Students Are Making The Case For Teaching Shakespeare

Feb 23, 2017

Fifth grader Jaylen Hocker popped up from his front row seat at the O’Reilly Theater. He walked onto the stage, held up a hand to block the bright theater lights from his eyes and waited for the OK from a panel of judges before he began. 

“He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies. And what’s his reason? I am a Jew," he said, reciting William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

Hocker is a student at Jefferson Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon. He won the lower division of the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s scene and monologue competition earlier this week. 

His character, Shylock, is a Jewish moneylender with a bitter resentment of the Christian characters who have wronged him. Hocker remained stationery on the stage, projecting Shylock’s articulate disdain.

Shylock, a notable Shakespearean character, is still relevant to teach, according to the state. 

Pennsylvania students are required to analyze at least one Shakespeare play by the 11th grade. The Common Core standard cites the author's works, written more than 430 years ago, still hold, “profound insight into the human condition.”

While it is required literature, some educators advocate the text be taught as performance. That’s what Spencer Whale, a volunteer who helps coach students, said Shakespeare envisioned.

“He intended for them to be interpreted by actors who would fill in things that didn’t immediately jump off the page,”Whale said.

Whale helped students prefect their lines and performances leading up to the competition. He said one obstacle the young actors had to overcome was comprehending what is happening in the scene or monologue.

A group of sixth grade girls at Highcliff Elementary School in the North Hills District rehearsed the same three-minute scene from "Comedy of Errors" for two months. During their recess period they gathered in the library, first reading the scene with librarian Doris Stupka.

“They looked at (the script) and had no idea what they were reading,” Stupka said.

Jocelyn Young, left, rehearses a scene from "Comedy of Errors."
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

The girls chose a scene with an all-male cast of characters. They had to play up a flatulence joke, something Jocelyn Young, 11, said took several reads to even realize it was a joke.

“We didn’t understand when it said ‘butt, wind,'" Young said. "We were just reading it as ‘but wind.' So it was a lot more funny once we understood that."

Most of the girls in Young’s group said they haven’t read the entire play they sampled from. But they had fun. They laughed and took selfies with a cardboard-cutout of Shakespeare’s head after they performed in the preliminary round.

They volunteered to compete and likely won’t have to study the material for a few more years. Stupka said they’ll have a leg up when they do. 

“They don’t look at Shakespeare as something scary or intimidating,” she said. “It’s something fun and exciting and challenging.”