Shakespeare in ELT

This post came about after I saw a tweet by Nathan Hall questioning whether Shakespeare should be used in the ELT environment/context. Nathan tweeted the following:

Unpopular opinion: I think using Shakespeare (original text) to teach English is an unproductive use of time in a general classroom. I am open to hearing counter arguments

The premise – original text – would require the student to have a high English level (C1 or higher) and the energy spent in trying to understand the text would not be “well spent”.

Early on as a learning EFL teacher, I wasn’t able, or didn’t know how to prepare independent lessons – I would use coursebooks – and in the early 90s the best coursebook I came across was the Headway series – honestly, I learned a lot about the English language and culture using Headway Advanced and Unit 2 under the theme of Literature and Literary Genres contained a little bit of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Could it get any better? I had to carefully prepare my lessons in advance otherwise I wouldn’t be ready to deal with the grammar and vocabulary points presented in the unit.

Back in 1991, I was teaching for a language school in São Paulo and they sent me to teach a group of three ladies at a sports club where they would have their gym, tennis practice, swimming activities and, of course, English lessons. They were nice, intelligent mature women who had already traveled the world, were advanced English learners and had already read and seen a few Shakespeare plays translated and performed in Portuguese. They did not hesitate to read an excerpt of the “7 ages of man” in modern English (not Elizabethan English as some highbrow pedantic educators would like to say) despite the nebulous vocabulary (some of it) for the advanced language learner there was a ton of conversation to be obtained from that short and brief text.

Image result for headway advanced 1996Headway Advanced published in 1991

headway s
A page from the New Headway Advanced 4th Edition 2014

Yes, I totally get the fact that for many students (no matter their linguistic background and location) Shakespeare would be a drag: representing another time and another place far removed from their contemporary world. Well, … tell them to see The Lion King and they’ll be seeing Shakespeare’s ghost there. Yes, the language evolves but today some of Shakespeare’s quotes are still as relevant as back then even within a different context.

Can’t any B1/B2 English learner understand some of these quotes?

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts.”

—Jaques in As You Like It

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

—Escalus in Measure for Measure

 “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

—Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Yes, Shakespeare’s texts are old but the truths those works convey can be adapted to contemporary English by publishers’ Readers, plays can be re-enacted and adapted etc.

Shakespeare map
This map shows all the different locations and countries described in Shakespeare’s plays. He truly belongs to the world. 

My point is: don’t throw the baby with the bathwater. In this day and age, language teaching is still seen as a form of colonialism so the condescending “native teacher” desires the learner to see himself and his values first and only use the language as a literal tool for a very specific purpose. Why shut down the learner from the rest of the world in time and space?

If the learners are Asian should then all the material be Asian related? The same for African or Latino learners? In Brazil why bother teaching them the word “snow” just teach them to say “it’s a scorcher”? That’s the oppression of multiculturalism gone awry when it’s only good if you’re different from me and we have nothing in common and don’t even try to understand me “for I’m marvelous”.

Let the learners dream a Midsummer night’s dream… as teachers we’re supposed to expose them to the world not shelter them from it.

And don’t get me started on the beauty and usefulness of the second person singular – thou/thee. 😜

Is it unproductive to read any Shakespeare in the original text? As a sign of our times: Yes and no. That depends! Who said you can only use the original text? Yes, you may use it, but also adapt it in a myriad of different ways. Dost thou get me?

Mo and Shakespeare.jpg
Mo and his friend, Billy S.