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 Player, Shakespeare’s Globe, Royal Shakespeare Company, BBC iWonder, British 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:
- Choose a scene from the film of the play you are working with.
- Transcribe the text onto worksheets with some of the words or phrases taken out.
- Hand out worksheets and get students to guess or predict the missing text.
- Students watch/listen to the scene and fill in the missing words.
- 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.
- Choose your play and scene as above.
- Play the first time with sound off and no subtitles.
- 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.
- Play it again with sound on. Use subtitles at your discretion.
- Ask students to discuss the similarities and differences between their impressions, predictions, and what is actually said in the film.