O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
a) the wish of a snowman with an itch?
b) the thought of an IATEFL speaker just before they are due to give a paper?
c) a Shakespearean conceit which may prove instructive to ESL teachers?
Pity poor Shakespeare. Here he was with a superlative plot for a play about a man who thinks rather than acts, and yet, how could he show it? The most important feature of Hamlet the play is that Hamlet the character is a thinker. But what legitimate means did he have at his disposal to render the plight of Hamlet, and above all to give witness to Hamlet’s inner shoe-gazing? He could not very well have the actor repeatedly wander across the stage in a dumbshow with his fist clasped to his brow, or looking wistfully from Elsinore’s battlements while he smoked a pipe.
No, he had to employ another solution. And despite the claims of Elizabethan theatre to be ever more naturalistic than its predecessors, Shakespeare had to make recourse to a wholly artificial device in order to show Hamlet in action, or inaction – the soliloquy. As the wonderful Margreta de Grazia remarks, ‘it is an awkward solution to be sure: speaking is asked to give the illusion of non-speaking’. In other words, to access a greater reality, that of Hamlet’s inner self, we have to deliberately absent ourselves from reality, the reality where thoughts are silent, contriving in its abandonment to yield a more serviceable if less accurate truth.
Such theatrical pragmatism may also have a role in ESL instruction. The general advocacy of natural, authentic and real English has never been more prominent – let us burn our textbooks, fling away their CDs like Frisbees, and condemn the school’s library of handouts to be turned into paper boats on paper seas. But perhaps, if we can stop keeping it real for one moment, we might like to remember quite how useful the convenient fictions of course-books are.
As the great Henry Widdowson had cause to note, ‘the language subject as a pedagogic subject is not like the real object language’. Textbook language is fake, of course it is – it’s a device we employ to get to the greater truth of communication. Without it, we would be like a real Hamlet sans soliloquies, strutting the stage and moaning while looking wistfully into the distance: useless, uninteresting and, above all, mute. Indeed, the real artifice is naturalism itself. For quite in the same way as being on a stage renders everything artificial anyway, so does being in a classroom. Is it not possible, then, that just as Shakespeare used the artifice of a soliloquy to give expression to Hamlet’s inner world, can we not use the artifice of textbook English to give expression to our students’ inner worlds?