One of the more ambitious units I taught with my eighth grade students asked the essential question, “What is love?” At the center of the study was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The local theater usually mounted a production of the comedy, greatly abridged from its full-run, two-hour-plus length to just over an hour. We’d be sure to go over the rather confusing story in several ways—prose retelling, youtube animations, and an invaluable play map included in the Folger guide, Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As my teaching experience grew, I found other great resources, most of them through the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.
And to the essential question? Eighth graders embraced it for the most part. It’s also true that, while many began the exploration without enthusiasm, by the end almost everyone had, if not fallen head-over-heels, experienced a greater acceptance. This happened gradually, with their increasing familiarity with the Bard’s way of expressing himself and with the comedy of it all. Now they understood that comedy meant happy endings for mostly everyone involved, and they wanted that in their version of love, too.
One of the key practices is to get the kids using his language. Before I knew better, I bought a text set of Midsummer… that features Shakespeare’s original language on one side and a “translation” on the other. It might have been helpful at first, but soon the kids wanted only the Shakespeare; they became enamored with the poetry of it, the inversions, the slang, the “thys” and “thous.” They loved hurling insults—he was a master, and they aspired!
The passage all kids memorize is a speech in 2.1 given by Titania, Queen of the Fairies, to her King Oberon over the Indian boy and Titania’s refusal to surrender him. Jealousy disturbs the Fairy kingdom. It begins: “Set your heart at rest/The Fairyland buys not the child of me./” and continues to explain why she, Titania, will keep the “changeling” for herself. Over several weeks the kids practice the passage, put it in their own words, talk about how it connects to the essential question. They memorize it, and almost everyone is successful. Each student recites the passage aloud at some point; some choose to perform with a partner, but most stand alone. This is their first experience “owning” the words of William Shakespeare, and it is empowering!
Later they will perform scenes, fully aware that they CAN. They have already taken their first steps. This all happens in May well before their eighth grade trip in June. One year when we were on the bus heading home after our overnight adventure, I told the kids that I’d give extra credit points to anyone who could still recite Titania’s speech. I expected those teen dismissals, but that’s not what happened. Girls and boys alike chorused: