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Performing Empathy: Shakespeare in the Classroom

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

I did not understand the power of kinesthetic learning until I taught Shakespeare through performance. Last year I participated in a Folger Shakespeare Library professional development at BAM, in Brooklyn, and it transformed my experience of Shakespeare and deepened my understanding of why the study of literature is so important. The program convinced me that the best place to experience Shakespeare is from the inside. What interpretation is the actor levying upon the text to make her actions justified? This is what I like to call the work (i.e., labor) of literature. All the decisions the actor makes are grounded in the text, and the performance makes the abstract quite physical—intimate, even. Performance-based reading leverages different modes of thinking, intellectual and kinesthetic, to promote students’ comprehension, critical thinking and understanding of character. The experience was transformative for me, and I saw how powerful this approach could be in the classroom. I was impressed by the pedagogical soundness of the program. Once I implemented the strategies last spring, students who had shown barely more than passing interest all year were not only engaged, but walking out of my class saying they actually understood Shakespeare!

My teaching revolves around words. The foundational element of literature, after all, is diction. Carefully considering diction is the most important skill a student of literature can develop. It is the thing I go back to the most as a literary thinker and educator; it is the rock upon which I build my instruction. Students struggle with the concept of using “evidence from the text.” I have often found that although they are able to give me the gist of something they have read, they are unable to point to the place in the text that shows them this; they are distant from the words. The performance technique draws them closer to the language by requiring students to perform close readings that promote clear interpretations by virtue of their result in physical action. The activation of this meta-knowledge is essential for the development of critical thinking in students, so that they can interpret the messages our culture bombards them with every day. Close readings allow readers to uncover the meanings of individual words, and focus on the function of that language within a text. Interpreting and then performing the effects of that language has a profound impact on students’ intellectual development. It intertwines them with the language, and its application with Shakespeare's text makes students complicit with the character, opening the door to true empathy.

Ultimately, Shakespeare is psychological. His plays are about characters, their transformations, stubbornness, their love or hate, and when all those emotions collide; it is an intellectual and emotional experience. Performing puts flesh on the bones of their comprehension. To feel the circumstances of another human being is to exercise the moral imagination and its accompanying result: empathy. How might one be transformed by experiencing both the vileness that Macbeth feels at the thought of murdering the king, and the soaring ambition that informs it; or, touching the existential fear of Lear’s madness in the storm when he learns that he is merely a “bare, forked animal” beneath his kingly robes? Lear feels a transcendent empathy that reveals to him in a flash all his failures as king, the body natural running roughshod over the body politic. These new perspectives unlock for those who see them from within.



We are welcoming students to class this spring either via a hybrid in-person/online learning model in NYC (following our Spring Break), or via fully remote, synchronous online classes.  Learn more about our response to COVID-19 >