Tag Archives: Shakespeare

A ‘feast of languages’ at IATEFL

I’ve decided to call my presentation at IATEFL a ‘feast of languages’ not because I wanted to refer to the diversity of languages spoken by the delegates at the conference; neither because I wanted to allude to the diversity of ‘languages’ and voices in Shakespeare’s works but because I wanted to call my audience’s attention to the ways in which we sometimes approach Shakespeare with language learners.

The phrase ‘a great feast of languages’ comes from Love’s Labour’s Lost and, in isolation, it may sound as if Shakespeare is celebrating diversity and multilingualism. I think this illustrates very well the danger of taking bits and pieces of a text without looking at how they are inserted in the context of the work. In the play, there are two very pedantic and verbose characters called Don Armado and Holofernes, the schoolmaster, who are mocked by Moth, Armado’s page, and the country clown, Costard, for their linguistic ‘perversion’ and their meaningless use of discourse. They say that Armado and Holofernes  ‘have been to a great feast of languages and stol’n the scraps’ and that they ‘have long liv’d on the alms-basket of words’, which means that they pick words indiscriminately, without thinking about their meaning, just to sound learned and show off their supposedly superior linguistic knowledge.

The point I wanted to emphasize with the audience is that we should find ways of teaching Shakespeare to language learners that go beyond just picking words and phrases or teaching students a couple of Shakespearean idioms.  I believe that you need to help learners look at Shakespeare’s language in a more meaningful way. In order to do that, I suggest teachers choose a particular play and them select an extract of that play they want to explore with their students. Once you have chosen the passage, there are a couple of things you can do to analyse it in more depth:

  • Ask your students to read the text before coming to the classroom and ask them to work on the vocabulary at home, preferably using  the Shakespeare’s Glossary to help them with the meaning of less common words. Once you have taken the vocabulary issue out of the way, students will feel more confident to start thinking about the meaning of the lines.
  • In class, give your students the opportunity to watch the same scene being performed. This can come from a YouTube video as there is plenty of material available, from commercial films to clips of live theatre performances uploaded by the theatre companies.
  • Design pre-listening tasks and listening tasks to go with it. No need to be fancy here: these can be the same kinds of tasks that you would design for any listening activity.
  • Design some post-listening activities that make students revisit the passage and close read it. This may sound a bit old-fashioned, but in my opinion close reading is still be best way to work with a text

Close reading is a literary criticism technique used by both structuralist and post-structuralist critics to analyse the text. It is up to you to decide in which direction you want your students to go. I personally favour an approach that combines an analysis of the form and figurative language that is illuminated by a theoretically informed reading of the text. This may sound a little bit ‘too advanced’ for some language learners but in fact it is just a way to help students think about the nuances and implications of what is going on in the play. You may find out that some theoretical approaches work best with some particular genres. For example, I mainly use the new historicist approach with the history plays and feminist criticism/gender studies theory to analyse the comedies. Particular plays might also better lend themselves to particular readings, such psychoanalyst criticism with Hamlet or post-colonial criticism with The Tempest.  However, this is not carved in stone; you can use any approach to look at any of the plays.

My presentation was kindly sponsored by Macmillan since I am writing a couple of lesson plans and materials, as well as articles, for onestopenglish on teaching Shakespeare to EAP students. A video should be available soon.

‘Had I your tongues and eyes’

2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death and it very likely that most people will only manage to miss it if they are living on another planet. Yet, there is still a chance that someone will have the idea of broadcasting some of the most famous sonnets into space in the hope the radio waves will reach some less well-read extra-terrestrial life forms out there. Or maybe it should be the ‘What’s a man’ soliloquy in Hamlet performed by Cumberbatch? Not a bad idea at all. I hope someone from NASA reads this post.

Jokes apart, indeed there are many organizations, institutions, and publishers committed to provide the means to celebrate Shakespeare in 2016. There is concerted effort to share his works and Shakespearean scholarship among a broader readership and audiences around the world and this is a very good thing indeed (for a list of links to Shakespearean sources on the Internet, click here).

In the course of the last months I have been asked a couple of times to talk about why Shakespeare is still relevant today and I am sure others have been through the same experience. My standard answer is twofold: one reason refers to language and the other to content. Firstly, Shakespeare’s language is alive in the English we speak nowadays as it became part of the fabric of the language in a way that can only be compared to the influence exerted by the language in the King James’s Bible. Secondly, his plays and poems talk about things that are still relevant to all of us everywhere regardless of the culture to which people belong. Still, there is more to it…

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell my students that Shakespeare’s language is very similar to our English, that linguists have found out that only 5% of Shakespeare’s words are indeed out of use and different from Modern English (Crystal & Crystal, 2002), and that difficulty is a perceived and shifting concept. I can still read the skepticism on their faces. And they are right. Shakespeare is difficult. However, I still don’t think language is the main source of difficultness, although we have to admit that some passages can be particularly dense. The difficulty comes from complexity of thought (Crystal, 2008), from extended metaphors, punning, and complex imagery (Kermode, 2000), as well as ‘poetic allusiveness’ (Smith, 2007, p.72).

Davis (2013, p.7) argues that poetry is vital to humans in a way that other writings are less so because poetry ‘lights up in the brain some new force of emotional interest’ that shifts the ‘mind attention and energy’ creating a ‘field of consciousness around it’. For him, Shakespeare’s use of language offers ‘both writer and reader a holding-ground for the contemplation of experience’ (p.16). Perhaps more than any other writer, Shakespeare is able to create this field of consciousness about language. He prompts the awakening of our thinking brains; he surprises us; he keeps us on our toes; he requires us to be critical readers; he forces us to read things from different angles and points of views. Every time we encounter Shakespeare, we are challenged.

Difficulty, I want to argue, is perhaps one of the main reasons why Shakespeare is still relevant today.

The problem is not with Shakespeare; it is with us. We have been conditioned to think that difficultness is a bad thing. There are plenty of examples of who people try to digest Shakespeare to others in order to make it ‘easy’: there is a website called ‘No Fear Shakespeare’; some argue that we have to translate him into ‘more accessible’ language; there are tips out there to make Shakespeare ‘easy’ to our students. We want everything easy and accessible – our motto seems to be ‘Just Google It’. Sorry, that will not do here. There may be some place and use for these things, but I shall argue that finding ‘easy reading’ is not the reason why Shakespeare endures the taste of time and is still relevant to us. On the contrary! Umberto Eco, the philosopher and fiction writer who sadly passed away just yesterday once said, ‘People are tired of simple things’. He might as well have been just thinking about Shakespeare.


  • Crystal, D and Crystal, B. (2002) Shakespeare’s Words. London: Penguin.
  • Crystal, D. (2008) Think of My Words:Exploring Shakespeare’s Language.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davis, P. (2013) Reading and the Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kermode, F. (2000) Shakespeare’s Language. London: Penguin.
  • Smith, E. (2007) The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.