English - The Bard's easy, innit

30th March 2012 at 01:00
Relate Elizabethan language to that of modern teenagers

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.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today