As a warm up to this year’s Shakespeare plays, I had students read and perform Act 3, scene 3 — the scene where Cinna the Poet is confronted, attacked, and (possibly) murdered by a group of angry citizens.
This lesson is borrowed from one of the many resources available on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s web page.
So why take the time to act out a scene from an entirely different play? Because this scene is a very short and very wonderful example of what makes reading Shakespeare such a valuable experience for students: It forces the student to read creatively.
This scene is only about a minute long, and the language is very simple. There’s nothing tricky about pronouncing the lines or understanding what people are saying to each other.
But in this scene, each line poses a choice for the person reading/acting it out, and there are many details that have to be added by the reader/actor.
So after having the students read the scene a line at a time, and then a sentence at a time — sitting n a circle — I asked them for some details:
- The scene is a “street.” That’s pretty vague; what details would you add?
- What is it about Cinna that makes these four citizens confront him?
- Where are the four citizens coming from? What have they been doing?
- Imagine that every character in the scene is holding an object. What is it?
- What happens to Cinna the Poet at the end of the scene?
The responses were all coherent and logical, and most importantly, they were all created by the students. One group imagined a group of thugs in a car pulling up next to Cinna as he waited to cross a street. Another had the four citizens walking out of a bar. Another added a mother with a baby to the scene. One group had Cinna typing a text message, and one of the citizens snatched the phone out of his hand.
Reflecting on what the students did during these two classes, I realized that reading Shakespeare is an inherently creative activity. As I explained to the students,
- There aren’t any instructions on HOW the people are feeling
- There aren’t any directions on WHAT to do while the lines are spoken
- Every character has a back story.
And because of these “missing” pieces, the interpretation of every scene is up to the reader. When students understand that they own the characters’ actions, then their reading becomes an act of creation. And if they create the meaning, they own the language.