Make a Donation

Consider making a donation to support SHAKSPER.

Subscribe to Our Feeds

Current Postings RSS

Announcements RSS

Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: September ::
Re: Teaching Shakespeare
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0717, Monday, 25 September 1995.
(1)     From:   Chris Fassler <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
        Date:   Saturday, 23 Sep 1995 07:25:23 -0400
        Subj:   Re: Teaching Shakespeare
(2)     From:   Tom Ellis <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
        Date:   Saturday, 23 Sep 1995 11:25:15 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0709  Re: Teaching Shakespeare (Ethiop)
(3)     From:   Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
        Date:   Saturday, 23 Sep 1995 08:25:53 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0700  Re: Teaching Shakespeare (Ethiop)
From:           Chris Fassler <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Date:           Saturday, 23 Sep 1995 07:25:23 -0400
Subject:        Re: Teaching Shakespeare
Let me preface a few thoughts on the debate about teaching Shakespeare to
undergraduates by explaining that I didn't make the time to participate because
I was busy preparing to teach four sections of freshman composition this
semester.  I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm looking for some sympathy by
making such a confession, but at the same time, I want you to know that what
follows are *not* the bitter sarcasm that they may occasionally appear to be:
1) For those of you who were worrying about how to begin your first day and for
those of you who have been teaching Shakespeare courses for some time
now--LUCKY YOU!  I hope that you all live very long lives, enjoy remarkably
long and productive careers and still retire (preferrably) or die (regrettably)
soon enough that I might get an opportunity to teach one or two of the courses
for which I thought I was preparing myself in graduate school.
2) Without naming names, I was struck in skimming through all of the comments
that this discussion seems to have been the occasion for expressing some of our
most embarrassing attitudes, about Shakespeare and our students, among other
things.  Still, I suppose wouldn't want to teach Shakespeare if I didn't harbor
some (affectionate or horrified) fascination with the Bard--and if I didn't
think that undergraduates ought to be changed (improved? disillusioned?
indoctrinated? jaded?--I can't quite decide which) by my course.
3) My experience with high school English teachers (my father, primarily) and
my college professors (too many to name) was that I liked *them*, and if they
had been teaching me about metalurgical analysis, I would have felt an
inclination to follow them in that direction.  They were open, forgiving,
demanding, and just plain smart.   Shakespeare worship comes rather naturally
in this culture, and I'm glad I hung out with such good people long enough to
find better reasons to be fascinated with reading books.
4) I've reread 1, 2, and 3, and I've decided that I had better shut up while I
still have a job teaching composition.  Apologies to all potential employers
who might have been offended.
From:           Tom Ellis <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Date:           Saturday, 23 Sep 1995 11:25:15 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 6.0709  Re: Teaching Shakespeare (Ethiop)
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0709  Re: Teaching Shakespeare (Ethiop)
First, I wish to thank all the list members who have provided helpful and
illuminating responses to my "ethiop" query, and I am especially grateful to
Marcello Cappuzzo for his O.E.D. gloss.
I am rather puzzled, however, by one comment at the end of Cappuzo's (22 Sept)
post: "What makes me feel uncomfortable is not the perplexity of Ellis'
students; it is the laughter that preceded it."
Why should laughter make us feel uncomfortable, especially in what is (by
common consensus) the comic climax of the play--the rapid descent of the four
confused lovers from hurt feelings to mutual abuse--? The fundamental purpose
and effect of comedy is, after all, to impart the requisite detachment between
audience and characters that will allow the audience to laugh as the characters
make fools of themselves. Have we grown so serious in our critical address to
these plays that we've forgotten how to laugh? Further, as in all good comedy,
the laughter engendered is part ridicule and part self-recognition: we see in
the antics of Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius much of our own
adolescent selves.
By taking such things too seriously--by frowning on laughter--we murder to
--But the laughter engendered by an ethnically abusive epithet is something
else. Though obviously as commonplace in the comic tradition as any other
laughter-inducing gag, it is a mean-spirited laughter, and when, as in my case,
the reader's life experience has been shaped by inhabiting a hostile dominant
culture where such ethnically abusive attitudes have been the norm (and still
are--witness the popular appeal of the intellectually fraudulent "Bell
Curve"!)--the presence of such epithets in the text impose a barrier to the
student's enjoyment of, and willingness to further explore, the text.
To simply deal with this by "reading against the text"--actively looking for
evidence that Shakespeare was "just another white hegemonic racist"-- is, I
think, a cop-out; it reduces the study of Shakespeare to nothing more than a
show trial, the classroom equivalent of Chairman Mao's "Anti-Rightist"
There must be a middle ground between worshiping Shakespeare (a la William
Bennett, E.D. Hirsch, et al.) uncritically as "the best that has been thought
and said" on the one hand, and a narrow, mean-spirited "Bardicide" on the
For myself, that middle ground is anthropological: looking at Shakespeare (and
all other artists, for that matter) as simultaneously a product of his culture,
and an active agent of cultural evolution who seeks, in various ways, to
critically examine the default values and attitudes of his culture.
--Tom Ellis
From:           Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
Date:           Saturday, 23 Sep 1995 08:25:53 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 6.0700  Re: Teaching Shakespeare (Ethiop)
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0700  Re: Teaching Shakespeare (Ethiop)
We do perhaps begin to forget how very suspicious of foreigners the English
were, have been, and often, like other peoples, still are, and that part of
this reaction is indeed "aesthetic" in that foreigners don't really look like
us. And they certainly don't sound like us, which is why we change their
place-names if we can, from Muenchen to Munich, Paree to Pariss, to put them
right, appropriate them in a sense.
Shakespeare makes fun of the Welsh, the Scots, the Dutch and other unEnglish
folks, sometimes in the peculiarly English way that the objects of his derision
may find upsetting. As a Scot, I still don't like the way the Sassenachs talk,
although for their part they have over the past thirty years or so begun to
allow and even encourage us to invade their theatres and their cinema screens,
just as Lancashire and Northumberland --to name but a couple -- have become
acceptable speech songs to London ears.
        Harry Hill

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.