Last week at NCTE, I made a public confession: for the first time in my career, I have turned to using SparkNotes in my classroom. Specifically, I have given my students copies of SparkNotes No Fear Shakespeare to read Hamlet. (For the uninitiated, the No Fear Shakespeare series provides Shakespeare’s original language on the left-hand page and the modern translation on the right-hand page). For some, this confession generated a level of horror not seen since The Bridges of Madison County sold 50 million copies. How could Mr. Deeper Reading cave to using No Fear? Isn’t this a dumbing down of his classroom?
Before I explain my decision, let me give you a little context.
Those familiar with my work know that I am an advocate of teaching the classics and that I have been teaching one Shakespearean play or another for nearly thirty years. (I also believe students should be reading books that are not classics as well—for more on this see Readicide or my new book, In the Best Interest of Students, due in February). I believe, as Carol Jago said to me at breakfast last week, that there is a wisdom found in Hamlet that is not found in Gone Girl. This is why I have taught Shakespeare over the years, and this is why I will continue to teach Shakespeare in the years to come.
So after all these years of asking my students to wrestle with Shakespeare’s original language, why have I now decided the time has come to hand them the translation? The answer is rooted in the central question I ask myself before teaching any major literary work: What do I want my students to take from this reading experience?
To answer this question, it might be easier by starting with what I don’t want them to take from reading Hamlet. It is not, for example, a central goal of mine to develop students who become expert at deciphering 400-year-old language. I have read Hamlet more than a hundred times, and there are still lines in the play that I do not understand without “cheating” and looking at the translation. If reading the translated lines help me to better understand the play, why wouldn’t reading the translated lines be enormously helpful to my students as well? My goal is not to turn my students into expert translators; my goal is that my students develop a clear understanding of the play so they are positioned to think deeply about it.
I also don’t want my students to take eight weeks to read a play that was originally intended to be experienced in three hours. If a teacher spends eight weeks teaching any major literary work, it ceases to be a work of art. Instead, the work of art is turned into an eight-week worksheet. For years, I had my students wrestle with the language without any translation at their side, and this approach invariably ensured that too much time was spent simply to get students to a literal understanding of the play. It became an exercise in breaking down scene after scene which, by stopping and wrestling with the translation after every scene, robbed my students of the continuity the play deserves. These repeated stops interuppted the play’s momentum—a momentum that is foundational to developing an authentic connection to the work of art.
This is not to suggest, however, that when using No Fear my students do not get any practice with wrestling with Shakespeare’s beautiful language. Though my students have the translation in front of them, there are times in the play we will stop as we approach a key scene—the advice scene, for example, or the “To be or not to be” soliloquy— and I will have them close their books and wrestle with the translation. These wrestling matches, however, are targeted and highly selective. They are designed to give my students some experience encountering the original language, but not to the point where the reading of the entire play gets bogged down. I remain cognizant that there is a tipping point between some practice and too much practice.
Instead of spending time wrestling with translating the text, I’d rather my students spend time wrestling with the big ideas found in the text. Less time translating means more time pondering the big questions posed by the play: Is there an afterlife? How do greed and power corrupt? What happens when we give in to temptation? What are the consequences of our actions? What is the best way to approach life’s difficulties? I would rather my students be given more time to think and argue about these questions instead of having them spend their time sitting in small groups arguing over the literal translation of a particular line.
So let’s return to the question I posed at the beginning of the post: What do I want my students to take from this reading experience? To answer this, let me share an experience I had last year with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. I was living in New York and saw that the play was being staged on Broadway. It was getting rave reviews, so I purchased tickets (it ended up winning Tony Awards for best play and for the lead actor, Mark Rylance). Before going to the play, however, it dawned on me that it had been many years since I had read it, and frankly, I had forgotten most of it. Can you guess what I did before heading out to the theater? I sat down, fired up my computer, went to the SparkNotes website, and read everything I could about the play—the summary of the scenes, the discussions of key themes and motifs, the analysis of key scenes. Did reading all of this before seeing the play spoil my theater experience? On the contrary! It deepened and enriched my involvement with the play. Not having to translate the dialogue enabled me to consider the play on a much richer level. I was free to move beyond simply struggling to understand what was happening. Better, I got the jokes. But most importantly, I walked out of the theater on a Shakespeare “high.” It was a very fun night—one of the best theater experiences I have ever had. It is important to note, however, I would not have achieved this high had the director stopped the play after every scene and had me wrestle with the literal translation.
So what do I want my students to take from this reading experience? First, and foremost, as with any major literary work, I want their interaction with the wisdom found in the text to lead them to a richer, more humane understanding of the world they are soon to inherit. That’s a given. But when teaching Shakespeare, I always have one additional goal: I want my students to walk out of my classroom with a new and lasting appreciation of Shakespeare’s work—a level of appreciation most certainly not borne from weeks of decoding a literal understanding of the text.