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Shakespeare as a Second Language

by Jerome Weeks 12 Jul 2011 3:59 PM

William Shakespeare is befuddling enough for many modern Americans to grasp, how hard must it be for young immigrants, just learning English as a second language? A bit like asking first-graders to take a crack at quadratic equations? Shakespeare Dallas has been offering a program through DISD that tries to make that leap — with clowns and stage combat and a live performance.


Humorist Paul Rudnick has equated listening to William Shakespeare’s plays to doing “algebra on stage.” The antique terms, the formal address, the historic figures, the obscure jokes, the dense use of metaphors: All of it can be hard enough for native speakers, let alone someone for whom modern English is foreign. Today and tomorrow, a workshop program by Shakespeare Dallas will culminate in special, abridged performances of The Tempest for 500 DISD students — all of whom are ESL (English as a Second Language) students.

According to Raphael Parry, executive director of Shakespeare Dallas, the shows at Dealey Montessori are happening only after two actors, Valerie Hauss Smith and Julie Osborne, visited classrooms the past semester for movement exercises, clowning games, stage combat — “putting physical movements with the text to help it make more sense,” says Osborne. She confirms what you might expect: They loove the stage combat exercises.

“It’s a lot more fun with a tragedy,” says Marco Salinas, SD’s director of educational tours. “You know, a lot of dead people at the end on stage. They love to play dead, lying onstage.”

Parry: “There’s a primer on iambic pentameter, too, to take the mystery out of the poetry, how the meter works, how that’s set up in Shakespeare’s text.”

Actually, by being written as poetry, Shakespeare’s language is often more memorable than ordinary, spoken English. The rhymes and the rhythm can root  four lines of verse in our brains more quickly than a prose-y paragraph. As Salinas says, using Shakespeare as a teaching tool is also a way to show students — who’ve been toiling away at the basics  — just how inventive and beautiful English can be.

Somewhat surprisingly, 50 percent of the students this year have been Latino, Parry reports. It’s somewhat surprising because the percentage is so high. In the past, the majority of ESL students have been Asian and African. This year, he adds, there have also been Nepalese refugees.

The entire program is not an established one — even though it’s been around for three years. Parry (right) reports that it began entirely as an experiment when DISD found it had money left over in its ESL budget toward the end of the school year and approached Shakespeare Dallas about coming up with something. The second year, DISD got some federal stimulus money and had SD expand the program to 20 school campuses. This year, it’s back to a bit of DISD money at the end of the fiscal year (July)  — and only four schools visited.

Parry says the teachers were literally learning as they went along. Last year, for instance, SD presented the play first — before the classroom workshops — because they thought it would give the students and actor-teachers something to talk about, an idea of what live  Shakespeare was like.

This year, they’ve reversed course. Now students are “warmed up,” they have a better idea of what they’re getting when they  see The Tempest this week. They’ve actually enacted key lines from the play, worked out the action in a scene or two. They were able to connect, for instance, their cultural ideas about wizards and magic to Shakespeare’s Prospero. They also have worked closely with the actors themselves, so there’s a connection when they see them perform on stage.

“I think we’ve gotten a lot of ‘ground experience,'” says Osborne. “And so this year, we went in knowing what the challenges were going to be.”

“We do programming throughout the year with schools,” says Parry, but this project is directly tied to in-school programs, not after-school, and it’s specifically written with ESL teachers in mind — to help students from 7th to 12th grades move from “household words” (Henry V) to “a great feast of language” (Love’s Labour’s Lost).

On the other hand, there’s also Caliban’s famous angry rejoinder to Prospero in The Tempest:  “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”