What does the language of William Shakespeare have to offer to the learner of English as a foreign language? Many have at least a curiosity about the words of the best known poet and playwright in the English language. Also your students know his work already; the plays of Shakespeare are famous for dealing with themes common to all humanity, such as jealousy, revenge, or racism, and as such are performed continuously throughout the world in English and in translation, in cinema, and in musical and operatic versions. Even the hugely popular TV series Survivor owes something to The Tempest, and this TV commercial for Levis jeans uses words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream….
Author David Crystal has argued that there is a place for some Shakespeare in the language classroom, using an excerpt from Romeo and Juliet to demonstrate that the language of Shakespeare is not so different from modern English to be irrelevant to our learners. This is part of the famous balcony scene, where Romeo is in the garden below and Juliet has been trying to say goodnight but is calling him back to talk some more…
What o’clock tomorrow
Shall I send to thee?
Romeo: By the hour of nine.
Juliet: I will not fail. ‘Tis twenty year till then.
I have forgot why I did call thee back.
Romeo: Let me stand here till thou remember it.
Juliet: I shall forget, to have thee still stand there.
Remembering how I love thy company.
Romeo: And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget,
forgetting any other home but this.
Juliet: ‘Tis almost morning. I would have thee gone.
….as she finally remembers that he will be in danger if her family finds him there. Even though there are some differences from modern English (“What o’clock?” instead of “What time?”; “thee” and “thou” instead of “you”) it’s clearly understable. Crystal goes on to explain that during research for his book Shakespeare’s Words he calculated that about 5% of the grammar and vocabulary are different in form and meaning to modern usage. Shakespeare is of course famous for long complex sentences and manipulation of the language for poetic effect so much of his work does require careful study, but there is still plenty of material like the passage above to give learners at least a taste of his style and craft.
Crystal goes on to argue that we can use examples from Shakespeare to encourage our students to be creative and experimental when speaking English. For example in this passage from Hamlet there is the poetic use of the word “nose” as a verb rather than a noun. Hamlet has just killed Polonius:
Claudius: Where is Polonius?
Hamlet: In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there,
seek him i’th other place yourself. But if indeed you find him not within
this month you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.
We’d like to leave you with one of the best known passages of Shakespeare, which we have used in ELT classes (as it was a text in Headway Upper-Intermediate at one time), the “Seven Ages of Man” monologue from As You Like It….
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Note: David Crystal will be speaking, although not on Shakespeare, at the Dogus University ELT conference in Istanbul this October.