Fear of Shakespeare: is there an antidote?
The first series to hit the U.S. was Shakespeare Made Easy, acquired by Barton's from a UK publisher in 1985. In 2002, Barron's launched Simply Shakespeare, which includes icons throughout the text to denote foreshadowing, wordplay and other aspects of the play that merit particular attention, explains Frederick Glasser, director of school library sales.
Last year, SparkNotes entered (stage left) with the No Fear Shakespeare series. Commentary in the margins and complete character lists provide additional support.
While there are no statistics on how popular these series have become, Carol Jago, co-director of the California Reading and Literature Project and an expert on teaching classical literature, says she knows of educators who have tried these books. The choice is made in an attempt "to awaken in students a love of Shakespeare," notes Jago, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School.
In some schools, Glasser says the books introduce Shakespeare to gifted middle school students. Teachers of English language learners, remedial students, "reluctant" readers and special education students have also used them.
Stephanie Karmol, a SparkNotes spokeswoman, says educators seem to view the series as "a fresh way to appreciate Shakespeare's work." When teachers have "40 minutes to teach 60 minutes worth of information," the books help by picking up where the instructor leaves off.
"I think it's great. You've got the text unadulterated," says Dale Allender, associate executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. He sees the series as one of a range of classroom tools, but not necessarily better than other methods. The books should be used "in the context of inter-textual instruction, versus some panacea tool that's going to save everybody's love fur Shakespeare," he says. "Reading is never really isolated into just one text. Every text is related to something else."
Jago agrees that the series can be a helpful scaffold. But, she says, "I'm not a terrific supporter of these materials. ... What's going on in the classroom? Are kids only reading the page with the translation in goofy modern prose?" That extra text can wind up acting as interference. "Suddenly it's another play written by somebody else in between the student and the experience," she adds.
Another concern is the message educators may be sending by selecting these materials. "We're saying ... [students] can't read the real thing," Jago explains "That's a dangerous assumption to make. Shakespeare wasn't elitist and suddenly we're becoming elitist in saying who can and can't read these texts."
Side-to-Side Shakespeare Series Instruction
Here are some ways that educators can use these books in the classroom:
* Have students read the original version first, using the modern translation for enhanced interest and better understanding.
* Have students read the translation first, to establish confidence and familiarity with plots and characters.
* Use a Venn diagram to show the relationship between certain portions of the text.
* Divide the class into groups, with some group members reading Shakespeare's version of a passage and others reading the modern version. In conversation, they can compare the language: