the teaching techniques used in Globe education workshops. Try getting variety into the five "Die"s uttered by BottomPyramus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, then "die" convincingly. Try swearing undying love - then hate - to a partner in your own words, followed by relevant lines spoken by the lovers in The Dream. Graham Christopher, an actor-teacher, led our group with great good humour, always showing us what we had learned about character and staging - and always leading us back to the language. After a session like this everyone goes away "owning" lines.
At last, into the Globe itself. Vociferous people fell silent or muttered imprecations under their breath on entering the building. Awe soon turned to energy and, led by Lucy Bailey and Joy Richardson, director and actor from last season, we learned how to relate to the audience. Eye contact in full light gives spectators individuality; they don't disappear into a mass. Lack of stage lighting gives all the actors equal weight, but some positions are difficult vocally.
Soon teachers were learning tricks of the Globe trade: how to enter early enough to avoid a hiatus; how to respond to audience reaction and capitalise on it; how to deal with the "dead" areas of the stage (the passage between the pillars is known as "death row"); how to give a character authority. There was much uninhibited running, shouting, laughing and backchat - somewhat to the alarm of the sedate groups of tourists being given a tour of the site.
At the plenary session a student teacher, Jessica Nicholls, said she had been brought to the Globe education centre with her primary class, before the theatre was rebuilt. It had changed her life and was the reason for her being on the institute's PGCE course this year.
* For information about Globe Education, telephone 0171 902 1400. One of next season's plays is "The Merchant of Venice". Globe Education will be running various events and activities, beginning with the Sam Wanamaker lecture, "Imagining Jews in Shakespeare's England", given by James Shapiro on March 9.
Globe Web site: www.Shakespeare-globe.org
* Rex Gibson's "Teaching Shakespeare", published by Cambridge University Press (pound;8.95), will be reviewed in "The TES" soon