Teaching Shakespeare, or What I learn from Slings and Arrows

There is a wonderful Canadian television show that I was introduced to a few years ago in my Shakespeare class.  The teacher showed us a little clip of the theme song of Slings and Arrows.

It’s a great show about a Shakespearean Festival producing plays, but more than that, it actually teaches a lot about Shakespeare and theater.  I love the show because of my theatre experience, it’s hilariously accurate in some respects.  From all of the crazy hijinks that happen backstage, to the crazy relationships between actors, director, techies, Stage Manager, etc, to the plays and the rehearsal process and the performances.

What is really impressive to me about this show is that it is not just a funny TV show that makes fun of Shakespeare, or actors, or theatre, it actually performs great works of Shakespeare.  They don’t show the entire play, but they do act out scenes from the play, and even in the short clips we get, you can tell that they’ve put a lot of thought and effort into the production.  One of my favorite scenes is from season 1, where they are doing Hamlet, and the director is trying to explain Ophelia’s madness to the ditz of a girl they’ve got playing her.  I have never really understood Ophelia’s madness, but when I heard this scene, this director explaining it to his actress, it made sense to me.

I also love some of the directorial choices they make when they are producing their plays.  I seriously consider stealing some of these ideas should I ever find myself in a position to direct these plays.  Like Macbeth.  Most productions love using a very bloody, ghastly looking actor to play the ghost of Banquo who comes and torments Macbeth during the banquet scene.  But only Macbeth and the audience are supposed to see Banquo, the other characters on stage do not.  In this show, they talk about not using an actor, but leaving the chair that Banquo’s ghost is supposed to sit in empty.  They talk about how eerie it is to watch someone yell and scream and argue with an empty chair.  I believe this emphasizes Macbeth’s insanity at this point – he’s seeing the bloody results of his ambition.  Such a simple thing, but I love it so much.

That’s why I love this show, and that’s what gives this show its power.  When they need to they can perform Shakespeare as well as any professional troupe.  But, mixed in with that is the humor and interesting character development that makes the show worth watching.  It’s not just a Wishbone-esque retelling of the plot of the play in the lives of those performing the play, but certain elements of the plays do appear in the other characters and the plot of the TV show, which just serves to emphasize those aspects and sheds understanding on the plays.   For example, the director of this Hamlet, shown in the clip above, was once an actor who played Hamlet so very well – for three performances until he went mad and ran off stage in the middle of a performance.  Now, he is seeing the ghost of his former director, whose production of Hamlet he has been to take over.  His character parallels that of Hamlet, and this director, who had famously been a Hamlet, helps the young actor cast as Hamlet understand the role.

And so, as I think about teaching and Shakespeare, I love this show.  I am going to use a lot of the elements I learned from this show, as well as using some of these clips.  Shakespeare is wonderful stuff, it teaches amazing things about human nature and about life and relationships.  But it is becoming harder for students to understand as our language is developing and changing from that language that Shakespeare wrote in.  But behind the language of Shakespeare are ideas and situations that students can and do understand.  That’s why so many different adaptations and versions of Shakespeare can be done.  Shakespeare can be taught, it can be understood, it can be loved.

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