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Students Express Appreciation for Opening Up Shakespeare’s World

Seminar students celebrate an early birthday party for William Shakespeare after learning more about Shakespeare’s biography.

Alexandria, VA – How can one measure Shakespeare’s ability to capture raw human life experiences in his works or to engage–even the young and the hesitant–in the pleasure of sublime language and drama experienced around the world?

Enjoying a class in a subject is one thing but being inspired to pursue study or even to choose a career in the field (or directly related area) is quite another. Such gifted teaching highlights the powerful impact of a passionate and superbly knowledgeable teacher who can nurture the imagination of each student.

Current and former students of J. Whittelsey (Whit) Morgan were eager to share how Morgan’s teaching–Mr. Morgan to them–ignited the fire. They took time to share with The Zebra their appreciation of Morgan and how their teacher opened up William Shakespeare’s world in verse, directing, and staging and how it is already influencing them.

Nineteen-year-old Bennie Wang, a 2023 graduate of Episcopal High School and a freshman at Stanford University, is interested in majoring in political science and economics and minoring in music. During his first semester last fall, Wang “snatched one of the last spots to audition” and was admitted to StanShakes. In the fall, Bennie played Juliet in a scene from Romeo and Juliet; in the winter, he was Antonio in Twelfth Night. This spring, he plays Lucius in an adaptation of Titus Andronicus called Titus Andronicus…and Zombies!

Mr. Morgan’s “Shakespeare class will serve as a reminder to me to embrace momentary chance,” said Wang, who noted how fortunate he felt to enroll in two of Morgan’s classes during the second semester of his senior year at EHS.  “The English program allowed me to explore subjects related to my interest in history and politics through new lenses.

“I have consistently heard praise from other students of Mr. Morgan’s Shakespeare course. But, besides three plays from middle school, and early high school English class, I knew no other Shakespeare. So, in my last semester, I decided to give it a shot,” explained Bennie, sharing a profoundly moving production of King Lear that he and fellow students saw at the Shakespeare Theatre Company starring Patrick Page executing the lead role of Lear. The reading of the play is a cornerstone of Morgan’s Shakespeare Seminar II.

“We hear (actor Patrick) Page’s howling cry-scream. He then carries Cordelia on stage, wounded-soldier style, cleverly recalling an earlier moment when Page carries the carcass of a hunted wolf…It was the only time I have cried watching theater; it was the strongest goosebumps that I felt,” he said. “In a similar way that Page commands the stage, Mr. Morgan commands the classroom.”

Wang elaborated on how that looked inside the classroom. “The Shakespeare class mostly consists of following along with an audio recording of the play with Mr. Morgan stopping the recording now and then to offer explanation and commentary. Despite such a plain class structure, Mr. Morgan brings an incision into the text coupled with a breadth of emotional response, so much so that I am (was) often transported into the position of an actor working with a seasoned director in his class. I am sure my classmates feel the same. Throughout all of high school, the Shakespeare class is the only class that I have been in at Episcopal in which no student is furtively on Instagram or shopping on Amazon,” he added.

Admitting to a similar transformative experience, Esther Hwang, 20, who is a sophomore at the University of Michigan studying Theatre Design and Production, is pursuing opportunities to engage with Shakespearean theater. Last summer, she participated in the Prague Shakespeare’s Company summer intensive program in Prague. She admitted that when she enrolled in Mr. Morgan’s Shakespeare elective in her senior year, it was due to “glowing reviews” she had heard and confessed she “held the typical teenager’s perception that Shakespeare was rather dull.”

“To my surprise, my perspective underwent a radical transformation within the first semester. I was cured of blindness through the Godspell of Shakespeare Mr. Morgan taught. It was a revelation that compelled me to delve deeper into Shakespeare’s world…Mr. Morgan’s passion for Shakespeare is infectious.

“His deep knowledge of Shakespearean literature, coupled with his engaging teaching style, genuine enthusiasm, witty humor, and impressive expertise in the subject, created a dynamic learning environment that inspired and challenged me while keeping Shakespeare’s interest alive.”

Savanna Zumbado, 23, who is studying at New York University for her BFA in Drama with a focus on Acting, credited Morgan’s Shakespeare teaching with opening “a whole new world for me.”

“Everything he taught felt like nuggets of gold,” she added. “His enthusiasm was infectious and I caught the bug from him.”

Students in the Shakespeare Seminar respond to Mr. Morgan during a class discussion.

Those kinds of compliments from EHS graduates are not lost on Nate Bastos, 18, who is currently a senior, lucked into a Shakespeare Seminar in his junior year, only to be lured back in senior year for a second Shakespeare class with a different line up of plays in its curriculum. Bastos said that Morgan is the “type of teacher who will enjoy your own Ah ha” moment equally if not more than you do.”

“An additional comment I would make is that Shakespeare can feel very daunting and almost incomprehensible. I felt the same way, but it only takes a one-hour class with Mr. Morgan to realize that you can do this. And if you are willing to stick with it and continue learning with Mr. Morgan, you will find yourself loving a different form of literature, joking with your friends about Shakespeare after class, and you will even find some pretty sweet life advice.”

ICYMI: From the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic…. A Centennial Anniversary Celebration

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