Archive for the 'Folger' Category

Shakespeare Follow-Up: America

Friday, July 4th, 2014

In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, while visiting Ephesus, are quite surprised that two women have claimed them as husbands. In actuality, they are the wives of the Syracusians’ long-lost twins, but our travelers don’t know this. Dromio describes his new-found wife as spherical, like a globe. Antipholus asks where particular countries can be found, and Dromio makes bawdy wordplay based on various parts of her anatomy. At one point, Antipholus goes somewhere unexpected:

Where America, the Indies?

USA! USA! USA!

But, wait… Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors in the late 16th century, over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson was even a glimmer in his pappy’s eye. There was no USA. O, say can you see the need for a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus introduced Europeans to what they would later refer to as “The New World.” But at the time, Columbus thought that he had circumnavigated the globe and found a new route to the Indies. Despite being in error about this, the islands he reached continue to be called the West Indies and the native people he encountered are still commonly referred to as Indians, though the latter title seems to be phasing out.




The earliest-known use of the word America was in a 1507 map by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. The Library of Congress has a digital version of it, and it’s really worth checking out. You can see how much and how little they knew about the “New World.” Most of what they had charted was what we today call South America, and very little of the North American landmass is depicted. At the top, apparently overseeing his discovery, is Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer credited for realizing that the landmass discovered by Columbus was not part of Asia, but rather an independent continent.

According to my Arden edition of the play (R.A. Foakes, ed.), Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors around 1591-1592, give or take a couple of years. For our purposes here, it will suffice to note that the play was written after the first English colonists set up in the New World (the ill-fated Roanoke colonists, arriving July 4, 1584), but before the first permanent colony was established in Jamestown in 1607.

So what did Shakespeare mean by “America”? The Arden note is inconclusive: “the only specific reference to America in Shakespeare’s writings; here, like the ‘Indies’ named in reference to its proverbial wealth.” However, according the Folger’s Shakespeare in American Life website, Shakespeare’s characters would refer to the New World as “the Indies,” as it appears Antipholus is dong here. So my best inference would be that “America” also is referring to the New World in general, and not necessarily the middle section of the North American landmass.

Isaac Asimov, by the way, is silent on this issue. He does note that, during this section, Antipholus and Dromio have completely abandoned any pretense of being from ancient Greek city-states.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in Congress on this date, July 4, 1776, and today is commonly celebrated as the birthday of the United States of America. The word “America” is now most commonly used to refer to this nation.

So… Happy Birthday, America!

Shakespeare Follow-Up: The Atom

Friday, December 6th, 2013

In As You Like It, Celia reveals to Rosalind that she knows the name of Rosalind’s secret admirer. It is Orlando, who has already captured her heart. Immediately, Rosalind begins to pepper Celia with an overwhelming litany of questions, which causes Celia to exclaim:

It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover

Wait, what? Isn’t this the same play that said that the world is six thousand years old? How could Celia possibly know about atomic theory? Fortunately, there’s no job too small for the Shakespeare Follow-Up.

According to my Folger edition of the play (Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, ed.), the word “atomies” as used here means “dust particles in sunlight.” Oh.


Never mind.

Later in the play, Phebe uses the word, and this is clearly the meaning she intends:

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye:
’Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,
That eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,
Who shut their coward gates on atomies,
Should be call’d tyrants, butchers, murderers!

So that would appear to be that. But, wait! According to my Arden edition (Juliet Dusinberre, ed.), there’s more to the story. “Atomies” does indeed mean “tiny particles,” but…

The word, which occurs twice in AYL (see 3.5.13) and in no other Shakespeare play, may suggest the territory of the research conducted by Ralegh’s navigator, Thomas Harriot, into the atom and into optics, with particular relation to the refraction of light and the nature of visions.

(We’ll get back to Harriot, but as a side note, you may remember that Mercutio also uses the word “atomies” in the Queen Mab speech. To be fair, I checked my Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet (Brian Gibbons, ed.), and found instead the word “atomi,” which is from Q1. The Folio has “atomies.” So it’s arguable whether the word appears in another play, but the Arden is at least consistent. Even if you say the word is unique to As You Like It, however, the concept does appear in at least one other play.)

Atomism, the theory that all matter is made up of smaller units that cannot be further divided, was an idea embraced by several Pre-Socratic philosophers, most notably Leucippus and Democratus. Aristotle rejected this theory, believing that the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) were continuous and infinitely divisible. As with most of these kinds of arguments, Aristotle’s version won the day. Although there were some notable figures who did believe in atomism throughout the ages, Aristotle’s theory was still the prevailing concept even in Shakespeare’s day. So in Twelfth Night, Viola gets Olivia’s attention by telling her “you should not rest/ Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me!” as Sir Toby asks Sir Andrew “Does not our life consist of the four elements?” when trying to make a point.

However, even in Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century, atomism was making a comeback, boasting such impressive adherents as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and even Galileo. Thomas Harriot was an early contributor to the developing theory, though at a time when it was still dangerous to speak too openly about what was considered a heretical idea. It’s intriguing to think that the notion may have captured Shakespeare’s imagination as well, but this is merely speculation. I don’t think you can strongly infer this from his use of a particular word twice in a given play, especially when the second use of the word points fairly decisively in the other direction.

In 1808, John Dalton (building on the work of Lavoisier and Proust) demonstrated that when a substance (such as water) is broken down into its components (such as hydrogen and oxygen), the proportion can always be described with small integers, implying that there is a direct correspondence on some foundational level. His atomic theory of matter led to further inquiry and discovery throughout the 19th century. In the early 20th century, quantum mechanics allowed scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Nils Bohr to describe the unique properties of particles on the microscopic scale.

There’s a lot more to the story, but it will have to suffice to note that in the mid-20th century, science learned how to split the atom, unleashing the potential for a virtually unlimited power source, weapons of unthinkable destruction, and a series of ethical questions that have turned out to be much more difficult to resolve than even the propositions of a lover.

Book: That Shakespeare Kid by Michael LoMonico

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

“Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters,” James Tyrone asks his son Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. “You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him — as you’ll find everything else worth saying.” Author Michael LoMonico puts this claim to the test in his new novel, That Shakespeare Kid, about a boy named Peter who gets hit on the head with a Riverside Shakespeare and awakes to find he can only speak Shakespeare’s words.

Now, I should mention that I know Mike, and I’ve worked with him before on projects such as the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, their Elementary Education Conference, and PBS’s Shakespeare Uncovered educational advisory panel. I’m thanked in the book, and read it from a copy signed by the author. So, this will hardly be an unbiased review. But it’s about a kid who can’t stop speaking Shakespeare, so would you expect any less than an enthusiastic response from me regardless? And actually, knowing Mike enhances one’s appreciation of the book, as his time-tested philosophies of teaching and learning Shakespeare are fundamental to the story.

The book is addressed to “the great variety of readers” and, indeed, there are very specific demographics that I think will appreciate it for different reasons. On the surface, it’s a young adult novel, and I think it works on those terms. LoMonico sets the scene in the world of the child, and the story is told through the eyes of Peter’s friend Emma. So while the teacher in the book may be excited about covering Shakespeare, the kids start off creeping unwillingly to school. The characters of Peter and Emma are well developed and likable; they are kids you know and kids you’d like to know. And if the young reader is entirely unfamiliar with Shakespeare, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction.

But as excited as I am to recommend this to my nephew, I think my graduate students would appreciate it even more. In the book, LoMonico depicts numerous Shakespeare class lessons. He illustrates what works and what doesn’t work, and since we hear it all in Emma’s voice, we understand why. Mike is recognized as a national expert on teaching Shakespeare, with experience working with thousands of teachers and students. This novel is practically a textbook on how to teach Shakespeare on the middle-school level (and next semester, perhaps literally a textbook). If you’re interested in learning how to make Shakespeare fun for kids, let Mike walk you through it. The key, of course, is in providing numerous opportunities for students to speak the text out loud. Peter has no choice, but the rest of the students learn to enjoy it as well.

So kids will love this novel, as will teachers who wish to learn the fundamentals of teaching Shakespeare. What about experienced Shakespeare teachers who already have a passion for the stuff? I have to admit that part of the fun for me was in trying to identify the passages that Peter found himself reciting. LoMonico anticipates this; the answers are in the back. Every play by Shakespeare is represented, as well as Sonnet 18. The quotes range from the famous to the obscure, so the unstated game remains fun for all fans of Shakespeare, whether casual or die-hard. And teachers of Shakespeare will appreciate the familiar classroom moments, such as when students encounter the word “ho” or when the script requires your middle-school actors to kiss.

At the heart of That Shakespeare Kid is a love of Shakespeare’s language and how that love is expressed through speaking the text. Peter’s thoughts and writing are unaffected by his affliction; it only affects his speech. But for LoMonico, that’s where Shakespeare lives, in the spoken word, so that’s where teachers and students need to look for him. Peter’s curse becomes a joyful blessing in those sections where he has fun playing with these amazing words he suddenly has unlimited access to, such as when he uses lines from across the canon to describe his experiences at a Mets game, or when he accepts a challenge from his classmates to find quotes that use a given word.

LoMonico has some fun of his own; all of the chapter titles and most of the character names are Shakespeare references. In fact, the entire story can be seen as an allegory for learning Shakespeare’s language. When the students first learn of Peter’s condition, they find it scary and alienating. As they get used to it, they realize that it becomes easier to understand, and they eventually learn to celebrate it.

This is a book about teaching Shakespeare, and about learning it. About liking it, and about loving it. It is for teachers and for students and for Shakespeare fans of all ages. It’s a book for each of us who, at one point in our lives, got hit over the head by a Riverside Shakespeare and found ourselves unable to resist speaking these incredible words. We may have gotten some strange looks from our friends and loved ones at first, but they eventually came to accept it as a part of who we are. Peter’s journey may be fantastical, but it’s not entirely unfamiliar.

That Shakespeare Kid is available at Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions.

UPDATE: Mike has set it up on Amazon.com that if you buy the print edition, you can get the Kindle edition for free.

Cleopatra’s Facebook

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Last night, PBS and the Folger Shakespeare Library hosted a Twitter party, a real-time online conversation about teaching Shakespeare with experts from the Folger and teachers from across the country. It was a great opportunity to connect with like-minded educators and share innovative practices, although, because it was on Twitter, the party was most definitely BYOB.

I had the opportunity to share a cool project I did two years ago, and I realized that I never actually posted the final product here. Long-time readers may remember my working with a class of sixth-grade students on Antony and Cleopatra back in the spring of 2011. The students were learning about ancient Egypt in social studies, and it was a good opportunity to make connections in ELA. We did in-class readings of selected scenes and discussed how they relate to our lives and world today.

One thing that made this project a little different was that we used an online Moodle classroom to manage our unit. This school happened to be part of two unrelated projects, one that gave the students laptops in school and another that gave them desktops at home, so it was a perfect environment to experiment with blended learning models for teaching Shakespeare. I uploaded links to the scenes and additional resources we could draw from to increase our understanding, as well as message boards for each lesson, so students could continue discussing the themes of the lesson beyond the school day.

Once we finished the play, we discussed our project. My thinking was that we would make a video. The kids thought the play was like a soap opera (and that Cleopatra was a “drama queen”!) and that seemed to be a promising thread for a while. But the more we talked about the project, the more the kids wanted to go another way. They decided that they wanted to retell the story of Antony and Cleopatra through social media, which later got refined into the idea of creating Cleopatra’s Facebook page during the events of the play. The students were too young to actually go on Facebook, so our project would be an offline mock-up.

I set up an area on the Moodle classroom where students could brainstorm ideas as well as post their favorite lines from the play. We broke up into five groups, and each was assigned a different act. Each group also designed a tableau to represent their act. Actors volunteered, and were chosen to select their preferred part by random lot. We found various locations around the school to take pictures of our tableaux and Facebook profile headshots. Our costume scheme was simple: “Romans are Red, Egyptians are Blue, Cleopatra wears White, and the snake does too.” The snake, by the way, was a real snake generously lent by the science teacher, though it made our Cleopatra skittish. The actor who played the clown had the idea that he would photobomb the earlier pictures, and then appear completely serious in the final image.

Meanwhile, other students were taking the ideas posted to the Moodle classroom by each of the groups and creating a Facebook-style narrative tracing the plot of the play. A particularly tech-savvy student volunteered to put it all together in the visual style of Facebook, which she did on her own. The final product can be seen below (click for a larger image).

Enjoy!

Eating Ambrosia on Mount Olympus

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

As the year is winding down, I’m looking back over the last twelve months of Shakespeare Teacher to prepare for the annual Top Ten Posts list, which will be up tomorrow. I admit that this has not been my most prolific year, but I’ve been extremely busy. Busyness is often cited as a complaint, but I have no complaints. Rather, my busyness has been the result of having too many opportunities that were too good to pass up. Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?

One of the things that has been occupying my time has been a new graduate-level course I’m teaching for NYU on evaluation for school administrators. I didn’t know I’d be teaching it until the course actually started, so I’ve been burning the candle at both ends trying to stay prepared each week. The effort has been worthwhile, as the students have been giving glowing feedback to the department, and I’ve been hired to teach it again in the spring. I’ll also be teaching my regular course for English teachers on using drama as a teaching tool, so I should still be pretty busy… the good busy, but busy nevertheless.

Still, I’d like to be using the blog to write about the things that I’m doing and to process what I’m learning while I’m doing them. I haven’t been doing that, and my New Year’s Resolution is to return to doing that. So busyness isn’t an excuse to avoid writing; it should be a call to write. Readers have continued to enjoy the regular features, and I’ve enjoyed writing them, but they were never what this blog was supposed to be about. I recently had one experience in particular that I’ve regretted not taking the time to share with the readers of this website, so I’d like to do so now. Better late than never.

Thirteen (WNET) has produced a series called Shakespeare Uncovered which will premiere on PBS stations on January 25. I had nothing to do with the creation of the series, but Thirteen asked me to sit on an advisory board to consult on the educational outreach component that accompanies their programming. So far, this has consisted of previewing the series and having a day-long meeting with Thirteen educators and other members of the advisory board.

I was excited enough to work with Thirteen and on teaching Shakespeare no less, but when I found out who the other members of the board were going to be, I was floored. These are my teaching Shakespeare heroes, some of whom I’ve met through my dealings with the Folger, others of whom I know by reputation. My claim to fame, on the other hand, is that I snatched a good Internet domain name when the snatching was good. But I think my enthusiasm for the subject matter made up the difference. Having the chance to spend an entire day discussing the teaching of Shakespeare with a team of experts was like being invited to eat ambrosia on the top of Mount Olympus. And I’ve been yearning to tell you about it ever since.

By the way, the Shakespeare Uncovered series is amazing, and you should watch it when it airs. If you’re into Shakespeare, you’ll appreciate all of the different angles the series covers. And if you’re not a Shakespeare fan, you may come to understand why some of us are.

I had hoped that this post wouldn’t come off as too self-critical or apologetic. But now that I read over it, it comes off as one big humblebrag. I can live with that. The Top Ten list will be posted tomorrow.

Under the Influence

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

I’ve been asked by the good folks at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to participate in a project with other bloggers in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday. The idea is to describe in a blog post how Shakespeare has influenced my life. My first impulse was to decline. First of all, it would require providing a name and bio, and I blog anonymously. Though I’ve linked to it several times, I’ve never posted my full name on the blog. More importantly, Shakespeare’s influence is an aspect of my life I don’t usually like to talk about. But perhaps this is an opportunity. By speaking out now, I can help others avoid the nightmare I have lived through. Because you see, my friends, Shakespeare has completely destroyed my life.

As a high school student, I showed a modicum of potential to become a productive member of society. I went into college as an undeclared major, with an array of exciting career options ahead of me. I took classes in a variety of disciplines, with the naive hope of discovering my passions. I took an acting class on a whim, and the professor suggested that I audition for her play. I was ready to do it, until I found that the play was by Shakespeare. Now, I was always taught to stay away from Shakespeare, but the professor was persuasive and I figured there wouldn’t be any harm in trying it just that once.

I was cast as Sebastian in Twelfth Night. I memorized my difficult lines by rote and went through the rehearsal process. One night, while I was waiting backstage and listening to the play, a single line caught in my ear and made me smile. “Hey, that’s pretty clever,” I admitted. A bit later, another line stuck in my head. “I see what he’s doing there.” Like popcorn popping, the revelations began to gradually speed up. Each weave of imagery, each implied metaphor, each beat of the iamb was like a jolt of adrenaline to my young brain. I was converted into a card-carrying Shakespeare fan.

I continued with acting as well, and in my junior year I had the opportunity to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That was the experience that first sent me down the rabbit hole. No longer just a casual Shakespeare fan, I had become a full-blown addict. And of course the comedies proved to be merely a gateway drug to the harder stuff. My senior year, I discovered Hamlet, and what should have been a year of personal exploration and maturation was completely lost to that play. I would read it over and over, fascinated by the experience of making new discoveries every time, no matter how many times I had read it. Any thoughts I may have ever had of doing anything else were drowned in that play.

I needed more… Masters degree… Ph.D… My dissertation was on teaching Shakespeare to elementary school students. No longer content to be merely a user, I had become a dealer. A pusher. Could I decrease my own misery by dragging down others with me? I was determined to find out. I started teaching graduate-level Shakespeare courses at NYU – first a beginner, than an advanced class. I was completely out of control. I founded a Shakespeare reading group. I started a Shakespeare-themed blog. I taught for the Folger’s summer Teaching Shakespeare Institute for teachers. Conferences. Lectures. Seminars. Nothing was ever enough. When life threw me a curve ball, I went looking for answers at the bottom of a Riverside Complete Works anthology. I re-read Midsummer, and hit Bottom.

And what has it all gotten me? I am forty years old, and I have never held a full-time job. I support myself by working part-time, training teachers, administrators, school-based data teams, graduate students… anyone, as long as it will pay for that next Caedmon audio production of As You Like It. Had I never discovered Shakespeare, never developed that unquenchable thirst, who knows where I’d be today? But I know where I’ll be tonight. There’s an off-off-Broadway production of Measure for Measure in the West Village. Picture it. I walk the mean streets of Manhattan, desperate for a fix. I turn down a dark alley where I see a non-descript door propped open with a piece of plywood. I slip twenty dollars to a kid with purple hair who hands me a program and waves me in. And I know that, tonight, I will get what I need. And for a junkie, tonight is all that matters.

My name is Bill Heller. And I am a Shakespeare addict.

Folger Conference

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

I’ve been finishing up some end-of-the-year work, which is why posting has been light. But I did want to give an update on the Elementary Education Conference at the Folger last week.

The conference was two days, and was aimed at exploring ways to teach Shakespeare in the elementary school classroom. I had a great time attending the other presentations, and took away a lot of great activities to use with my students.

For my own presentation, I did this activity, and showed this project, both of which were very well received. The latter was done with 8th grade students, but it gave me a chance to talk a little bit about the cognitive differences between students in elementary school and students in junior high school. This was mostly taken from my dissertation, which was specifically on teaching Shakespeare in the elementary school.

Perhaps that’s why what struck me the most seemed to be the novelty of it all. When I worked for the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, all of the participants were experienced teachers of Shakespeare. In fact, we hand-picked teachers who would be most likely to be able to implement what we were teaching them. But for this conference, about half of the elementary school teachers had never taught Shakespeare before, and were attending because they were intrigued by the idea. Plus, there were a number of junior high school teachers in attendance as well, looking for adaptive activities they could use to make Shakespeare more accessible to their students.

Elementary school is the best time to introduce Shakespeare to children (unless they happen have a dad like Duane who does it earlier) because they’re too young to be afraid of it. Once they get past the strangeness of the language and develop an appreciation for real human emotion and masterful storytelling of the plays, they have the whole rest of their lives to learn everything else.

Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do to get the word out!

Elementary Education Conference

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Oh, did I mention that I’m giving a presentation at the Folger in June?

Readers in the Washington DC area should definitely check this conference out, considering the quality and variety of the two-day program. My co-presenters are an amazing collection of top-notch Shakespeare educators, and I feel incredibly honored to be listed among them.

I will be presenting my research into how technology can help facilitate the collaborative project-based learning that helps younger students make a meaningful stretch into Shakespeare. This study was recently accepted for publication as well, so it’s good news all around.

News and updates, of course, will be posted here.

Word of the Week: Community

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

The word of the week is community.

It’s a word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I’ve been doing a lot of leaning on my own community over the past few weeks. I’ve also been thinking about how new technologies and changes in society affect our idea of community.

Today is Wednesday. Since last Wednesday, I…

  • attended a Bris for my cousin’s son.
  • ended my 30-day mourning period for my mother.
  • participated in a live reading of The Comedy of Errors with a group I found online.
  • reconnected via e-mail with a close childhood friend I lost touch with 15 years ago.
  • participated in a learning community seminar about 21rst century schools with my work colleagues.
  • was called for an aliyah at the Bar Mitzvah of another cousin’s son.
  • visited my sister in the hospital and held my 10-hour-old niece.
  • conducted a day-long data workshop that helped a school identify a pervasive student learning problem.
  • began teaching The Merchant of Venice to an 8th-grade class who will be creating a video project based on the play.
  • joined Facebook.
  • was invited to present at a conference at the Folger on teaching Shakespeare in the elementary school.
  • participated in a webinar, cosponsored by the Folger and PBS, that brought together 176 Shakespeare teachers from across the country.

Traditional community structures such as family, school, religion, and professional networks are supplemented and even augmented (though never replaced) by technology and an increased focus on interconnectivity and collaboration. What I learned this week, though, is that there’s no substitute for being there in person.

Welcome to the world, Elena. You have big shoes to fill.

Penn and Teller Do Shakespeare

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

Via the Shakespeare Geek, I see where Teller from Penn & Teller is doing Macbeth. It’s opening in New Jersey in mid-January, and will be at the Folger in Washington throughout March.

I hope I get a chance to check that out!