Shakespeare in Love with Cyberspace

Cyberschools Column

First Published in The Herald, March 1999

A government minister once despaired, "I want William Shakespeare in our schools, not Ronald McDonald." He failed to realise that Shakespeare doesn't have to be elitist. He failed while today's students have succeeded. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet made it cool to like Shakespeare (in love, or otherwise) and the after-effects of the film's success can still be seen on the Web. If the Government wants to encourage the reading of Shakespeare or further study of one of his plays, the Internet is an ideal place to start.

One of the best personal Web pages dedicated to Romeo & Juliet can be found in the free Web space of Geocities. Naomi's site - it's a first name kind of medium - remains very faithful to Shakespeare's verse. Both verse and site are difficult to resist. The design of these pages illustrates effective interplay between images and words and makes the language much easier to understand than words simply isolated on a page.

Students' understanding can then be stretched and tested at Higher Results Consultancy . Three key scenes have been provided, together with questions which could be worked on in school or at home. Working through the questions will increase a student's awareness of the type of questions which are likely to be asked in an exam. The site also includes a good glossary that explains a range of literary terms.

Some schools have been quick to recognise students' enthusiasm for learning online. The English Department at Bell High School in California, for example, has a good Shakespeare Corner with Quicktime movies of scenes from Romeo & Juliet - unfortunately not the DiCaprio version - and notes which explain each scene in detail.

This school also provides excellent, and not so obvious, ways of looking at Hamlet. In an essay about minor characters - The Cracked Mirror - Joel Sommer Littauer wonders if Shakespeare could ever have imagined that his words would be taught, the world over, for hundreds of years. Littauer imagines Shakespeare saying, "I hope it runs a year." Shakespeare in Love, of course, has placed the bard himself centre stage and purports to give us an insight into his thoughts. It's a kind of Behind the Scenes of "Romeo & Juliet" and given the success of Luhrmann's film, not entirely a surprise production.

In a neat role reversal United International Pictures' Web site includes an interview with the screenplay writer, Tom Stoppard, perhaps previously best known as the writer of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an interesting take on a couple of minor characters in Hamlet. Stoppard explains the process by which the final script was created and there are numerous pages about the film and the way in which it was created. The site is really ... Behind the Scenes Behind the Scenes of "Romeo & Juliet".

Ian Delaney, a teacher from England, has also provided a short course on Hamlet which includes lots of questions and even sample answers. He has created this site because he is now teaching a different Shakespearean text but didn't want all his work to go to waste. In the altruistic spirit of the Web at its best Delaney has made his notes, built up over five years, available free on the site.

One of his questions on Act III quotes Hamlet as saying, "I essentially am not in madness." Visitors to the site are asked to identify four lines from the play which might raise doubts about the validity of Hamlet's statement.

When considering whether Hamlet was actually mad or not students might also like to visit The Hamlet Home Page where the case for and against such an assertion is presented. Essays are also provided on a range of other topics and the site includes discussion pages where students can share their views.

Discussion of Shakespeare is just as lively at Macbeth Plugged , an online analysis of Macbeth created by three former pupils of Mount Carmel High School in San Diego. The site was actually created as an entry in the ThinkQuest Web design competition but it continues to attract wide ranging discussion of the play. If students have questions about the Scottish Play they may just find the answers at this site. Most of the participants are themselves students, many of them with essay deadlines hanging over them. Macbeth Plugged includes the full text as well as audio versions of the play, a glossary and consideration of characters and themes. It's a significant achievement for a small group of teenage boys.

It's difficult to imagine teenagers from around the world getting together to discuss Shakespeare anywhere except on the Internet. While Luhrmann made iambic pentameter cool and Stoppard continues the trend, it's on the Web that the seriously cool are getting serious about Shakespeare's texts.