Taking on Shakespeare: Celebrating a Better Strangers event with ACTATE

On 19 August 2021 the Better Strangers team collaborated with the Australian Capital Territory Association for the Teaching of English (ACTATE) to deliver the online event 'Taking on Shakespeare'. The event included a series of short presentations, Q&A sessions and discussion. It was co-organised by Rita Van Haren from ACTATE and Emeritus Professor Will Christie on behalf of the Australian National University node of the Better Strangers project. The event was originally scheduled to take place in Canberra in person, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic all in attendance made the quick pivot online.

After Rita and Will opened the event, Professor Liam Semler welcomed all teachers on behalf of the Better Strangers team.

Will presented the first session titled ‘Taking on Shakespeare’s Language’. He explored the language of Julius Caesar and pointed out that a key challenge for teaching Shakespeare is the seemingly alien nature of his language. He presented an antidote to this by discussing how we may approach the difference between verse and prose in the texts, and the fact that to be ‘critical’ presents the necessity of making choices and decisions. Will argued the play ‘turns on a rhetorical performance’ and invited the audience to ask the question ‘was Caesar a hero or a tyrant?’ and determine whether Brutus is ‘a patriot or an assassin?’. The talk concluded with further analysis and discussion about choice and the way the mind often attempts to force its own conclusions. Will's readings of Julius Caesar were especially full of feeling and passion. You can answer some of Will's questions by reading Brutus's soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 1 and Antony's speech in Act 3, Scene 2. 


Ben Whishaw as Brutus in The Bridge Theater production (2018)


Dr Kate Flaherty presented the second session titled ‘Taking Shakespeare’s Language on Stage: Cues for Movement’. She discussed the importance of thinking through the plays in terms of spaces and shapes, and letting the language reveal its drive through movement. Kate explained how you can look specifically for cues to produce movement in Shakespearean scenes and frame them as catalysts or prompts for experimentation in the classroom. She linked this to Brutus’s decision and indecision, proposing a variety of cue prompts and metaphors for classroom discussion and staging. She concluded by introducing the concept of the ‘snake’, a built in ‘jump scare’ that disrupts the movement of the scene and introduces a new texture of experience for student participants. This discussion was carried over into breakout rooms with lively discussion by all! 

To conclude the short talks, Professor Emerita Penny Gay discussed ‘Gender, Language, and Silence in Shakespeare’, a timely and innovative presentation on the presence and silence of Shakespearean women on stage. Penny made the argument that Ophelia is often ‘mansplained’ to by the male characters in Hamlet, and also raised a variety of important points in relation to genre and the silence of women in Shakespearean comedy. This prompted much discussion in the Q&A session as participants discussed the challenge and opportunity presented by conceptions of gender in Shakespeare. 

Professor Jacqueline Manuel concluded the event with an uplifting summary and thank you to all participants. Even though the event had to shift to Zoom due to our difficult circumstances in a 2021 COVID world, it was a fun and enlightening way to spend an evening. The Better Strangers team was honoured to be part of such an expert and engaged community of teachers.