Literature without threat: Acting
helps bring Shakespeare plays to life © March 30, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Freshman Delaney Welch, holding a manuscript, laughs with the rest of the group reading <em>A Midsummer Night’s Dream</em>.

photo by Jordan Silverman, staffFreshman Delaney Welch, holding a manuscript, laughs with the rest of the group reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Joseph Belcastro, a first-year Engineering Management student at Norwich University, stepped up to a podium and began to read the words of Theseus, a Greek duke, addressing his betrothed.

It was the opening scene of Shakespeare’s comedy of magic and relationships, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Now fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but oh, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes; she lingers my desires”

The verse, like much of Shakespeare, was dense with meaning, symbolism and unfamiliar words. As Belcastro paused to find his bearings, fellow student Delaney Welch spoke up.

“You're pretty much saying, ‘In four days we’re going to have sex,’” she said.

It was Welch, a first-year Criminal Justice major, who decided to position Theseus at the podium, acting as judge to one of the play’s central conflicts involving Hermia, her father and two suitors. In fact, Welch drove most interpretation in the first reading of the play among her group of six students, and goaded shy classmates to bring some emotion to the words. Her voicing of Hermia was, by comparison, confident and feisty.

“I love this kind of stuff,” said Welch, of Temecula, Calif. “I automatically wanted [to play the character] Hermia.”

Welch and classmates were performing the first scenes from Midsummer and three other Shakespeare plays. This wasn’t a drama class, and no one expected exceptional readings. The intention behind this freshman literature class was to present Shakespeare in a small but meaningful dose.

Students may get more out of a single scene than from trying to absorb an entire play, instructors said. Moreover, something special happens when Shakespeare is spoken as intended: by lending your voice to a character.

“By speaking him, you can appreciate him more than by merely reading,” said Charles Baker, a Connecticut actor who joined several classes for a crash course in performing the Bard. “You should just relax and enjoy what you can understand.”

While many students struggled initially to determine what was happening in the play, Welch said she caught the gist of the conflict on the first pass. It was a theme of love versus authority, and she immediately identified with the character of Hermia, who was in love with one man and rebelling against her father’s plans to marry her to another.

With subsequent readings of the scene, characters were distributed among group members and the intricacies of the story became clearer, she said.

“You kind of need to understand the big picture before you can understand the small picture,” said Welch, who has drama experience from high school. “It comes alive for me and I can see where things are going.”

English Prof. Kathleen Osgood called the exercise a “short and intense,” introduction to Shakespeare that she hopes will leave a positive impression. A full reading of a play takes weeks and often leads to frustration for both students and instructor, but Shakespeare has so much to offer, she said. Osgood expressed that conundrum to Baker when they met at a camp at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

“I told him, ‘I really wish I could give them more Shakespeare in less time,’” she said.

Baker suggested she try focusing student attention on opening scenes alone. The two of them forged a partnership, and Baker selected two tragedies and two comedies and outlined a few principles of performance. His introduction to acting took 30 minutes, and focused on ways for students to identify a character’s human qualities using their own experience. Soon after, students broke into groups and began to interpret the verses themselves.

Baker, an attorney who began studying Shakespeare in earnest upon retirement, believes these works cannot be properly understood or appreciated without being read in performance. While this is common in drama classes, he thinks it is rare for literature courses, and told students they may be serving as guinea pigs.

“It’s the first time it has been done anywhere, as far as I know,” he said.

Following the final readings, Osgood said she really felt that students had taken pleasure in performing Shakespeare, and called their degree of engagement in the class “amazing.” While their introduction to the Bard had hardly been comprehensive, she hopes students complete the class with an appreciation that may blossom into something bigger.

One of her techniques for engaging freshmen, Osgood said, is to make the class a “safe” place where students feel comfortable being themselves and trying new things. She hopes the unit on Shakespeare accomplished that.

“Before they can stretch, they need to be comfortable,” she said. “I think they feel safe with Shakespeare now. I don't think he’s a threat.”