A "Read and View" Teaching Strategy Explained
by Mary T. Christel
Setting the Stage with Reading and Viewing
Before attending a performance of any of Shakespeare’s plays, students should be primed with basic information about setting, characters and conflict. A brief summary of the play certainly would suit that aim, but a summary does not help to tune up students’ ears to Shakespeare’s language and cadences, so critical to understanding the actions onstage. Reading and studying the entire play would be ideal, but limits of time, demands of the established curriculum—and sheer stamina--may make this unabridged option less than optimal.
Screening a film version instead would save class time and help students both see and hear the play, but the viewing experience might not allow students to linger over the more challenging scenes and speeches or engage in more participatory activities with the text. A happy medium approach marries the study of key scenes and speeches with viewing of the rest of play in a recommended film version in order for students to understand both the dramatic arc of the comedy, tragedy, history or romance as well as tackle the signature scenes and speeches of that play in greater depth and detail. Those select scenes can be explored through “active Shakespeare” strategies.
This reading/viewing approach had its genesis early in my teaching career when I methodically took students through Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet while they listened to key speeches on a recording of the play. Even though I thought reading and listening would enhance their understanding, students glazed over as the speeches were declaimed on a scratchy, worn record in particularly plummy British accents in the style of rather melodramatic “radio acting.” Since it was the spring of 1980, I had access to some new A-V technology, a VCR and a VHS copy of Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Romeo and Juliet. – the school’s first VHS tape purchase.
I decided to combine reading the play and watching the film incrementally act by act. After students read and discussed Act 1, I screened the equivalent of that act in the film to promote discussion of difficult aspects of character, plot and language that we encountered during the reading process. For example, Mercutio’s witty banter was difficult for students to fully grasp until they both read the text and viewed one actor’s interpretation of the language and the resulting onscreen characterization. Seeing one visual interpretation of the characters, their actions and the world of the play gave my students the ability to create a movie in their heads as they continued to read the play.
I extended this methodology when I taught plays by Molière and Ibsen, sometimes showing shorter excerpts to help students understand costumes and manners that informed character behavior and the overall “look” of an era that a few photos in a textbook don’t effectively convey. Though this approach is billed as a way to preview a theatrical performance of a play, it could be adapted to the study of any challenging play or work of fiction, like nineteenth-century works by Austen, Dickens or the Brontë sisters.
Selecting the Scenes for Close Reading and Study
Though a range of scenes is suggested below for previewing Pericles, pulling back the pedagogical curtain on how the scenes and speeches are selected can help in applying this approach to any play. First, consider which scenes and speeches are the “signatures” of the play: “To be or not to be” in Hamlet, the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V.
Once those scenes are identified, select the ones that might prove most difficult to fully understand when viewing the play in the “real time” of the stage performance and the scenes truly crucial to fully grasping the arc of the conflict or the development of key characters. If there is a particular theme that a production will emphasize, scene and speech selection might focus on how that theme is developed throughout the play and in the production. For example in approaching Pericles, some productions or film adaptations might focus on appearance versus reality, the resilience of virtue, or the perilous effects of envy.
Since high school book inventories would not include class sets of Pericles as they might have copies of commonly taught tragedies and comedies, Shakespeare’s plays are readily available online in the public domain at:
Downloading the complete play for students who have access to computers or to tablets in the classroom allows students the freedom to use the text beyond the scenes and speeches studied in class. Some students might be motivated to read the play in its entirety or “follow along” in the text with the selected scenes from the film version. The only drawback in allowing students to follow along with any film arises when they discover that directors and screenwriters/adapters make subtle or massive cuts to the original text, which can disrupt students’ viewing.
If students are working on the suggested textual analysis that follows here without access to a copy of the entire play or a version without helpful footnotes, they can easily find definitions of unfamiliar words and phrases at:
Students who have access to classroom computers, tablets or their own smartphones can make easy use of these language resources to become “text detectives.”
Reading and Viewing Scenes from Pericles
The central action of the play focuses on Pericles’s odyssey toward assuming his rightful kingship and regaining his loving family. As Pericles embarks on this treacherous journey, he must navigate the tension between appearance versus reality when he subjects himself to Antiochus’s riddling love test, suffers the apparent death of his beloved wife in childbirth, and foolishly entrusts the care of his motherless daughter to a ruling couple whose realm he once saved from starvation.
Shakespeare uses the device of a character called “Chorus” in plays like Romeo and Juliet and Henry V, but neither of these earlier plays relies as heavily on narrator as Pericles does in the form of a character identified as “Gower.” Providing the narrator with that name associates the device with an historical figure, John Gower, a minor poet and friend of Geoffey Chaucer. John Gower provided Shakespeare with some of his source material for Pericles. Gower’s version of this saga comprises part of his narrative poem Confessio Amantis, in which the Pericles character is called Apollonius.
Gower’s appearances as the play’s narrator serve to summarize onstage action, to supply details regarding offstage action, and to foreshadow what lies ahead. Isolated from the rest of the play, both from its ensemble of characters and by Gower’s language evoking earlier medieval writing, his role can be examined through reading his speeches and translating them into modern language, which encourages students to dig deeper into Shakespeare’s variant language in this play. As a result, their experience watching the play and hearing that language spoken will make it seem more familiar. (It should be noted here that director David H. Bell has largely rewritten Gower’s part, and divided it among members of the storytelling ensemble to speak. Bell uses phrases from the Odyssey and Wordsworth, as well as his own words) in reworking Gower’s narration.
A list of Gower’s speeches follows with line numbers taken from the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition (2012), edited by Doreen Delvecchio and Anthony Hammond. The time signatures in parentheses correspond to the video version of Pericles (1983), from BBC’s Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare series, the sole film version of the play.
|Prologue||1 – 42 ( 0 :44 -3:27)|
|2.0||1 – 40 (33:18 -35:31)|
|3.0||1 – 60 (72:10 -75:08)|
|4.0||1 – 52 (98:11 - 01:07)|
|4.4||1 – 51 (120:41-124:33)|
|5.0||1 – 24 (140:38 -142:02)|
|5.2||1 – 20 (164:33 -165:37)|
|Epilogue||1 – 18 (172:30 - 174:00)|
Each speech could be assigned to a small group of students, who would then act as “text detectives” examining one piece of a larger textual puzzle. The activity begins with students reading a brief summary of the play found in this teacher handbook. Initially, students would analyze their speech by:
- underlining details representing events that have occurred onstage in previous scenes
- circling details representing events that have not appeared onstage but move the plot along to subsequent scenes
- highlighting details that suggest what might occur in upcoming scenes
- placing a star above words or phrases that reflect any editorializing on Gower’s part.
Once the text is annotated, students can work on paraphrasing or translating the older language, echoing medieval writings into contemporary language. The groups would then read aloud the play’s Gower speeches along with their translations in chronological order to test how well this device summarizes the plot as a whole. In Shakespeare’s script, some of Gower’s speeches are illustrated with “dumbshows” or pantomimes of the action he summarizes, which students could easily stage to accompany their group’s presentation of the speech.
The second set of excerpted scenes moves through the action of the play chronologically and focuses on how each central character struggles to maintain their virtues and ideals in treacherous and varied contexts of a perilous journey, while spending most of the play separated from the two other characters.
The small group approach could be applied to examining these scenes, as well. Students would once again adopt the role of “text detectives,” piecing together the information they can glean from reading key scenes related to a specific character. Those students could maintain a focus on that character through their viewing of the CST performance, and in a post-performance activity could discuss how the actor playing that role interpreted the character through specific acting choices, staging, and design elements including costumes, sets and props. Giving students one thread to pull through an entire, unfamiliar work can illuminate the experience as a whole.
|Pericles’s Journey: A Virtuous Man Tested|
|Thaisa’s Journey: A Virtuous Love, Gained and Lost|
|Marina’s Journey: Virtue Maligned|
|Reunion of Pericles, Marina, Thaisa: Recognition, Reconciliation and Redemption|
Combining the Reading and Viewing Experience
To read first or to view first? Is that the question? It really depends on students’ comfort level and experience with reading and viewing Shakespeare. I recommend viewing any film adaptation act by act to facilitate previewing the highlights of action and character development in each act. This strategy can focus on the structure of play since Shakespeare’s works tend to present the inciting incident in Act 1, complications to escalate the conflict in Act 2, the climax or turning point in Act 3, falling action in Act 4, and the resolution in Act 5.
Focusing a pre-performance reading and viewing experience may simply focus on Act 1. Pericles provides the play’s essential exposition in a prologue and four scenes of the first act:
|Prologue||Gower sets the scene and frames the action|
|Scene 1||Pericles faces Antiochus’ riddle to gain his daughter’s hand|
|Scene 2||Pericles develops strategy to escape Antiochus’ plot to kill him|
|Scene 3||Antiochus’ henchman discovers Pericles gone; their plot is abandoned|
|Scene 4||Pericles arrives in Tarsus and offers Cleon assistance against famine|
A thorough examination of the first act can help students understand how and why Pericles sets off a journey that will lead him to a more suitable wife, the birth of his daughter, and the circumstances that compel him to continue moving farther and farther away from Tyre, his home, and from his rightful place as its ruler.
Students also could be assigned specific supporting characters including Antiochus, Cleon, Dionyiza, and Hellicanus to follow closely in reading/viewing of Act 1, which allows students to predict how those characters might continue to influence Pericles’s fate in positive or negative ways as the narrative develops. Teachers could select one scene from the remaining acts of the play that advance key aspects of the narrative. This approach enables students to discover what becomes of Pericles in very broad strokes before they see the CST production. The aim of any version of this previewing strategy is to prime students with just enough information and level of challenge to place those students on a firm foundation to not just follow the action but to appreciate the approach taken by the director, designers and actors to make Pericles fresh and relevant.
Film suggestion from Films Media Group collection, available on DVD or for streaming:
Pericles: Young Actors in Training (15 min.) www.films.com/ecTitleDetail.aspx?TitleID=19292&r=SR
This short film focuses on Act V Scene 1 where Pericles is reunited with his daughter Marina.
“John Gower.” Shakespeare and History. www.shakespeareandhistory.com/john-gower.php
“Sources for Pericles.” www.shakespeareonline.com/sources/periclessources.html
“Synopsis of Pericles.” www.shakespearetheatre.org/_pdf/first_folio/folio_pericles_about.pdf
Mary T. Christel taught AP Literature and Composition as well as media and film studies courses at Adlai E. Stevenson High School from 1979 to 2012. She has published several works on media literacy including Seeing and Believing: How to Teach Media Literacy in the English Classroom with Ellen Krueger (Heinemann) as well as contributing articles to Teaching Shakespeare Today (NCTE), Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century (U of Ohio), For All Time: Critical Issues in Shakespeare Studies (Wakefield Press). Ms. Christel has been recognized by the Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for promoting media literacy education.