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To Bard or not to Bard

You can have your Shakespeare as you like it

You can have your Shakespeare as you like it

April 22, 2008|By ANNA BALDASARRE / Pulse Correspondent

What significance does April 23 have? It's the day traditionally celebrated as William Shakespeare's birthday.

Although his is a household name, little else is known about William Shakespeare. He was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and is said to have died on his 52nd birthday. Thirty-seven of his plays survive, a significant portion of those that are known from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, as well as 154 sonnets and several epic poems.

Shakespeare's career as a writer reverberates in our culture even today. Jennifer Perkins, an English teacher at Smithsburg High School, said Shakespeare's works "represent an era of writing that has defined the literary world ... It doesn't matter who you are. People are able to identify with his perspective on life, love, death, friendship, grief, jealousy, etc. ... Shakespeare writes about real-life experiences."

Not only are his plays performed each year in various parts of the country by professional and amateur acting groups alike, but, just as Shakespeare borrowed ideas from others' stories, his plays have served as the inspiration for countless books, plays, and movies enjoyed by Americans of all ages.

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When "Shakespeare" is typed into the online catalog of the Washington County Free Library, the resulting list includes 573 titles. There have been many film adaptations within even the past decade, including the 1999 movie "10 Things I Hate About You," starring Julia Stiles and the late Heath Ledger, based on "The Taming of the Shrew"; the 2006 movie "She's the Man," based on "Twelfth Night" and starring Amanda Bynes; and even Disney's "High School Musical," based loosely on the ever-popular "Romeo and Juliet."

Shakespeare is given credit for creating hundreds of words and phrases that we use every day.

Where would we be without knock-knock jokes, which find their origins in "Macbeth"? What if we didn't have words like generous, fashionable and skim milk? What if we never waited with bated breath or refused to budge an inch? What if no one had a heart of gold or elbow room?

And as in many high schools and colleges around the country, Shakespearean plays are an integral part of the curriculum in Washington County.

Students at Smithsburg High School read "Romeo and Juliet," "A Midsummer's Night Dream," and "Macbeth."

But despite his profound influences on the English language and our own culture, high school students seem rather uneducated about Shakespeare's works. Eighty percent of the students I spoke with don't have a favorite poem or play by Shakespeare.

My guess is this is caused by a lack of familiarity with Shakespeare. The highest number of plays read by these students was two - the two required for English 9 and 10. Similarly, Lara Seidman, 15, and Rabee Haq, 15, were the only ones who could quote a famous line. Both remembered Juliet's plaintive cry of "'O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?'"

But when an English teacher announces it's time to read Shakespeare, the class usually groans in dismay. Why? Because even though students Daniel Gillen, 16, and Amanda Cooper, also 16, have said they like Shakespeare because "it's funny," "it had a good message," and "it had mystery and love," Shakespeare's language is also described by Chelsea Craig, 15, as "confusing."

And this is where many students struggle. After all, William Shakespeare wrote his plays 400 years ago, as Maya Montemurro, also an English teacher at Smithsburg, explains.

"I think the language is difficult and becomes a barrier between the student and the story," Montemurro said. "Learning Shakespearean language is like learning any foreign language - it's difficult, but totally worth it. Once that light bulb goes on, kids tend to really enjoy it."

Many editions of the plays have explanations of uncommon or archaic phrases alongside the original text. For maximum understanding, find and read one of these versions.

And just as with anything else, practice makes perfect; even if you don't understand it at first, reread the line, the page, the entire play, and you'll figure it out.

If you're interested in trying a Shakespearean play, whether it's the first you've read or the 10th, Perkins and Montemurro suggested a few of their favorites: "Othello," "Titus Andronicus," "As You Like It" and "Hamlet."

You'll have to decide for yourself whether Shakespeare is corny or relevant to your life. After all, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Hamlet, Act II Scene II).

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