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Primary Education News
News Teaching Shakespearean insults helps my students decode the Bard's language
Sarah Swann loves to insult her students - just as long as it is in the words of the Bard
The first eight years of my teaching career was spent in inner city schools and "oh, 'twas a din to fright a monster's ear." It was an experience laden in all the humour and tragedy of any Shakespeare play with headteachers ladling oodles of doom onto the weary souls of teachers; staff crying in the toilets, dogs running wild in the playground, children smoking cigarettes in classrooms not to mention the clamorous roar of vulgarities.
Of course, there's always the danger that banging on about one's experience in challenging schools is brandishing yourself as a Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, but at the same time, I'm very aware about how difficult it can be to teach Shakespeare so I hope to provide some ideas which have worked for me.
As a starting point, I looked at the ways pupils used language among themselves. While they weren't standing on street corners brandishing knives, everyday pupil talk wasn't dissimilar to the fighting talk of the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. But rather than the medieval streets of fair Verona, or even the sun bleached blend of grit and kitsch in Baz Luhrmann's Verona Beach, this was the talk of today's teenagers.
So what was this talk? It was gritty and aggressive. Insults such as "slut," '"slag" and "sket" were the norm. Sometimes there were more creative constructions such as "fanny lips" or "you fat mess" which is at least in the same vein as "thou painted maypole". In one school, girls would tell each other they "looked a state" and exclaim: "shut up you clitoris," while talk between the boys drew heavily on homophobic references.
Although pupils were making impressive use of a number of linguistic features, clearly this was not a language laden in the textual subtleties you associate with William Shakespeare. Could I harness some of this to try and involve them at a deeper level with Shakespearean language and sentence structure? The theorist would frame this approach in terms of bridging the gap between high and low culture, but actually my thoughts were more practical. I just wanted to try and get them to understand the text, feel less intimidated by the 'poshness' of Shakespeare's language and Elizabethan sentence structure.
A good starting point for tackling Shakespeare is the art of nonsense and as pupils walk into the lesson, greet them with this presentation on Shakespearean Insults, in particular the first slide. This creates a buzz when students come in since the first thing they notice are the nonsense words. Students give their impressions based on their innate knowledge of English syntax and in unpicking it, are shown the familiar in what appears to be strange. Overall, this sets the tone for the rest of the lesson; with a bit of forensic language analysis unpicking the lofty language of Shakespeare isn't so hard.
Secondly, I shock them into shutting up and shake off their sluggishness. For me, a good blasting of Shakespearean insults sung dramatically to an instrumental accompaniment wakes up any sluggish brains. The brave and flamboyant teacher may attempt this themselves with a nice ukulele or set of bongos, but my firm favourite is this YouTube video: 62 Insults (from Shakespeare).
Now move straight into contextualising this with performance. A Horrible Histories clip works perfectly because the actors themselves are pretty darned witty and entertaining but importantly, they make Shakespeare accessible. This YouTube clip Horrible Histories William Shakespeare is perfect. Hopefully they are beginning to see that Shakespeare is actually brilliant.
Then move on to the Shakespeare Insult Kit. This is an ancient resource and I'm not sure who originally came up with the idea but it breaks the imposing nature of the words into the ingredients of a simple sentence (pronoun+ adjective+ adjective+noun.) I tend to organise this activity by giving pupils one word from the list as they enter the classroom. For dyslexic students, I always colour code the pronoun, adjectives and noun. Pupils are given five minutes to roam the room to find the missing components to build a suitably outrageous insult. This activity quickly helps identify any pupils who may be struggling with basic language features.
You could always use a Shakespeare scavenger hunt too. It is the pupil's task to find and translate the insults hidden around the classroom as quickly as possible. As pupils uncover the treasure, you may like to demonstrate your own thespian tendencies by hurling a few insults at them. To the quiet pupil diligently on task, I may whisper sinisterly: "Go thou and fill another room in hell," (King Richard II) but my favourite is to shriek in an unhinged manner at the pupil attempting to copy someone else's answers: "What, you egg! Young fry of treachery!" (Macbeth).
Another technique is to allow the pupils to disturb the peace by throwing insults at each other. Divide the class into two lines and explain that one side will throw insults while the other side will listen. Then reverse. In doing this, I discuss staging and performance. How visually could we show an audience these are opposing sides? Pupils at my school turned their blazers inside out and later these became the Capulets.
We now put some of this learning into practice by focusing on two or three lines from a Shakespeare text. The first task is to get pupils to read the extract and identify key language and punctuation features and relate this to themes, characters, conflicts and tone. Following this, I would either show them a film clip (I show both the Baz Luhrmann and Zefferelli versions for Romeo and Juliet) or get pupils to act it out at the front with the rest of the class directing and sculpting their performance. Either way, the point is to make clear links between the content of the extract and the scene, and play, as a whole.
Pupils now must examine a lengthier extract of text closely and create annotations to make personal and meaningful connections with the work. I now use a graphic organiser which helps students to structure responses. I encourage pupils to use dictionaries and thesauruses so pupils compile their own word banks. Pupils now work in all they have learnt into an analytical paragraph and then peer assess one anothers' work using a set of criteria.
Sarah Swann is a teacher of English at Penistone Grammar School. She worked as a research fellow at the University of Leeds on a three year project examining prospects for urban youth across Europe, funded by the European Commission. She is the author of Pupil Disaffection in Schools and co-author of Ethnicity and Education in England and Europe.