Teaching Shakespeare, With Love

Meanwhile, sticking with Kevin Drum but returning to a more felicitous subject for this blog, a few weeks ago he asked: why can’t we teach Shakespeare better?

I remember enrolling in a Shakespeare class and looking forward to it. In my case, I actually had a fairly good high school English teacher, but still, Shakespeare is tough for high schoolers. This would be my chance to really learn and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing.

Alas, no. I got an A in the class, but learned barely anything. It was a huge disappointment. To this day, I don’t understand why Shakespeare seems to be so difficult to teach. Was I just unlucky?

Maybe – or maybe I was just lucky. I had an excellent, indeed, foundational experience learning Shakespeare in high school, and then another excellent experience with Shakespeare in college. And I’ve had a great time with Shakespeare ever since, going to the theater, reading the plays, and reading criticism.

I’m not sure I can put my finger on what made the experiences so great. My high school sophomore English teacher was a large personality, a very theatrical fellow (he was also my debate coach). The play we studied was Henry IV part 1. We read the whole play out loud, and Richard played the part of Falstaff – and played it to the hilt. That can’t have hurt.

But he also started off the class with a lecture on the history of the kings and queens of England, to provide us with the necessary political context to understand the story. That should have been deadly. And we spent a lot of the class doing close reading, looking in particular how particular words and images – son/sun, for example – recurred over and over in the text, weaving a pattern of meaning. Those are, in miniature, three entirely different approaches to the text.

The course I took in college was a lecture on the Histories and Tragedies. It’s been a long time, but my recollection is that a lot of the focus was on structure, but we also dipped into the various fashionable forms of literary criticism that were the style at the time (this was the early 1990s). Again, I can’t point to anything in particular about the approach that made me say: that was the key.

Books of criticism have similarly been all over the map. I really enjoyed Northrop Frye’s series of lectures, but also A.C. BradleyHarold BloomStephen GreenblattFrank KermodeMarjorie GarberStanley Cavell - as well as books like Peter Saccio’s Shakespeare’s English Kings or John Sutherland’s collection of essays, Henry V: War Criminal. No one approach dominates in my consciousness. Shakespeare is too large; he contains multitudes.

We’ve been taking our son to Shakespeare plays since he was not quite five years old. He’s seen comedies, histories, tragedies and romances: As You Like ItTwelfth NightMuch Ado About Nothing, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard IIIHenry VHamletKing Lear, The Tempest, Cymbeline. He’s seen several plays  - A Comedy of ErrorsA Midsummer Night’s DreamRomeo and Juliet, possibly others I’ve forgotten - in multiple productions. Sometimes he’s been delighted and sometimes he’s been bored. If the productions are any good at all, he’s generally been able to understand what’s going on, notwithstanding the complexity of the language and the differences from modern usage.

So I don’t know why it should ever be hard to teach Shakespeare. Oh, I can understand why it would be harder to teach some plays than others – I wouldn’t start with Coriolanus - or what some of the barriers might be for students unfamiliar with theater, or terrified of verse, or what-have-you. But those aren’t the kinds of problems Drum is talking about, I don’t think.

It feels like the answer is right there in the Mark Kleiman blog post that prompted his comment originally, a post about Brutus’s “There is a tide in the affairs of men” speech and how it is mis-understood:

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

If I ran the zoo, students would first watch a good performance of whichever play they were going to read, and then act it out for themselves. That might actually give some of them a taste for drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?

See, here’s the thing: many of the most famous Shakespeare “quotes” are misused relative to their original context, and this isn’t something new. It’s not just “there is a tide;” it’s also “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” and “what’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,” or “now is the winter of our discontent” – to say nothing of outright misquotes like “where art thou, Romeo?” It is perfectly possible – indeed, easier – to be culturally literate without actually being cultured. Appreciating dramatic irony is much harder work than memorizing facts and quotes.

But here’s the other thing: Shakespeare works even if you don’t get any of that. If you don’t understand that Brutus is making a stupid decision? His speech is still great – and the moment still works in performance (or should). If you don’t understand that Juliet isn’t pining for Romeo, she’s wringing her hands about having fallen in love with a Montague? Her speech still works – because she’s also pining for Romeo, wishing he were there. These scenes work with and without that consciousness of irony.

And the layers of irony go deeper than Mark Kleiman acknowledges in his post. It’s not just that Brutus has the wrong strategy, and therefore we’re supposed to see “Brutus’s soaring oratory is entirely ironic; the scene warns against rash risk-taking rather than encouraging it.” The very reason we find Brutus attractive and Cassius unattractive, the very reason why Cassius needed Brutus in the first place for his plan to have a chance of succeeding, cannot be separated from the reason why Brutus makes the “wrong” move at Philippi. Brutus does what the noblest Roman of them all would do. Shakespeare isn’t teaching us a lesson about either military strategy or rhetoric. He’s showing us character and fate – reality.

More than anything, it seems to me, teaching Shakespeare requires love of Shakespeare, more than many authors, because Shakespeare’s greatness looms over him like an intimidating proctor, making us feel that if we don’t “get” that greatness then we’ve somehow learned nothing, prompting us to cut him down to our own size. None of that is necessary. Shakespeare comes in all sizes, rewards just about every level of engagement. That should mean shallower students come away with some emotional and intellectual experience that is meaningful, even if they never understood what the big deal was, while students capable of plumbing the depths get a glimpse of an author proper likened, like Julie’s love, to the Bay of Portugal.



Noah Millman