Speaking Shakespeare


Shakespeare’s language may seem daunting at first (“His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valor, for the goose carries not the fox. It is well. Leave it to his discretion, and let us listen to the moon“). Even after reading his work for decades, you may walk into verbal thickets. Still, through these very burrs and thorns (and leaves and petals and bugs), you find out how immediate Shakespeare’s language can be.

That has been happening in these final rehearsals: everyone has been involved, whether as listeners, actors, or supporting actors (the ones who play parts in rehearsals but not in the event). This afternoon, in the classroom, I saw that someone had written on the board, “Jó munkához idő kell” (“Good work takes time”). I don’t know whether that was a comment on the performance or a remnant from a previous class, but it applies here; day by day, the language has been catching on. I sense it in the audience as they watch their classmates perform scenes and monologues for the dozenth, twentieth time. They listen, laugh, turn pages, give cues, murmur along, call out mistakes. When the main actor is not present, they step in and read parts too.


Students have been memorizing their lines in spades–and each memorization takes the scene to another level. Yes, there are still some giggles and lapses–but even in the past two days, the performers have come far. We have practiced in classrooms large and small, in the schoolyard (as pictured in the two photos above), and in the park; each place brings out something different.


One student urged me to ask the drama teacher for additional costumes and props. He accompanied me during a break between classes and acted as interpreter–but after the beginning, we had no difficulty communicating. She took out a veil and said, “Ophelia”; she took out a sword and said, “Polonius.” Everything was clear.

We’re just a dress rehearsal away from the performance. “You shall see, it will fall pat as I told you. Yonder she comes.”


Shakespeare Around the Corner


The Shakespeare event is just three days away. A few days ago, I posted some short videos of ninth-grade rehearsals. Here are the tenth-graders (who read Hamlet this semester) heading up the stairs to our venue.

They will perform excerpts of two scenes from Hamlet: the scene where Hamlet encounters the Ghost (Act 1, Scene 5) and the scene of the play within a play (Act 3, Scene 2). Here is a rehearsal of the “dumb-show” at the start of the play within a play.

They practiced it again today (this time with the one who will play Lucianus in the actual event):


As we approach the event itself, it’s exciting to see and hear subtleties entering the performance. Students have been figuring out their words and gestures, giving them more life each time. Some have taken on the role of assistant directors, offering ideas about the blocking, costumes, delivery, and more.

Everyone has helped out in some way. In the many rehearsals where we did not have the full cast (because the two halves of each class have English at different times), students stepped in to play the parts of those who were not there. Others helped out as audience members; they listened and watched, day after day. Many contributed drawings to the classroom wall.


There is little more to say and much to do; the next few days will ascend the stairs.

“I see a voice: now will I to the chink….”


We have been practicing, day by day, for the May 31 Shakespeare event–just a week away now–which will include three excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two excerpts from Hamlet, a simple Renaissance dance, and a few introductions and interludes. The rehearsals have built and built; each time, something has improved, and the mistakes have made memories too.

It has been fun to pull costumes together; a homemade lion costume (in the works–thanks to a student’s mom), plastic wreaths and vines, a lanthorn, a not-so-thorny thornbush, a (stuffed) dog, some crowns, and other props and accoutrements.

Here’s a dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (recorded May 17):

Here’s one from Act 3, Scene 2, with a different Hermia and Helena (recorded May 22):

Here’s the Wall (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall….”)


I don’t have any Hamlet photos or videos yet (aside from the drawings I posted recently), but that may change soon.

Forms and Meanings of Praise

Last week, while some of my tenth-grade students were taking a make-up test, the others illustrated scenes from Hamlet, in preparation for our event. I had compiled a list of possible quotes; many students chose quotes of their own. There were drawings of Ophelia, the ghost, King Claudius, the play within a play, the slaying of Polonius, the “Words, words, words” scene, and many more.

As I walked around the room and pointed out what I saw in certain pieces, I often met with the response, “No, it’s terrible! I can’t draw!” Some students explained what was wrong with their pieces; some burst into giggles; some stared at the emerging arm on the page, erased it, and stared at the blank page. Here I saw a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary; while everywhere you will find students who take pride in their work and students who do not, the proportions differ, with American students being, in my experience, a bit prouder of their work than Hungarians. This difference has something to do with the messages they receive from teachers and others.

First of all, in American schools, just about anything may go up on the wall. Teachers are required to display student work on bulletin boards around the classroom and in hallways–so anything from a Venn diagram to an algebra proof to an essay can end up in public view. Second, there’s an underlying belief that all student work–at least in its final form–should be celebrated. Every student has talent and a voice, according to popular wisdom; all voices should be seen. (I am channeling Pyramus here: “I see a voice.”) Here in Hungary, from what I have seen, not everything gets displayed and celebrated; overall, student work receives more criticism than praise. There’s a basic assumption that all students need to improve (and that they have a long, long way to go). There are exceptions to this–but that’s the overall tendency, at least in comparison with what I have seen in the U.S.

I see promise and problems in both ways. The American attitude (or collection of attitudes) can become too blithe and exuberant, too fixated on the “wonderful.” (When everything is “wonderful,” there’s not much more you can say.) The Hungarian attitude (or collection of attitudes), in contrast, can leave some students thinking that they can’t draw, write, etc., at all. Yet both approaches hold a possible middle way: looking at what is actually going on in the students’ work and considering how to challenge it. Here, in this class assignment, I found an abundance of interesting things. (All the pieces that appear here are posted with the students’ permission.)

Consider the clowns: I am struck by the symmetry between cross and spade, the contrast between the standing and sitting clowns (one big, one little; one with spade, the other with flower); the solemnity of their faces, the colors, and the quote itself. Or the two praying scenes–how did those stick figures become so evocative (in the first) and the crown and cross so luminous (in the second)? Or Hamlet and Horatio: Hamlet with his eyes closed, as though he were seeing a world no one else could see, and Horatio, troubled, looking askance. Or the ghost scenes, ordered and unnerving. Or Ophelia, her thoughts full of water.

If I were an art teacher, I would have more to say, possibly, about the proportions, shading, and so forth–but I am bad at drawing and have little sense of how to improve it. Rather, as a language and literature teacher, I would take cues from the pictures and devote lessons to Shakepeare’s clowns and ghosts. Here, given our time constraints and upcoming event, I have worked to incorporate “pictures” into our rehearsals–that is, to help students imagine and work out the details of the scenes, with attention to every word in the text.

What kind of praise is appropriate in the classroom? Those of the “growth mindset” persuasion often say that teachers should praise students for effort, not for ability or accomplishment. That strikes me as too rigid; different situations call for different kinds of praise. Sometimes students do need to hear that they have a particular ability or that their work stands out. What matters is that the teacher praise and criticize thoughtfully, not automatically, and that she avoid using praise (or criticism) as a way of exerting control. When students depend too much on teachers’ praise or take it too much to heart, they lose their own critical sense. A teacher’s praise should help students find their way.

Praise, like criticism, can do good or harm; what matters is that both teacher and student keep it in perspective and turn it toward the good. It is not an ultimate decree. A teacher can point out what she sees without claiming the last word.

Image credit: The eight drawings are by students in class 10C at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok; they are posted with the students’ permission.

Shakespeare in the Park


With the Shakespeare event quickly approaching–the ninth-graders will perform excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the tenth-graders from Hamlet–I thought it would be fitting to go practice in Verseghy Park, for a “Shakespeare in the Park” experience. So yesterday one of my ninth-grade classes trooped across the street to the rose garden, and there the rehearsal began. “God speed fair Helena! whither away?”

On Monday, one of my tenth-grade sections finished Hamlet (that is, they performed the final scene in class). Excitement was in the air; even before I began assigning parts, hands of volunteers went up. Today the other section will finish the play. Then we will devote ourselves to preparing for the event.

Throughout this Shakespeare work I have seen several things. First, the multiple rereadings do lots of good; with each iteration, students understand and appreciate more. Second, it has helped to go slowly; although it took the whole term to read Hamlet (with reading in class only, and just one Shakespeare lesson a week), the momentum was not lost; this slowness gave students a chance to take in the language and think about what they had just read. In other settings I would go faster, but here this pace worked well.

There were other things I learned, but I see no need to round off the list; we are not done yet, and even when we are, we will not be. Few projects of this kind are ever “done”; they carry on somehow.



“Call me what instrument you will….”

When my students were reading and acting out Hamlet III.ii, I interrupted them so that we could look again at this dialogue. The Players have just passed through, playing recorders (that is, woodwind instruments); Hamlet asks for one and resumes his conversation with Guildenstern:

I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?

My lord, I cannot.

I pray you.

Believe me, I cannot.

I do beseech you.

I know no touch of it, my lord.

‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call  me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

This is one of the hundreds of reasons why people should read Hamlet. His trick reveals truth; by seeming to change the subject, by fooling Guildenstern into admitting that he cannot play the recorder, he shows the vanity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ploys. (The two have colluded with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude in observing Hamlet’s every move; after each conversation with Hamlet,  they report back to the King and Queen. Hamlet has figured this out.)

But Hamlet’s words go far beyond the immediate place and time. How many people pretend to know what lies inside others–where their stops are, how to sound them; how much of today’s technology is aimed at that very end! Everywhere we go–whether on Facebook or on hard ground–someone sums us up, puts us in a category, predicts what we will do next. Even though the attention isn’t as fixedly on most of us as it is on Hamlet here, we receive “mass personalized” scrutiny, which, while effective at predicting purchasing patterns, voting tendencies (and other such things), fails, fortunately, to determine who we are.

It is not just through social media and marketing that this occurs. There’s a fad of sorting out “good” and “bad” people and sweeping away all vestiges of the “bad.” I see this in certain aspects of the #MeToo movement (for example, many publishers are now halting publication, and sellers distribution, of books by authors who allegedly harassed women, as though the claims of harassment invalidated the authors and their works). I see it in the careless use of the words “fascist” and “monster” to describe people with whom one disagrees. (Yet the modern analogy is flawed, for reasons I will discuss shortly.)

In outwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet shows them that they cannot diminish him. “Why, look you now,” he says, “how unworthy a thing you make of me!” To treat a person as playable and knowable is to deny that person’s dignity; even a little instrument cannot just be played at will, and Hamlet much less so.

Hamlet has mastered the very game he derides; he plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just as they cannot play him. He calls playing the recorder “as easy as lying” and explains: “govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.” This is indeed what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been trying clumsily to do: to govern (or rather, cover) certain ventages (their true purposes) and play out their deceit. Hamlet does not cover his stops; rather, it seems, he governs them, showing truth when and how he wishes. (There is ongoing controversy over Hamlet’s sanity and self-control; I see him as brilliantly in control here, though not everywhere.)

So there is a problem with Hamlet: he continually resists others diminution, yet in mocking them he diminishes them himself. Many readers, including me, enjoy the way he makes fun of Polonius, whom he has written off as a doddering fool. I wonder whether Hamlet has tricked me too; yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem false as can be, but might there not be slightly more to Polonius, for instance, than Hamlet would allow? He has nothing close to Hamlet’s wit, but are humans measured by their wit?

It’s a misreading of Hamlet, then, to treat it as a discourse on human dignity. There is something else at stake here, a grappling with truth and doubt. Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost, has heard directly from him about the “foul and unnatural murder,” yet even he worries that his imaginations may have been “as foul / As Vulcan’s stithy.” If the ghost’s revelations are true, then Hamlet must avenge his father’s death; if they are not, he must somehow put this thought aside. To find the truth, he has the Players play a play; “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The “play” here is not just the actors’ performance, but a series of plays upon plays; he sees the others playing with him, and he outplays them at their games. The one with the truest view–Hamlet–will win, but he can win only by losing.

Literature (at its best) cannot be translated into messages about life, but it can open up language and thought. Hamlet does not say that it’s wrong to diminish others.  But through its poetry it gives us a troubled, unsummable, brilliant soul.


I took the two photos this week.


“This majestical roof fretted with golden fire”

Teaching Hamlet to my tenth-grade students this morning, I spent some time on this passage (in Act 2, Scene 2), which appears differently in the various versions and editions:

My lord, we were sent for.

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and queene: moult no feather. I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire — why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Hamlet puts on something of a show here, pretending to disclose his state of mind; even his irony has ironies. Using familiar expressions, ideas, clichés, he turns them over (and his visitors along with them), revealing their underside. Yet one of these phrases, “this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire,” sounds true. He sees the world in more than one way; far from dismissing it all, far from regarding the world as fakery and deceit, he holds both fire and dust. His thick mockery mixes with admiration, not of everyone, but of a few. He can distinguish true friends from false, and he keeps some things to himself, even when speaking them out loud.

Spring is coming, I had my first dream in Hungarian last night (incorrect Hungarian, but Hungarian all the same), and made my first joke in Hungarian today when wishing my students a “boldog szombat munkanapot,” a “joyous working Saturday.” Tomorrow is one of six “working Saturdays” in Hungary this year; in exchange for certain days off that combine with holidays and form long weekends, we are required to work (and attend school) on these specific dates. I was excused from coming in tomorrow, since I am leading services at my shul in Budapest (and am on the train now). I am not thrilled about the “szombati munkanapok” in general, but people have been generous and helpful, and I am grateful for being exempted this time. I won’t be able to take many of these days off–that wouldn’t be fair to my colleagues or students–but with advance notice, I can work out a plan. There’s just one more this spring; the rest come in the fall.

I took the photo from my window early this morning.


“Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated.”

My ninth- and tenth-grade classes at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium have been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, respectively. This week, the ninth graders read Act 3, Scene 1; the tenth graders, Act 1, Scene 3. (It’s the only time we’ll have this symmetry, I think.) In preparation for Bottom’s “translation,” I visited Maszka in Budapest, where I found a simple donkey mask (not the rooster mask shown below).

For Midsummer, the students not only read the parts but act them out, moving around the room; the action brings meaning to the words. We discuss the text briefly as well. For Hamlet, students read the parts dramatically and also spend time with specific passages. Eventually the two approaches will converge; if everything works out, we will give some kind of Shakespeare presentation toward the end of the year.

Here below, to the left, Snout speaks to Bottom; to the right, Titania wakes up.

The next two pictures show a different cast. To the left, Bottom returns to his rehearsal, with Puck following behind. To the right, Titania wakes up.

Every time I teach these plays, I find them “translated”; no two readings or discussions are identical. Here in Szolnok, there has been insight after insight, surprise after surprise.


I took all of the photos; the classroom photos are posted with the students’ permission.


“The time is out of joint”

fuseli hamlet boydellThis is the second of my blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction and first post.)

Hamlet is not about the conflict between moving on and looking back, but it’s tempting to see it that way. It has more to do with the conflict between expedient and many-layered language, but there are thousands of possible tiltings.

Early on in the play, Claudius and Gertrude both press on Hamlet to move beyond mourning; Hamlet, for his part, ensures that they remember precisely what they wish to forget (by staging a play that draws out Claudius’s guilt).

Claudius tells Hamlet (in Act 1, Scene 2):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’

His argument has as much baseness as logic: he says, anyone will mourn the death of his parent (as a matter of filial obligation, for a term), but to drag it on too long is a sign of immaturity and unmanliness, a stubborn protest against heaven, man, and nature. All fathers die; Hamlet’s father’s father died too, and his father before him. A father’s death is the “common theme” of heaven, nature, reason, and the dead; what grown man would oppose it?

Hamlet insists on remembering–not by erecting a memorial or delivering a speech, but by giving the lie to others’ evasions and euphemisms. If this were all he did, if he had no internal struggles, he would come across as arrogant–but all this wit takes place within an overwhelmed consciousness. His words to others can be sarcastic (“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”), cryptic (“for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward”), scornful (“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!”), or teasing (“the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe”). On his own, and with the Ghost, he shows still more capabilities, and near the end, when speaking to Laertes and Horatio, still more. His knowledge goes beyond what he knows.

He stages a play, The Murder of Gonzago, into which he inserts his own lines; he not only instructs the actors and arranges the event but provides his own commentary during the performance itself. It is precisely after his explanation (“He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”) that the King cries out, “Give me some light: away!”

It is easy to ally oneself with Hamlet and decry the Claudiuses of the world, those who brush over their actions with the rhetoric of “moving on.” We hear plenty of that rhetoric in politics and workplaces, and it doesn’t inspire trust. In December 2016, in response to inquiries about Russian meddling in the election, Trump said that “we ought to get on with our lives”; he has said similar things since. But the phrase is not purely Trumpian; it’s common coinage. In workplaces after mass layoffs, the managers speak of “going forward”; at least two distinct advice books have the title Moving Forward.

Still, any alliance with Hamlet is artistic, not literal; we can find ourselves in Hamlet again and again, yet no one of us is Hamlet, and the play’s conflicts do not map exactly onto life. Hamlet’s integrity lies not in “looking back,” but in seeing that “the time is out of joint” and seeking “to set it right.” He is endlessly complicated; he goes about things in circuitous ways, evading questions, concocting elaborate scenes, and killing the wrong person. I find an odd comfort in his ruminations, but it is not the “useful” comfort of a sweater. It stays slightly at odds with uses.

Moreover, while the play allows us to believe that Hamlet is not wrong “in the main” (Claudius did kill King Hamlet, and the Ghost was seen first by others), with a little twist of the mind, he could be catastrophically wrong. Suppose his father had died a natural death, yet he imagined Claudius the killer and sought his life. Suppose, moreover, that Claudius had gained the throne legitimately. Hamlet would then threaten not only the stability, not only the people, but even the laws and principles of the state.

Therefore, while one can look to Hamlet for poetry, tragedy, and personal resonance, one cannot look to it for direct life lessons. When it comes to “moving on” and “looking back,” the play offers no guidance. Hamlet offers a language of grappling, but not an answer. There can be no absolute answer; any life moves backward and forward, right and left, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes with long pauses.

In the last post on this topic I will talk about the zigzags of return and progress.

Image: Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost (1796). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.



A New Role for the U.S. Department of Education

serlioPresident Trump suggested during his campaign that he would get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy Devos, calls for more “local control,” charters, and vouchers; in addition, she intends to end the Common Core initiative.

I have criticized Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and many aspects of the Common Core–but I see a different and more promising role for the Department of Education. Here are some things that it can do if it stays intact.

First, it can seek out, vet, and publish the best curricular materials from schools and colleges around the country–so that, for instance, someone teaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or someone introducing students to statistics, can easily access a curriculum map, texts, questions, problems, and more. The schools and teachers whose work was published would be duly acknowledged and honored.

Second, it can initiate nationwide discussions that cut through typical ideological divides. Regardless of where people stand on issues such as charters, unions, testing, and “grit,” they can come together to discuss, for instance, the teaching of algebra or medieval history. These discussions would kindle public interest and stimulate additional dialogues.

Third, it can do its usual work: conduct, analyze, and disseminate research; oversee and award grants; and support the implementation of federal education law. This work would be substantial and ongoing–but the curricular work and the nationwide discussions would illuminate and elevate the rest.

Why bother?  someone might ask. Why not leave it to local entities to figure out their own curricula? Surely there’s enough published online that they won’t have trouble gathering resources.

Well, a lot of the material currently online is junk. Also, a lot of good work never gets posted publicly online, as schools see no benefit in posting it. Many curricula exist just as rough drafts (at best), since people are too busy during the year to revise them. Also, a curriculum does not tell you much, unless you know the subject matter. Since schools have such different bases of knowledge, one school’s curriculum might not even make sense to others.

By honoring schools with outstanding curricula, the Department of Education could create an incentive for them to polish and develop their  work. In addition, it could help supplement and interpret such curricula. It could work with education schools to include some of the works and topics in their education courses. Some items in the curricula could become topics of nationwide conversation.

What do you mean by “outstanding”? someone else might ask. Your idea of “outstanding” might differ from other people’s.

Yes, but I see ways to cut through these shells of opinion. By “outstanding” I mean, in this context, intellectually sound and rich. An outstanding curriculum honors the subject matter, considers it from different angles, and helps students understand, interpret, and question it.

I have been in the room when a colleague taught memorable lessons on Hamlet. They stood out for their close attention to Shakespeare’s language, the subtle combination of exposition and open discussion, and the quality of questions. Such lessons, if published, would inspire others; before long, there would be not only a repository of excellent Hamlet materials, but a lively nationwide discussion of Hamlet itself.

Yet another person might comment: “The idea of nationwide discussion sounds great, of course, but is this really the government’s business?” To this I answer: Why should a federal department (especially a department of education) not initiate lively and vigorous public discussion? Doesn’t that enhance democracy itself? It would not be the sole locus of such discussion, but it would set an example.

In short, the U.S. Department of Education could help promote intellectual vitality in the schools and beyond. Some may say, “This will never happen.” Well, it probably won’t happen in the next four years, but that does not render it impossible for all time. With all the talk of educational innovation, why not try the most interesting of all: the public study and discussion of works and ideas?

Image credit: Frontispiece for Sebastiano Serlio’s Book of Antiquities.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.