This year, I am teaching AP Language and Composition, and “standard level” World Literature. AP Lang is all nonfiction, and since it is my first year teaching said subject, I tried to adhere to the nonfiction focus as much as possible (some teachers include a nonfiction novel). My World Literature class focuses more on the skills needed to do well in senior English and in the “real world” beyond school. There is no Shakespeare for me this year, and it’s a sad, sad affair.
I first “got into” Shakespeare in high school. I’m fairly certain that doesn’t happen for everyone, but I was one of the kids that understood Shakespeare without the “translation” pages. I would read sections of the play, and then get distracted by the footnotes, which ended up merely confirming what I suspected things meant.
My Shakespeare instruction followed the usual canonical progression: Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, Julius Caesar in 10th, Macbeth in 11th, and Hamlet in 12th. I still have my high school copies, with my “cute” high school handwriting in the margins. Each year, his writing resonated. I don’t know what exactly it was, or why, or how I had that connection with his writing.
I did, though. Then “after high school” happened; early in my senior year, I decided I wouldn’t go to college because I already had a job that paid me a decent amount of money and still promised more, and I didn’t want to place an undue financial burden on my parents. In short, it was a stupid decision, a truth I discovered one afternoon in the box of my high school books. I was cleaning out the garage after my daughter was born and I moved back in with my mom and stepfather. I found the box, and found my true calling. My AP Literature teacher had tried to help me realize what I should do, but that I ignored the calling – and her. The reality was – and is – that I love literature, and I should teach it.
In college I of course discovered more of Shakespeare, solidified my love for him, and started collecting nerdy Shakespeare things like a bobblehead, an action figure, a Lego character…I’m going to stop there so you don’t think I’m too crazy. A finger puppet.
So, why Shakespeare? Well, first, why not? I found an article recently which asked the question, “Is Shakespeare all he’s cracked up to be?” The title grabbed my attention, of course, and my out-loud voice said, “Uh, YES! What the hell is wrong with you?!” Of course that was my initial response, and in good faith, I read the article.
While it was mostly concerned with the staging of plays, and more specifically staging those plays in the towns close to Richmond, Kerry Browne brings up three reasons why Shakespeare’s “pedestal wobble[s]”:
1. The plays are harder to stage. Casting and production costs have grown into a “scary commitment” that not many professional companies can afford to take on.
2. The scripts are getting harder to understand. “…allusions to ancient legend and history, even to the Bible, are not as familiar as they were even a generation ago.”
3. “Aspects of Shakespeare’s work seem increasingly suspicious and distasteful in the 21st Century.” There are “sidelined” females who are “reduced to silence” and Shakespeare seemed to favor the “hierarchic, centralized society of the early Stuarts.”
Well. I completely understand and respect the first stated reason. Money is not easy to come by.
The second reason, though, irks me a bit. The scripts shouldn’t be getting harder to understand, and if they are, then we have a problem. We – collectively, as readers – of literature and Shakespeare – should be able to understand the allusions in his plays. Isn’t that the general point of education, that we are able to understand references to ancient legends, and history? Even if you don’t pursue a degree in the humanities, aren’t we better people if we understand how our societies came to be? Aren’t we better if we are – even marginally – culturally literate? Perhaps if they are difficult to understand, it is a “teachable moment,” as it were, that calls for the education of audience members? I know that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival provides audience members with background information on plays, as well as workshops and presentations in area schools. Providing the study guides does put some of the onus of understanding on the reader/watcher, which is fine, and is as it should be.
The third reason is tricky, but I know that for years, students and professors alike have analyzed Shakespeare using feminist criticism. That, I believe, is just “the way it is”; Shakespeare was a product of his time, and his time was hierarchic, patriarchic, and based on the privileges therein. There’s not much to say other than that.
Browne’s final reason for the wobbling of Shakespeare’s pedestal is that Shakespeare “was a man who participated in playmaking in the same way as his peers. And it’s this realisation, more than ideology or critical theory, which makes it harder to accept him as the lonely genius on the pedestal.” I’m not sure what to make of this, really, because Browne follows that with admitting that Shakespeare was one of, though “often the first” of the “geniuses,” of his playwriting time. Well, isn’t the first person usually the one that gets the most attention? I hate to draw a very oblique (and possibly terrible) comparison, but I’m going to: Remember The Real World? That reality show that first aired on MTV in 1992? Of course you remember The Real World. Everyone does. It was the first of the “major” reality television series, and according to some, it “created reality tv as we know it.” Have there been other reality television shows with better casts, better premises (maybe?), and more viewers? Yes. But will people remember The Real World as the harbinger of the reality television era? Most likely. The show, by virtue of its very timing, style, and newness, is one that people will remember. End terrible comparison. So it is with Shakespeare. He broke a mold, he changed the face of things, and we remember him – and his work – for it. We shouldn’t blame him for being precocious.
So, back to my original question of why Shakespeare, at least for me. Really, it’s because of his jokes, his irreverence, his allusions to people, stories, and events outside of his writing that made me want to learn more. Without him, I wouldn’t have been curious about the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, which in a roundabout way informed the plot of Romeo and Juliet (also with some help from Brooke along the way). I wouldn’t have learned about Ovid, or the many tellings of myths, or developed my
curiosity about obsession with British history (I love Elizabeth I. Love. Her.). Just because people don’t understand the allusions or the time in which something was written doesn’t mean that people should stop reading Shakespeare or staging and watching his plays – perhaps it means that we should read them and produce them more, with the aim of understanding them and their various contexts better. Without those cues to look outside of texts for the ways that literary works, history, and myth are connected, some of us would never find our way to where we are truly supposed to be.
In short, for me, it’s Shakespeare because he made me smarter, and he continues to help me understand the human condition. And so, I’ll keep him on his pedestal.
Note: Richmond and Barnes Magazine also published this post of mine here.