Shakespeare, however, presents texts beyond what anyone has been mastering. For example, Othello says that Desdemona’s father,
[…] loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed.
I ran it through even from my boyish days
To th’ very moment that he bade me tell it,
Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’th’ imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my traveller’s history….
There are shortened words that are somewhat recognizable—“oft,” “i’th’,” “scapes.” There are words like “portance” and “bade” that may be clear in context—but maybe not, when the context includes words like “accidents,” “passed,” and “chances” in ways we don’t typically use them. There are also obscure words like “breach” and obsolete words like “thence.” My Shakespeare classes contain mostly native English speakers, but everyone, regardless of origin or background, I’d like to classify as an “SLL” student: a Shakespeare Language Learner.
For the ELL student, though, being an SLL is a particular challenge. A Turkish student, for example, e-mailed me to say he doubted he had the language skills to stay in the class. For the first play we read, he used some “modern English” translations he had found online, but he struggled even with that text. He then found modern-day Turkish translations of Shakespeare, which helped with his reading, but not his writing, the text that is most important of all, because this is the text by which he earned his grade. So, his extra work meant he could succeed as a reader of Shakespeare, but not yet as a Shakespeare student in my class.
To read, perchance to write—ay, there’s the rub.
The great advantage of online education
To write about any work of literature effectively, students have to quote and discuss the text they analyze. As they lead up to a quote like “Wherefore art thou, Romeo” and follow it, they have to contextualize the language and incorporate it in their writing. When this is done well, it demonstrates their understanding, their personal translation of the text.
It takes practice, and here is the great advantage of teaching literature online: everything students do in my class is written. Instead of having face-to-face discussions in a classroom (which students may or may not participate in), my students respond weekly to a prompt on a discussion board. They write their responses and reply to each other, expanding on or debating ideas with their peers.
Earlier I asked what, in an online class, is “in focus if the student is never seen?” This is it: their writing, their quotations, their contextualization and interpretation of passages from Shakespeare’s plays, which is to say, their translation. This word itself, to “translate,” means to “carry across.” In my students’ weekly discussions, they carry Shakespeare’s work across what often seem to be peaks and valleys of their learning process—their grasp of meaning and loss of it, their epiphanic interpretation and dismayed confusion—and into their own written work.
This awareness of translation also brings to light what my students have in common with me, and here again I found myself feeling a surprising connection to a common student experience. I may know that “’ere” means “before,” but with each Shakespearian play I join my students in reading and writing about, I continue to translate the staggering eloquence found in his lines. I’ll teach Shakespeare for as long as my boss will let me; I’ll be an SLL student for life.
Brian Goedde is a lecturer in the English department at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Connecticut. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. This article was excerpted from “Shakespeare in Taiwan: Teaching Online in a Global Community,” published in the NEA peer-reviewed journal Thought & Action, 2014 edition. To read the entire article, visit the NEA website.