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April Blooms with Shakespeare Readings and Poetry Month Celebrations

Morgan offers comments to students about a recent test before launching into the setting of a play.

Alexandria, VA – In some high school English classrooms, April is a natural month for the reading of the works of William Shakespeare. Not only is it the month of his birth in April 1564 but also of his death in April 1616. Coincidentally, both blessed events occurred in the same location of Stratford-upon-Avon where historic records at Holy Trinity Church bear witness—and the monument. The month of April also stands sentry in the mid-second semester as students who are now reaching for the culmination of their school year. The annual testing season—final exams and presentations, VA Standards of Learning, and Advanced Placement testing–looms as large as Hamlet’s father’s ghost to both students and teachers.

On the “Holy Hill” of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, long-time English teacher and Shakespeare expert J. Whittelsey (Whit) Morgan shows a measured response to traditional Shakespeare celebrations. In his classroom—and his Advanced English Seminar titled Shakespeare: Page, Stage, and Screen, Morgan does not appear overexcited about April being Shakespeare’s birthday—but his students are intrigued and all looked up from their plays when he announced The Bard’s birthday—and death anniversary—are indeed celebrated the third week of April.

Mr. Morgan draws a Maypole on the whiteboard to explain the symbolism and young girls dancing during spring-time festivals celebrating fertility.

No one questions Mr. Morgan, who is among several faculty members who live on campus near the students who see him almost daily around campus. They know Morgan’s wealth of knowledge of his life’s work involves Shakespeare and that he probably knows Shakespeare’s biographical facts as well as his own family’s.

Still, one student excitedly questions, “Really?!” as Morgan pulls down a helium balloon from the corner of his upstairs classroom and unwraps a package of scones and powdered donuts to mark the occasion. In reality, the class is celebrating the first day of return from spring break at the 130-acre campus filled at capacity with 440 boarding students from 31 states, the District of Columbia, and 16 countries.

There are no special birthday celebrations in Morgan’s 24/7-Shakespeare class which is offered as Shakespeare Seminar I and Shakespeare Seminar II (Seminar I is not a prerequisite to Seminar II.) The courses’ curriculum is spelled out in its title: the Page (in-depth text study), the Stage (acting out scenes in class and attending as many performances of The Bard’s works around the D.C. Metro area—except for a possible out-of-town performance at Blackfriars Theater in Stanton, Va.) and the Screen (viewing recordings of plays in class).

Unlike other English classes that read just scenes from plays or limit their reading to one full Shakespeare play each year, Morgan and his students study four to five plays a semester–they pore over the language, unearth the subtlety of word choices and meanings, and compare the interrelated themes that Shakespeare desired to bring to his audiences’ attentions.

Students in the Shakespeare Seminar interact with Mr. Morgan during a class discussion.

“I’m all Shakespeare, so I don’t crank it up before the (April) 23rd,” he laughed. Since his arrival on Episcopal’s campus 37 years ago,  his colleagues and his students have come to know Morgan as more than a Shakespeare buff or trivia nerd.

During his undergraduate and graduate years at the University of North Carolina, Morgan served as a teaching assistant for seven summers which included study abroad at Oxford. He estimates seeing 110 productions for which he and groups of students would travel to London and Stratford-upon-Avon for performances and study opportunities, growing his expertise in all things Shakespeare.

Shortly after earning his master’s degree in English, Morgan joined the Episcopal High School staff where his fountain of knowledge is tapped with every discussion. Among his professional highlights is academic consulting for the famous Folger’s Shakespeare Library in D.C. (Morgan helped develop some of the teaching resources that public and private school teachers from around the world can connect to through the Folger’s website “Teach” link.)  Recently, he helped edit a publication by an international scholar who wrote a book titled Beyond Genius that explores how remarkable minds—“game-changing intellects”– such as Einstein’s and Shakespeare’s surpass the genius category of thinkers.

When asked how he succeeds in selling Shakespeare as a writer deserving of a “beyond genius” category to students, Morgan goes straight to the stage: “For me, it would be to go to the play (text) and have fun with it and get kids on their feet.”

Returning to the early Shakespeare birthday party/return from spring break class, Morgan opened with a review of a recent short response test on King Lear.

“The line spoken by Cordelia, ‘No cause, no cause,’” Morgan offered the returning students to open the day’s discussion. “Cordelia is responding to Lear’s line to her, ‘If you have poison, I will drink it.’” Morgan’s eyebrows arch as his hands fly up above his head. He reminds the students of the egregious behavior of the father and how Cordelia maintains a sympathetic understanding toward her aged father who destroyed his family as he seeks his line of succession among his three daughters.

“Lear’s suggesting she has every right to have cause!” Morgan exclaimed, then shifted to a portentous tone as he looked from student to student. “It is a sublime moment of forgiveness.” With that, Morgan suggests students remember this scene as they and their parents grow old and age. “It will happen,” he added. The students nodded. They perceived that their teacher was alerting them to a serious theme: Shakespeare’s use of common, relatable life circumstances.

With that, Morgan announced it was time to move from that tragedy and on to the “Metaphors of Comedy” starting with the Maypole festivals and  a comedy that connects to King Lear in its playful questioning of parentage: “It raises the issue of legitimacy again!” Class laughter and smiles all around.

All eyes were on Mr. Morgan as he drew a colorful Maypole on the whiteboard and asked how many students remember participating in Maypoles during elementary and middle school years. The hands fly up as the teacher shares that “people used to call this play Beatrice and Benedict!”

As the closing bell rang, the students picked up their books and said, “Thanks, Mr. Morgan!” as they headed to their next class while Homeroom students waited to enter the sunny classroom filled with Shakespeare images and student collages.

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