Does Memorizing Do More Harm Than Good?

I’m not talking about actors who memorize as part of their job, or geeks who memorize just by experiencing the same passages over and over again.  I’m talking about the legions of school-age children who stop by, having been tasked with memorizing the balcony scene or a sonnet or even a passage of their choice, just for the sake of memorizing it.

As I work my way through Playing Shakespeare I’m becoming a convert to the “there are clues in the text about how Shakespeare wanted you to play it” school.  Why is this word emphasized while this one is not? Why is there a comma here, or a line break? When do we breathe, and what does that mean? I wonder, outside of theatre school, does any teacher bother mentioning any of that to the students when assign the memorize assignment?  Or, to the hapless pupil, is it all just a stream of words on the page?

What I fear is that even after memorizing a passage, if you asked most students what it means they’d say “I have no idea.”  Maybe, hopefully, I’m wrong.  But I know that I listen to my children learn how to read and it’s very important to work on the comprehension part, because it is not just a given.  It is quite possible to read a stream of words and then come to the end with no understanding at all of what happened.  I can totally see that happening with Shakespeare.

So instead, what if we made students act it out? What if instead of reciting the balcony scene just to prove you can, what if your homework was to actually become Romeo and deliver the speech as he did? To pay attention to the stresses and pauses, maybe not as deeply as a professional actor might, but enough to get an idea for how you might play the character?  Maybe Romeo is still the overdramatic boy from the earlier scenes, tripping over himself to find the right phrase.  Maybe he’s impatient (read: horny) that he can’t just be with Juliet right now. Maybe angry, that he’s fallen in love with his enemy? I don’t expect the performances would be anything to write home about.  But I bet that if you gave those kids a quiz about what’s going on in that scene, the discussion would be far more interesting.

Thoughts?  Where my teachers at?  Am I projecting a memory from 20 years ago of how this stuff used to be taught, and nobody’s doing that anymore? Are we all about the performance now? Getting the words up and off the page?

11 thoughts on “Does Memorizing Do More Harm Than Good?

  1. THANK YOU so much for this post!!
    As a director and educator who deals very often with Shakespeare, I find what I call the "comprehension over regurgitation approach" is a given on the stage and a huge help in the classroom! In dealing with my college students, I am shocked that A.) some of them have made it to college without reading ANY Shakespeare at all, and B.) that most who have had it in a high school class regard Shakespeare as some indecipherable foreign language. I wish high school teachers would let their students know about the clues Shakespeare (and Shakespeare's editors–where, after all, most of the punctuation comes from) left for us. I guess it's easy for me to say this, however, with my theatre degrees hanging on the wall. Most high school teachers I have encountered teach Shakespeare from the English literature perspective, which (unfortunately, in my opinion) is less about seeing the work as an exciting performance text than it is about putting it on a pedestal and oohing and ahhing over its unmatched literary greatness.
    I have had great success teaching Shakespeare learners who range from young children to senior citizens in classes and workshops, and so I know first hand that, with the proper tools, anyone at any age and any level of experience has the capacity understand, perform, and connect with the material. Simply speaking the words out loud can do so much for understanding-and appreciation.

  2. I believe you're not far off. There are some enlightened teachers who realize that "doing" it, they absorb far more–and without the dictates of "english" and "literature" and "this is 'Shakespeare' so it's gonna be really hard but you have to do it anyway."
    My whole thrust as a resident artist in schools is to get the students up on their feet. It's amazing how they take to Shakespeare when it's fun, when they know it's ok to be some character, and it's ok to be silly. This way, there are no "mistakes' they're held responsible for –it's just "Let's DO IT and see what happens. They only get better and better at it every time they do it. (Which of course breeds the confidence to do more, then talk about WHAT they've been doing–otherwise known as "interest"–which I'm afraid many teachers have trouble breeding because they themselves have been through the same BS they're now foisting on other students)

    By and large it's still taught, from what I've seen, as a "discipline", not as an art form. MISTAKE.

    I recently finished a short residency at two schools and we culminated with a video conference between the schools. The administration did a lot of head-shaking in disbelief when the kids from 2 disparate economic districts all came up with the right answers–"Shakespeare is for us too" and
    "Let's do a whole play now." And these are 5th & 6th graders!!! I don't ask kids this young to "memorize", but you know what?–they do it anyway through osmosis. Along the way I throw in some history, background, etc. I haven't seen it fail once.

    I wrote my program based on all of the things I learned "second hand" from Barton and Co.–they taught my teachers, who taught me the technique from an acting/directing standpoint. The RSC has a program called "Stand Up for Shakespeare" which employs some of the teaching techniques in common with ones I use. (It naturally follows that this is the case since the precepts are all the same) These kids learn about the Folio, iambic pentameter, poetry,literature, the Elizabethan way of life, Greek gods, philosophy of Life, etc., all the things necessary to learn something academically about Will, but the stress is never on the academic part. It's on performing it "out loud". No pressure, other than nerves about getting up in front of a crowd, but that soon leaves when they see how willing I am to "make a fool of myself" so to speak, right along with them. Breathing and Projection is the first thing stressed in my classes. It was the first thing I learned as a student of the technique. When you get them all up on their feet, breathing deeply and correctly,and speaking out loud, they forget about the fact that it's "Shakespeare" and "supposed to be hard". When a student is relaxed about the material…that's when they learn best. And boy are they proud of what they're able to learn–and more importantly, what they teach themselves in the process. It works with every age group I've worked with and that's all of them, grade school to professional.

    But I'm afraid you're right, Duane. For the most part, I think kids are just told to memorize, and they do it by rote just to get through it. At least that's the impression I get from many who've been through here and many I speak to.

    I'm glad you brought this up for lots of reasons, one of which is:

    Relevant to all of this, did you hear about high schools in Australia dropping Shakespeare from the curriculum because it's "Too Difficult"?!?!

  3. Maybe it was just where I went to school, but when I went through high school (graduated in 2000), we didn't have to memorize any Shakespeare, that I recall. We did some acting it out, and some watching ~the greats~ act it out.

  4. Hi Jayna. Love this:"comprehension over regurgitation approach"

    Delighted to hear about what you're doing. Sadly, I've directed Masters in Acting/Theatre students who hear about this type of thing for the first time from me.

    But I'm curious about this statement: "(and Shakespeare's editors–where, after all, most of the punctuation comes from)" –would you please clarify?

  5. As a high school teacher, I've done some of both. I have found it helpful to have kids act out the scenes using their own words, to simply cement their comprehension. Once that seems solid, then we work on memorizing bits to get the full benefit of Shakespeare's writing.

  6. JM–I'm glad to hear about what YOU'RE doing! Your work sounds very interesting, and, as always, it's nice to hear from someone who is fighting the same fight! 🙂 Where are you doing this?

    And, in regards to punctuation: Modern editors add punctuation/capitalization/etc. to the text in hopes of making certain things more clear to modern readers. (Comparing modern texts (like a Riverside to an Arden or a Norton to a Folger) will show you just how differently some editors arrange things.) Sometimes this is great, but sometimes you have to wonder if certain emphases come from Shakespeare or someone else along the line.

    BUT, if you want to find out for sure, here's a link to one of my very favorite websites (perhaps you've come across this before, too) from the British Library which allows you to compare quarto texts. Compare these to your modern complete works–and to each other! Hours of fun right here.

  7. Got It, Jayna.

    It's a point I'm accused of over-stressing sometimes. I'm always harping on "original" punctuation (whatever we can reasonably be assured of that being.) in my Folio verse/performance classes–and elsewhere, as Duane, our Shakespeare Geek can attest to I'm thinking. Even if influenced by some 16th century compositor, it's sometimes light years better than modern "editing", which many, many times, in effect, re-versifies the verse and can alter the intent. It also can make for some very boring "poetry" when rearranged with the intent of making pristine iambic pentameter out of what Shakespeare clearly had no intention of writing.

    I'm trying to spread the word in the south Jersey/Philly area.
    Keep up the good fight, Jayne–and congratulations and admiration on your recognition of its importance. It's not just Lit, it's not just poetry, it's not just drama; it's the theatre of Life. But first, we need to know HOW he said it. That tells us a lot about WHAT he was saying. Shakespeare needs you, as do we all, as we all do need Shakespeare's wisdom on it All. 🙂

  8. Love this post! We just pushed back all the desks in our classroom, camped out on the floor with dog-eared copies of Macbeth, and acted out the whole thing scene by scene with 15-minute long digressions on why my edition has a dash where theirs has a comma–and what that means for textual interpretation. Most fun I've had teaching high school English in 10 years, and suddenly Shakespeare is hip and accessible again. Makes me want to ditch the desks for everything I do in English!

  9. Rearranging the furniture is something all the teachers (except PhysEd) in a school get used to when I'm around. 🙂

    Btw: How long are your class periods? I thought I was a stickler for up tempo pacing–Macbeth is his shortest play but, jeeez!

    My daughter was lucky enough to have had a teacher like you. On particularly nice days they went outside and sat under a shady tree and read their Shakespeare out loud. She's since, among others, played Helena AND Puck. Here's to diversity! Cheers and have fun!

  10. Good post. It would be wonderful if more teachers employed an act-it-out approach, and encouraged the students to get into the plays and characters. When I was in high school, we read the play out loud, but sitting still in our seats. My entire class hated me and would shoot me dirty looks because I read the lines with emotion. They found it annoying.

  11. That's why I start with breathing and PROJECTION, Charlene. "That was good, but can you make it a little bigger, so those people in the back row of the audience can hear it this time?" This gets to reach the level of outrageous proportions sometimes, because they begin to try and outdo each other! But because everyone's "acting" in some way, they give me something with which I can work; I can begin to temper their "performances". Congratulations on your courage under fire– without the encouragement. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *