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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: September ::
Re: Teaching Shakespeare (Part 1)
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0680. Thursday, 14 September 1995
 
 
(1)     From:   Chris Stroffolino <
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        Date:   Friday, 08 Sep 1995 11:10:05 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0677  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
 
(2)     From:   Piers Lewis <
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        Date:   Friday, 08 Sep 1995 09:30:59 -0600
        Subj:   teaching Shakespeare
 
(3)     From:   Hilary S Zunin <
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        Date:   Friday, 08 Sep 1995 10:14:27 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0672  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
 
(4)     From:   Robert Dennis <
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        Date:   Friday, 8 Sep 95 11:49:05 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0677  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chris Stroffolino <
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Date:           Friday, 08 Sep 1995 11:10:05 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 6.0677  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0677  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
 
Thanks Michael Swanson for pointing out the Disney reference of Thom Ellis--
One thing I'd like to raise about this pedagogy thread is the rather chroric
chiming against Ellis seemed unfair--like an army of "decentered" classroom
typs seemed fit to presume to know what is condescending and what is not-- and
thus  claimed a "superiority" over someone who claims "superiority-- (sounds
like a play within a play to me) I am interested in sharing my classroom
experiences with others and hearing others--but i don't know how helpful a kind
of smug superiority is-- I mean we probably all have our on and off days, and I
am not necessarily proud of myself (but nor ashamed) for some of the things I
said today-- (For instance, one student kept on harping on the authorship
question---and asked why it was important or even in question whether
Shakespeare wrote his plays--- and I said something like "i think a lot of
people have a hard time believing that one man could have done all that and
after all Shakespeare did die pretty young-- in fact he was about the same age
of Jerry Garcia---maybe of exhaustion" Now, OF COURSE, I could be jumped on (a
la Bloom like a rabbit) for claiming that in a paper, etc---but in a classroom
it at least made some students laugh--and though I also undercut the idea of
the "author behind the text" at times---I found that coming up
improvisationally----I think we must allow ourselves the license of the fool
sometimes when teaching Shakespeare---If that's condescending, it's no more
condescending than the plays themselves (which many critics and scholars
historically have had a hard time with the "fool" and "low-comedy" passages
therein....) Chris s.
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Piers Lewis <
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Date:           Friday, 08 Sep 1995 09:30:59 -0600
Subject:        teaching Shakespeare
 
I read with great interest about the different gambits people use the first day
in teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates but also surprise that not a word has
been said so far about the most serious difficulty our students encounter:
Shakespeare's poetry.  It's like learning a new language they say; worse than
Chinese--a language they know nothing about except that it's exceptionally
tough.  Not only do our students not understand poetry, any poetry--for of
course few of them read poetry of any kind--but they are reading a poetry
written in a form of english that might as well be a different language from
the one they are accustomed to:  journalistic prose and journalistic
prose-fiction.  Where Shakespeare uses metaphor to pack complex meanings into
small syntactical units within the sentence, journalistic prose is diffuse,
spreading simple meanings through several sentences, even entire paragraphs.
Where Shakespeare's distinctions are indirect and subtle, the modern
journalists' are for the most part simple and banal.  How can people who have
had virtually no experience with semantic indirection--metaphorical,
metonymical, ironic--make sense of Shakespeare at first go?  So the most
important thing to do with beginning students, it seems to me, is teach them
how to read, which means teaching them how to understand and disentangle
metaphorical expressions.  Try it. See how many of your students can explain
much less understand the poetry of:
 
But look, the morn in russet mantle clad
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill.
 
Piers Lewis
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Hilary S Zunin <
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Date:           Friday, 08 Sep 1995 10:14:27 EDT
Subject: 6.0672  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0672  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
 
Many thanks to Robert Appelbaum who brought an eloquent voice to many issues
that had been troublesome to me in recent postings. I teach not undergraduates,
but public high school juniors and seniors in a semester long Shakespeare
elective.  They are bright and excited. They're also a little anxious.  It's
Shakespeare, after all. And while they need some guidance and enthusiasm and
structure from me, they certainly don't need condescension.
 
The key to the course?  Shakespeare wrote scripts, not books.  So often the
standard pedagogical approaches used for novels are applied to plays.  In doing
so, I feel strongly that we short change our students. It is the production
choices of directors, actors, and design staff that flesh out these scripts.
So do our own choices, insights, and "takes" in and out of class.
 
How does this manifest itself in the course?  We read aloud or listen to audio
cassettes; we see multiple versions of scenes on video. Perhaps most
importantly, we engage in a variety of performanced-based activities so that
students not only explore the text (in the privacy of their "closets"), but
also examine sub-text through performance with/for their peers.  We challenge
each other to posit new approaches and rigorously debate their merits, in
discussion and on paper.
 
One need not be trained in drama to get students up and working through
portions of scenes, soliloquies, or readers' theatre.  I certainly am not.
What's needed is appreciation for the genre.  Techniques are well- documented.
The remarkable Ashland, Oregon NEH Summer Institute and the Folger Library's
rich education offerings are both focused on teaching Shakespeare through
performance.  Folger's new *Shakespeare Set Free* three volume series
(Washington Square Press) is devoted to transmitting strategies that easily
apply to university undergraduate programs.
 
Happily, high school teachers are not the only ones interested in employing
these approaches.  But many university instructors seem to equate
performance-based activities with gimmicks and fluff.  It ain't so.  At the end
of each semester the vast majority of students in my classes genuinely seem to
appreciate these works.  Most want to read more and many are hooked for life.
I know.  I regularly run into them at professional and community Shakespeare
productions long after class is over, when no one is giving a grade.  Isn't
that the point?
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Dennis <
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Date:           Friday, 8 Sep 95 11:49:05 -0400
Subject: 6.0677  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0677  Re: Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates
 
I would like to thank Michael Swanson for his gentle suggestion that I missed
Tom Ellis' point.  If you read my original response, I think you will see that
I actually mentioned the Eisner/Disney expansion as one of the interpretations,
so I did not miss that much of it.  On the other hand, in case anyone besides
Michael Swanson missed it, my own point is that while one can find always
situations in contemporary life which are analogous to various subplots,
addresses, characters, and situations in the plays of WS, such comparisons are
misleading.  My objection was not in Ellis' finding an analogy, but in trying
to make the value of Shakespeare dependent upon analogy.
 
Regarding that particular analogy/interpretation, I feel the description of
power placed in Ulysses mouth by WS is speaking to the internal personal drive
to power, while the Eisner strategy is based in late 20th century economics and
commercial law.  Unless you personally know Michael Eisner and can assure me
that his personality flaw is identical with that of the power-driven person of
classical literature,  I will continue to assume that Eisner is a very shrewd
analyst of the contemporary legal and financial world, who also has had a
phenomenal run of luck.  I think the power analogy would have been more
relevant if applied to Senator Bob Dole's remarks following the election of
Bill Clinton to the Presidency, or Newt Gingrich's description of how powerful
he is as Speaker of the House.  Michael Eisner has never proclaimed his
personal power, and, in fact, keeps a relatively low profile.  The press it is
that have lionized him.
 
More to the point, we should read/teach Shakespeare to find out what he has to
say about what _we_ know.  The substance of his plays should be real, insofar
as the metaphors are comprehensible to us.  Comparing Shakespearean situations
to Eisner/Disney is relegating Shakespearean drama to as remote a sphere as the
Michael Eisners are to most of the students (would you believe 99.9% ??)
Trying to relate Shakespeare to objects which we read about in the newspapers
(or possible hear on TV/RADIO, but let's assume most of the students also read)
will very shortly toll the bell on his works entirely. Most of what we read in
the papers is biased, frequently incorrect, only partially told, extremely
ephemeral, and usually quite remote from any of our daily lives.  This is not a
good model upon which to teach literature, whether Shakespeare or other author.
 
Shakespeare (_et alia_), on the other hand, is good for the personal daily
experience of every one of us.  But each student has to arrive at this herself
or himself.
 
Let Shakespeare live and breathe on his own.  The analogies are always invalid
because they are not what he was writing about.  IMHO the values to be gained
from Shakespeare come from the metaphors he uses to describe those features we
all find within ourselves and within our own existential situations.  Let the
students find the metaphors within their own lives.  Then the drama will remain
with them throughout their lives, and the dramatist will remain a living
treasure.  Remember Ben Jonson said, "He was Not of an Age but for All Time."
He did not say, "His works are for all time..."  I believe he meant the person
embodied in the ideas, observations, and discoveries.
 
Probably a pretty good title for an introductory course, "Not of an Age"?
 
And to Chris Gordon, as they say in almost every movie since Macauley Culkin
got left in Chicago at Christmas, "YES!"  Sounds like an exciting way to get
started.  I shall add the clip to my collection of HV Agincourt.  Not being a
trekkie in any way, I would never have stumbled upon that one alone.
 
If it is appropriate to thank outstanding high school English teachers or
college Shakespeare professors on this list, then I have some names.  I am not
voicing any objection here; in, fact have enjoyed seeing indviduals name their
favorite teacher.  I simply thought the list might be flooded if we all named
our favorite teachers.  On the other hand it would be an interesting experience
and lots of fun since we might discover a lot of commonality.  What do you
think: a thread of Favorite Teachers of Shakespeare...?
 
Sincerely and reflectively,
Bob D.

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