Americanized Shakespeare?Background: I am a first-year basic English high school teacher for fresh - senior. My students have fairly low comprehension levels according to their tests scores and...

Americanized Shakespeare?

Background: I am a first-year basic English high school teacher for fresh - senior. My students have fairly low comprehension levels according to their tests scores and about 97% of my kids have IEP or 504's and qualify for extensive services. The teacher before me just ordered NexText books which are condensed versions of traditional and canonical literature - Great Expectations was 227 pages, Huck Finn was missing half of the action, that sort of thing. I have actually just spent a ridiculous amount of money on new, REAL books (Speak, The Kite Rider, The Ox-Bow Incident) because although they may not pick up on everything, they can still read a real book.

Problem: I would like to teach Romeo and Juliet to my freshmen this year, but after having looked at the NexText for it (as I just ASSUMED it was in Shakespearean language) I discovered that it is written in modern language.

I would like to know your personal and professional thoughts of teaching this version or should I borrow copies from the other teachers and teach the REAL version? Is there a point to teaching Shakespeare if you are not teaching it in the language it was written? Isn't the whole point to teaching it to show true dramatic poetry and examine the use of language? I would just like a little advice from some of you veterans out there who may have run across a problem like this before.

Expert Answers
malibrarian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have been able to introduce Shakespeare to my students, some of whom are struggling readers. I have not used modern-language versions of the plays as I know, in my heart of hearts, that everyone can understand Shakespeare. I know it...just as I know the sun will rise in the east...It is NOT impossible for struggling readers to get his stuff.

That having been said, you do have to present it in the best possible way to help them achieve success. Assigning them an act a day to read on their own will more than likely lead to frustrations for everyone. Instead, use your classtime (if you can) to get everyone in to a circle and read the play aloud, allowing kids who feel comfortable to read the larger parts, encouraging those who are a little hesitant to read a part with just a few lines. Keep a copy of Shakespeare's Words, by Ben and David Crystal, with you so you can look up the words and figure out some of their archaic meanings. And don't forget how important it is to get his words off the page and on to a film versions, see stage plays (you can usually rent DVDs of those from the library), or get dramatized audio versions...all of these are important tools for studying Shakespeare!

Also have summaries of the play you're reading available for the students so that they understand the plot and action prior to reading the language.

My personal opinion is that if you introduce Shakespeare by saying, "Here is a modern version - it's much easier that way," then you are shooting yourself (and literature) in the foot from the very beginning. You are telling them, even if you don't use these exact words, that Shakespeare is too old and difficult to understand. What teenager is then going to want to delve any further?

Linda, it does sound like I'm disagreeing super vehemently with your post, and I hope you don't take it that way. I'm just stating what I've found to be successful with my students, several of whom have difficulties with both learning and reading. And I've seen an improvement in their reading skills after introducing Shakespeare's language to them. I do agree, though, that Will himself would probably be pleased no matter how we do this - just keeping his stories alive would probably make his day! :)

jessecreations eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that kids can access it if you help them to do it. I have worked in some bad areas (there's a documentary about my first school on HBO now), and I have seen SHakespeare work in all levels. The thing is, as people have said, to make it accessible to kids by helping them understand it.

When I taught Caesar last year, I had my kids read the actual text out loud, and then I would give them summaries of the play in modernized text. Also, you can always show the movie version as you go, rather than all at the end. This way they can understand what is happening as it happens.

There's another great resource called "Secondary Solutions." You can buy their teacher guides online at and other retailers (google it). I'm sure they have one for R&J. My husband and I have used their guides for Caesar, Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Night, and Midsummer Night's Dream, and we love them. It gives activities as well as vocabulary and comprehension check worksheets so the kids can understand as they go. It's great for kids AND it helps you not have to reinvent the wheel when teaching something new.

I think the most important thing is to not be afraid to try something new, but to keep trying additional supports (like the several options mentioned on this board) if your students struggle. Just don't give up, and don't let them give up either. :)

enotechris eNotes educator| Certified Educator

NexText is 1984's Newspeak. It's akin to a pianist playing only the left hand white notes on the Moonlight Sonata because it's feared it's too complicated for the audience to comprehend. This cheapens the work as art, and defrauds the audience into thinking they've heard Beethoven.

I'd suggest reading or discussing summaries, so that the plot and characters are at least somewhat familiar (you can find that here on enotes.) Few would fail to grasp who does what -- watching TV at least gives that amount of capacity. Then read the play, or if time doesn't permit, at least excerpts, as written in the First Folio (which is FREE! Print and enjoy! which is as close as Shakespeare intended (editions afterwards introduce their own bias and errors. And you have to pay for the book, which is wrong.) The point here is first to generate interest in the story so the kids will want to embrace the text. And although they may struggle with the text, it's that struggle which may lead to a deeper comprehension and and appreciation of the work. They may even want to read another play! To continue to lower the bar on the Bard is to continue to snip off Beethoven's fingers.

litchick2011 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have absolutely no issue with giving students access to a modern version. I have to agree with the most with #6, for language, as a whole, is a living, breathing, ever - changing thing. It is the story that has relevance for the students, not the antiquated language. I, personally, pull out key scenes to read from Shakespeare's version - The Queen Mab Speech, the first moment Romeo sees Juliet, the balcony scene, and few others - and use more modern language for the rest in a side by side format. I, in no way, "dumb down" the bard's text by simply inserting a word that the footnotes or margin notes to the text would have had. My students still have to discuss themes, understand character motivation, and critically think about the tough choices that are made throughout the text. I remember reading (and eventually understanding) the original text. I also remember absolutely loathing Shakespeare through most of my teen years.

linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have to disagree with everyone. I'm not familiar with NexText, but I see no problem using a modern language version of a play to introduce students to Shakespeare. Think about it: When Shakespeare wrote his plays, he himself was using modern language, even inventing words that had not been used or were not in broad use.

The way you describe your students, it sounds as if they are struggling readers. Why, then, discourage them by saddling them with language that is 500 years old?

Don't misunderstand me. I love Shakespeare, and I love the brilliance of his language most of all. However, it's the message of the play that's the important thing, so why not make it as accessible as possible? I think even the great man himself would approve. Once you get them hooked, then you can introduce the original text.

frizzyperm | Student

My school gave us Shakespeare at 14. And I loved it. Lurved it, even. It moved me strangely and I have loved it ever since. I went on to act the lead in Hamlet at University (preen preen) and graduate in English. So I am not 'a typical student'. Many other kids in my 'top set' class thought WS was meaningless, horrible garbage and were put off literature. And that was a 'top set' in a 'top school'.

The idea is not to teach students the great works of literature. The idea is to give them the nascent skills of literary appreciation so that they will, inshallah, enjoy reading as adults. We do not teach facts, we teach skills. And, more importantly, we should not promote things simply because we prize them highly. All English teachers love WS. Almost nobody agrees with us. Most American adults have nothing to do with WS what-so-ever. We may not approve, but the vast majority of adults do not like WS. They want to watch Desparate Housewives, not read Romeo and Juliet. We aspire for higher, but we must be realistic. 95% of our students will never go near WS after they leave school.

Original text WS is for students who already possess a good skill level and enjoy 'books'. You would not teach sub-atomic physics to students who did not comprehend basic molecular theory. Why teach really difficult, Olde Worlde Shakespeare to kids who are struggling with the 'easy' stuff? Teach them to walk... then, after, to run if they can.

frizzyperm | Student

If your kids have trouble with reading modern language then I can see no real advantage to lowering their self-esteem even further by making them stare blankly at thy most ever-so erudite, loved and goodly, marry, sirrah, wither goest thou, hey-nonny-nonny, Shakespearean verse.

They are not going to get enough out of it, if anything at all. First and foremost, they need to be able to read. If they are having trouble with that basic skill, don't alienate them by giving them something that isn't even written in English as they know it! They are probably scared enough and fed up enough already. It will be impenetrable and retroactive.

Yes, we would all love to be the motivational teacher who gets the class of struggling kids to put on a life-changing performance of Romeo and Juliet. But, back in the real world, if they have low comprehension levels, they will not comprehend Shakespeare enough to make it valid use of the limited time available to give them the essential life skill of basic literacy.

Give them something accessible.

avajoe | Student

I totally agree... what makes Shakespeare the genius is not the plot but the figurative language he employs. You can not and should not take the poet out of the play. No Fear Shakespeare is a huge help in understanding the play and character development. I enthisiastically encourage the students to use it as an aid. However time must be spent on some of the poetic elements in the play. Nothing is better than the Bard's use of imagery! I play professional recordings. They seem to aid in the understanding of the play. Hang in there... But God forbid we water Shakespeare down to some pidddling stream!!!

cimiller | Student

I agree - what's the point if you have to miss out on the language! For grade 9 (which is generally their first introduction to the Bard) I've used Picture This! Shakespeare - alternates between graphic novel style and traditional text. The graphics help scaffold their understanding and they still see traditional drama layout. The story is abridged, but the language is Shakespearean. My goal with grade 9's is to introduce them to the story and show them that the themes and plot are still relevant today - and not turn them off of Shakespeare! I think we often do this when we drag them through the reading of the entire play when they struggle to read the words.!

jcurnett | Student

I side with enotechris on this as well: to condense and "Americanize" Shakespeare so that students do not have to struggle to begin to understand The Bard's language is frightening . . . and a shame. Judging by your brief passage, jennyrocks, you seem like a bright and inspiring teacher, one who will not accept mediocrity (read NexText, whatever that might be) in your classroom. As enotechris suggested, there are so many resources online to help scaffold the learning in your classroom that to just "throw in the towel" on student learning without, say, letting them see different cinematic interpretationss (Zeffirelli, Luhrman, the BBC Shakespeare edition) of the great, nearly-archetypal scenes (Queen Mab, the balcony scene, Mercutio's death, the double-suicide) would be (pardon me!) tragic.

I have become more and more comfortable referring students who are struggling to the "No Fear Shakespeare" Sparknotes site; there they can find the original text beside a modern interpretation; it seems to help them grasp the language. Additionally, students can download unabridged versions of the play from iTunes to their Mp3 players and (as I did as a student, but with a casette tape and a VHS of BBC performances) listen to real actors deliver the lines so that they actually do make sense within the context of the drama.

Either way, I am sure that you will inspire your students to see the beauty in Shakespeare's language and vision. They're lucky to have you!