To climb steep hills…


Shakespearean English, to some pupils, initially presents itself like an unknown language. I see some children stare at it blankly, sometimes panicked. We all know, though, that more they read Shakespeare, the more confident they become. Like any language, the patterns and obscure words become familiar and confidence grows. I read an article recently that listening to Shakespeare is like ‘listening to a strong accent,’ and this resounds with me. We don’t need to understand every single word of Shakespeare on first readings. We need to get a feel for the play, listening to the speeches and garnering an impression of the characters and events. Closer language analysis can accompany this, and whatever your approach or philosophy to teaching, there will be some degree of translation prior to analysis. Below, I outline the basics of my approach. This could take anywhere between an hour and a week, depending on the group, the play and the scene. I’m not claiming that this is anything new – I’m just outlining what I do, for clarity:

  1. Read the scene.
  2. Examine characters, themes, events.
  3. Translation* of important words and reminder of all common function words.
  4. Focus on a narrower section of text for closer analysis, including linguistic devices, metre and rhyme (BTW – I teach metre just as Matt Pinkett does.)
  5. Explore implied meanings and inference, including allusions.
  6. Examine the scene (especially close analysis section) in relation to the play as a whole and wider contextual knowledge.

*Language in Translation

The research on cognitive processes in translation of languages is rich, vast and contentious. There is no scope to cover it here and I am not qualified to do so. It would also be disingenuous to apply an understanding of second-language-learners’ cognitive processes to translating Shakespeare – we are not, after all, actually translating from one language to another. We’re looking at making sense of Early Modern English and any ‘translation’ that takes place is simply into Late Modern English. I’ll stick with the term ‘translation,’ though. It fits well for describing the process of converting the previously unfamiliar words of Shakespeare into more familiar, contemporary English.

(Very briefly) on Generative Grammar and Speech Processing Memory

When we use our first language (and, indeed, any language which we use fluently), we don’t hold grammatical structures as static objects, neatly pre-prepared for use. We generate our grammar, with an innate system of rules. The overarching principle is that we store rules, not sets of sentences. We generate new utterances every day. We don’t retrieve individual sentences from a memory ‘bank’. If you want to read more on this, have a look at Chomsky’s Government and Binding Theory (1981) and later, the Minimalist Program (1985) for some key concepts and lines of enquiry on rules and generation. Piaget (1973) covers distinctions between the cognitive systems (‘schemas’) we use for grammar and the memory we employ for individual instances within the language, which is also helpful when considering translation. The same applies to reading texts; we hold an ability to process new grammatical structures and known vocabulary within our lexis.

Vivian Cook, a professor of Linguistics, gives a really helpful literature review of the research into Speech Processing Memory here -that is, the memory that we use when producing and parsing speech. He finds that “linguists who have looked at this area have mostly felt that the outstanding characteristic of speech processing memory is its limited capacity for syntax: when we find a grammatical sentence difficult to understand it is likely to be because our speech processing memory is overloaded.” (Cook, 1977). The more ‘complex’ a sentence, the more of our working memory is taken up. The way that the level of complexity is measured varies between approaches, although dependency structures are often used (such as Dick Hudson’s approach here), as are grammar trees and ‘distances’ or ‘depth’ within such structures. An example for this blog, put simply – possibly to the point of losing the original theoretical claim! – would be that a sentence with a verb with a large distance from its subject is going to be harder to process than one with a short distance.

The Relevance of this to Shakespeare

We know that some forms of language can be harder to parse than others. We know – even just from experience in the classroom – that some pupils find Shakespeare tricky at first, despite the relatively common syntactic structures which we use in our contemporary language. The vocabulary seems to be the sticking point for my pupils – I have frequent queries about high- and low-frequency vocabulary. And while the syntactic structures are familiar, the blank verse is not. The Speech Processing Memory is under a lot of strain, with the combined efforts of parsing unfamiliar structures (for example, the blank verse) with an unfamiliar lexis mean that until we reach a level of confidence with the basics, it’s always going to be a challenge. The best way to achieve the required level of confidence is through practice. If it were a foreign language, I’d say immersion – although this is probably not practical with Early Modern English!

Practicalities in Teaching

Most English teachers I know already do these things, but I feel that some carry stigma. I also think that some suggestions I’ve seen online are actively unhelpful. I hope this gives some food for thought, especially to NQTs:

Shakespeare wrote his works to be heard and performed. There is no shame in using a film version to accompany the teaching of the play. Use it scene-by-scene, rather than as a treat at the end; it will support the ‘immersion’ of the language. Playing a scene several times before/during/after reading it can really build confidence.

Using vocabulary banks can be really helpful, especially if you dedicate time to going through the words. Matching up words can work well, before undertaking mini-translations of key lines. They love discovering little common misunderstandings – wherefore/why, for example.

Avoid adding another layer of language for them. It’s complex enough as it stands. Giving tasks such as ‘tell the story in emojis’ or ‘put it into txt spk’ is only serving to put more strain on the pupils’ working memories. The additional issue with emojis is that they carry a very specific, finite meaning (sometimes two!). If you’re really keen on this sort of task and you feel that they will learn something in the undertaking of it, then I would make sure that they are utterly confident in the original text first. My inclination would be to suggest that this time may be better used elsewhere.

Read a scene or a section more than once, especially if you intend to undertake close analysis of it. Sometimes, when my classes look blank during questioning, I stop and think – “I’ve literally read this play more than 20 times. They’ve read this scene once and they’re 14. What am I thinking?!”

Typeface image labelled for non-commercial reuse on Google.