Voices

Ideas for using Shakespeare on film to practise listening

By Chris Lima

29 January 2016 - 07:47

Dr Christina Lima, who lectures on English language and literature at the University of Leicester, suggests five ways of using films of Shakespeare's plays to practise English language listening.

‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.’ (Julius Caesar, III. ii)

Marc Antony opens his speech at Julius Caesar’s funeral asking those present to lend him their ears. Shakespeare uses the image of the part of the body responsible for the auditory sense – the ear – to convey the idea of listening. Marc Antony is asking his audience to pay attention to his words, to take his meaning, to open their hearts and minds to what he has to say. This is exactly the attitude that I believe we have to infuse in our students when we bring Shakespeare to the classroom. We need to help learners lend Shakespeare their ears, open their minds, and listen carefully to the words and sentences in the plays.

It is important to remember that Shakespeare’s work is meant to be watched and listened to. Unless you are working with the sonnets and long poems only, all the other famous Shakespearean texts are plays. They were originally dramatic productions created for the stage, with actors performing the roles and speaking the lines. In fact, many of these plays were never printed as a book until seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Yet hundreds of years of reading Shakespeare and studying the texts have made us somehow forget this simple truth.

With language learners, working with both the text and the performance can greatly aid understanding of the context, plot, relationships between characters, and the situations in particular scenes. Watching the plays on screen in the classroom also provides students a wonderful opportunity to develop their listening skills.

Below are five listening activities where film adaptations and recorded theatre performances of the plays take centre stage in the classroom. All the activities require a classroom computer and projector. You can use DVDs of the films or CDs of live recordings; or you may want to use short scenes available on YouTube or other places on the internet, such as on the Globe PlayerShakespeare’s GlobeRoyal Shakespeare CompanyBBC iWonderBritish Film Institute, and the British Council's own Shakespeare Lives website.

Whatever activity you choose, the first step is to select a play that you find suitable for your students and a scene that is at the right level of linguistic challenge for them. Then, find a film or video recording of the play that you can use in your classroom.

I. Using ‘classic’ listening activities (all levels)

Teachers are increasingly using video materials for general listening practise, in addition to the usual voice recordings. Classic listening activities such as multiple-choice, gap-fills, and true or false questions can work well with films of Shakespeare’s plays. Here's one way to do a gap-fill exercise:

  1. Choose a scene from the film of the play you are working with.
  2. Transcribe the text onto worksheets with some of the words or phrases taken out.
  3. Hand out worksheets and get students to guess or predict the missing text.
  4. Students watch/listen to the scene and fill in the missing words.
  5. Check answers with the class or refer them to the original text.

II. Turning the sound down (all levels)

This is also a ‘classic’, but I find it particularly useful when doing Shakespeare because it raises students’ awareness of the importance of performance to their understanding of the texts.

  1. Choose your play and scene as above.
  2. Play the first time with sound off and no subtitles.
  3. Ask students to discuss what is going on in the scene: the situation, characters’ moods and attitudes. Ask them to guess what is being said, using their own words. You may also want to ask them to note down the imagined dialogues.
  4. Play it again with sound on. Use subtitles at your discretion.
  5. Ask students to discuss the similarities and differences between their impressions, predictions, and what is actually said in the film.

III. Comparing film and original versions (intermediate level and above)

Both theatre and film directors have to make adaptations when producing a play. No production brings to the stage or screen the text of a play exactly as it is in a printed version. This is true especially for films. Directors cut, add, merge and reposition dialogues.

  1. Choose your play and scene as above.
  2. Play the scene once and ask students to just watch it.
  3. Give students the text of the scene as it is in a printed version of the play.
  4. Play the video again and ask students to highlight the words/lines that have been deleted from the play.
  5. Ask students to compare their notes.
  6. You may want to play a third time to check it out as a whole group.
  7. With advanced learners, you may want to ask them to discuss the extent to which the director’s cut affects the understanding of the scene.

IV. Contrasting different versions of the same play (intermediate level and above)

Some of the most famous plays, such as MacbethRomeo and Juliet and Othello, have been revived in the theatre many times and also produced as films. This makes it possible to compare and contrast different productions of the play. These can be either two different films, a film and a live theatre recording, or two live recordings.

  1. Choose your play and scene as above.
  2. Select two different video productions of the same play.
  3. Ask students to compare the speech delivery, rhythm, intonation, body language, accents.
  4. Advanced learners can critically discuss the director’s choices, such as setting, sound and visual effects, and camera angles, and how these aspects may affect the audience’s understanding of the play.

V. Making connections with historical events (upper-intermediate level and above)

Shakespeare was a man of his time. His plays are not restricted to life in Elizabethan England, although certainly the social, historical and political situation of the period is reflected in the texts. It is therefore possible to make connections between situations, characters, and language in the plays and historical events. This activity works well with the English history plays, such as Henry IV and Richard III, and the Roman plays, such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

  1. Choose your play and scene as above.
  2. Choose a related scene in another period film that has a direct link with the play. A good example of this is the St Crispin’s speech in Henry V and Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech in Elizabeth, The Golden Age.
  3. Alternatively, choose a documentary about a historical figure depicted in the play.
  4. Choose a particular scene where the person is discussed. Ask your students to compare how this historical figure is presented in the play and in the documentary.
  5. Ask students to focus on the vocabulary in the recordings and how the language helps create the impression we have of the character.

Find out about our Shakespeare on Film tour in partnership with the British Film Institute. The tour is part of the British Council's Shakespeare Lives programme of events and activities celebrating Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.

You can watch a recording of an international webinar with Dr Lima and access further materials about the topic of her article on our EnglishAgenda website.

Download the Shakespeare Lives education pack.

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