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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: January ::
Shakespeare for Kids
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0121  Thursday, 15 January 2004

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 14:22:24 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

[2]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 15:10:37 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

[3]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 08:59:48 -0800
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

[4]     From:   Mike Sirofchuck <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 08:16:42 -0900
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

[5]     From:   David Cohen <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 14:02:09 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 14:22:24 -0000
Subject: 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

 >Mr Larque says that "Plot is one of the single most important things
 >about Shakespeare" I disagree.  In fact I refute that there is any such
 >thing as a "Shakespearean Plot".
 >
 >Othello is one of his most celebrated plays, but, as many people have
 >noticed, the plot is decidedly dodgy.

Sam Small seems not to know the difference between literal-minded
credibility and literary effectiveness in relation to plot.  If you sit
down, as most modern Shakespearean scholars do, and analyse the printed
text of "Othello" to death, then you may find some areas in which it is
neither convincingly lifelike nor consistent within itself.  This has
nothing whatever to do with the literary effectiveness of its plot.  In
fact Sam Small seems to contradict himself later in his posting, when he
claims that:

 >Shakespeare wrote his drama-poetry about universal
 >human states - family, love, hate, jealousy, lust, sexuality, justice,
 >violence and much more.  All these things affect all people on this
 >troubled globe.

Well, that's true.  Although all of these, you may notice, are elements
of the plot and not of the poetry.  Take the plot out of Othello, and
you lose Othello's jealousy, you lose his sexual passion for Desdemona,
you lose justice, violence, love, family and everything else.  These are
all present in Shakespeare's play because they are parts of the story
that he is telling.

The "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy is certainly interesting poetically,
but take it out of the context of "Hamlet" - the play - and it frankly
isn't the best poetry in the world.  It is the most famous quotation in
English Literature because of its power and effectiveness at that point
in the story of "Hamlet", within the context of that character and the
circumstances that he is in, not because it is intrinsically wonderful
as an isolated piece of verse.  Ask people who know the line without
knowing the play exactly why they are saying the words, and (often)
thinking of a man with a skull [sic], and they almost certainly won't
know, since it is just cultural habit - inherited from people who were
impressed by the words in their place.

As somebody who has spent more than a decade reading and watching
Shakespeare, it is still the plot and the characters that really get me
about Shakespeare.  When Hamlet confronts his father's ghost on the
battlements I am carried along by the poetry, but what really hits me in
the stomach is my sense of the emotion of the scene.  What is Hamlet
feeling as his much-loved father's ghost tells him that it is suffering
the torments of a hell-like purgatory, that the uncle that he resents is
also a murderer, that his mother has not only betrayed her husband's
memory but has embraced his killer?  If Sam Small is reading
Shakespeare's plays as literature or watching them as drama, rather than
examining them as a dry literary exercise, then these questions or
similar ones must be at the top of his mind too.  They are all questions
of plot and character.

The brilliance of Shakespeare's poetry means that the plot and the
character are wonderfully expressed, and emotionally far more powerful
than William McGonagall might have been able to make them, but for an
audience that is responding to the plays as popular drama or literature
rather than academic artefacts it is emotional response to plot and
characters that is most important.  Shakespeare makes us care for his
characters and their stories, the poetry supports the plot, but while it
is possible to imagine Shakespeare writing in prose (as he often did
within his plays), it is not possible to imagine Shakespeare's plays
without characters and plots that involve us.  If Shakespeare had done
the literary equivalent of an actor reading the phonebook, and produced
a story that had a plot of no interest and no characters that we could
feel emotionally connected to, then his play would have failed, however
great the poetry.  It simply isn't possible to write great poetry about
nothing.

If your father felt nothing for Othello, or Desdemona, and had no
emotional response to Iago, then he didn't just miss the poetry of the
play, but also failed utterly to connect to the plot or the characters.
  This must have been very sad for him, as it means that he missed a
potentially great experience, but it hardly says anything against the
plotting or characterisation of Shakespeare's works.  Rather it says a
lot about either your father, or the effectiveness of the production
that he was watching.

As for the universal / non-universal argument.  I do not question the
fact that Shakespeare's plays make appeals to basic human feelings and
instincts that are virtually universal (although nothing is ever
completely universal).  This is why just about all literature - from the
best to the worst - tends to focus on things like sex, violence, death,
parents and children, extreme emotion, and all the other things that we
consider most important in our own lives.

An interest in these things may be (almost completely) universal.  What
is not universal is our response to the details of Shakespeare's
stories, which is what continues to make these plays effective.  Appeals
to "universal" emotions are not enough to make great literature.  If it
was then the hoariest melodrama would be the most successful literary
work of all time, since it appeals to raw emotion and human gut instinct
far more effectively than any Shakespearean play.  Shakespeare also
engages the intellect, and it is because we worry about the more complex
elements of why Hamlet acts as he does and how he may be feeling, about
whether Ophelia is a supportive lover or a betrayer of Hamlet's
affection, about whether she is a victim of her father, her brother, her
lover, or just of circumstances, that we still read and re-read, watch
and rewatch these plays endlessly four centuries after they were
written.  None of these responses are "universal", and it is the
richness and adaptability of Shakespeare's text that allows us to
continue finding answers that interest us in Shakespeare's plays.  If we
didn't find answers to these questions that interested us, then
Shakespeare would be dead literature, however much sex or violence he
included.  Do you really think Eastenders is great literature?  It
appeals to basic "universal" human emotions just as much as Shakespeare
ever did.

 >Mr Larque rightly states that 'Shakespeare translated' is not 'English
 >poetry'.  However, if every nuance of every line of that gut-wrenching
 >poetry was translated then it's no wonder Shakespeare has many
 >world-wide fans.

I only speak one language, so I can't guarantee that I'm right about
this, but judging from everything that I have read about Shakespeare in
translation, the truth is that "every nuance of every line of that
gut-wrenching poetry" is not, cannot, and never could be translated from
one language into another.  Instead the translator is just as much the
creator of the resulting work as Shakespeare himself, having to find
alternative jokes, alternative metaphors, other ways of punning and
showing emotions, that work in the target culture.  What survives in
translation is apparently the power of the stories, not the original
poetry or language.  It seems fairly obvious to me when I read Homer,
for example, that the same is true of English translations of literary
wonders from other languages.  You only have to read two different
translations to realise that you are not receiving an unadulterated
version of the original source.  Never mind the poetry, however, feel
the emotion!  That's why it is possible to write a rhyming English
translation of a rhyming foreign-language original (which involves
changing everything to fit the requirements of the English language
word-endings) without completely wasting your time.  Rather obviously it
is an adaptation, not a strictly correct translation, but the effect is
often more effective than a more literally correct academic translation.
  Just compare the best literal translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar
Khayam with Fitzgerald's rhymed adaptation.  Which do you prefer?
Emotionally, and as a poetical experience, I would go with Fitzgerald
every time.

Finally, I'll go back to the first part of Sam Small's posting, and just
point at this section as rather amusing.

 > I shall take another of Mr
 >Larque's propositions that 'Shakespearean adaptation' is the same as
 >'Shakespeare'.  Imagine a character like Secretary of State, Colin
 >Powell being totally unhinged and turned into his wife's murderer by a
 >vindictive little civil servant without being exposed in approximately 2
 >hours by the rest of his staff.  No-one could imagine Powell being that
 >stupid.  The plot is absurd and quite un-adaptable.

Well, for a start, Sam Small is pretending that I said things which I
never said.  Shakespeare adaptations are not the same as Shakespeare.
In some ways they are better, and in other ways they are necessarily not
as good.  Adaptations can deal with questions that Shakespeare did not
have the time to deal with, or would never have thought of dealing with,
and as such can be intensely powerful in specific ways that Shakespeare
is not.  Ophelia, for example, is a rather dry character in
Shakespeare's "Hamlet", who has to be filled out by the imagination of
the reader, or the emotion of the actor, Shakespeare is concentrating so
hard on Hamlet, that we have to create a great deal of Ophelia by
ourselves.  I find that Ophelia in adaptations - whether these are works
of criticism or new literary works based on Shakespeare's original -  is
often a far more effective character than she was in Shakespeare's play.
  At the same time, none of these adaptations (that I have seen so far)
are going to be as effective four centuries after having been written as
is Shakespeare's play, so there is no question that the Shakespearean
original - and presumably the place of Ophelia within it - is a much
greater literary work than any of the responses or imitations that have
come afterwards.

The amusement, though, is justified by Small's astounding and bizarre
suggestion that unless something is likely to happen in real life, it is
not acceptable as an effective literary plot.  Quite frankly, I have no
idea what books Sam Small might actually read and enjoy that would lead
him to the conclusion that the only effective plots are those which are
exactly like real life.  Unless Sam Small is a great fan of "Reality
Television" shows, and loves wading through books that go on endlessly
about people picking their noses, and going to the toilet, then I fail
to see why a direct relationship to the real world should have anything
to do with the effectiveness of a literary plot.  The entire point of
literature, I would have thought, is to refine the most emotional and
powerful aspects of real life and project them at a reader or audience
in an impossibly heightened way.  Reading literature is a matter of
suspending your disbelief enough to enjoy the story as a story, and if
the writer can avoid the more obvious blunders then that makes the
suspension of disbelief easier, but is Sam Small's reaction to "A
Midsummer Night's Dream" really "This plot is rubbish because no weaver
would really be like Nick Bottom, fairies don't exist, you can't turn
people's heads into ass-heads, and anyway Theseus would just have Hermia
and Lysander executed, if he actually existed, which he didn't"?  If so,
then Small, like his father, must have real problems getting involved
with the vast majority of literature - especially Shakespeare - and
hardly seems the best person to pontificate about how one should read
the plays, since this would mean that he fairly obviously didn't
understand them or their purpose in the slightest.

Incidentally, "Red Riding Hood" is a very powerful story, and yes,
Shakespeare could have done it wonderfully.  But then the appeal of
Fairy tales is based even more firmly on plot than even Shakespeare's
plays.  The fact that "Red Riding Hood" still bears enormous power at
the hands of even the most cack-handed adaptor (many storytelling
parents, improvising bedtime stories, for example) shows exactly how
much it depends on its plot and characters.  Again, Sam Small's sneering
contempt for this genre - one of the most successful literary genres
ever, with independent versions and analogues of this story existing
around the world across several centuries - suggests that he really
doesn't know very much about great literature when he sees it, and has
no idea why it is as effective as it is.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 15:10:37 -0000
Subject: 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

Sam took his dad to see Olivier's Othello. "No-one could be that
jealous," his dad said. Sam takes this as evidence that poetry and
characterisation is more important then plot in Shakespeare. But this
was, if anything, a criticism of Shakespeare's powers of characterisation.

The contradiction involved become even clearer in the proceeding paragraphs:

"Othello is a horrific study of the state of unbridled jealousy," Sam
continues. "What is remarkable about Othello's speeches is the
frighteningly accurate understanding of that state by the writer and, if
unchecked, leads to catastrophic breakdown."

And yet Sam's dad said, "No-one could be that jealous."

Sam articulates his belief in Shakespeare's universality: "Shakespeare
wrote his drama-poetry about universal human states - family, love,
hate, jealousy, lust, sexuality, justice, violence and much more."

But we've already seen how the perception of jealousy, represented in
one of Shakespeare's plays, was markedly different between a father and
his son. The son thought it "frighteningly accurate", the father thought
it ridiculously uinrealistic.

They had both experienced the same text. The text is universal. But
their reactions suggest that the affects of the text are not universal.
So one or both of two things must be non-universal: their idea of
"jealousy"; or their idea of "Shakespeare" as a metatextual construct.
Both of these are "external,
social constructs born of social engineering", but both of them are
absolutely essential and unavoidable in our accessing the text. The
disagreement derives from a socially-constructed differences between two
readings of a text, without which the text could not exist. Sam himself
describes his dad as "my truck driver father".

It seems odd to argue for the universality of "Shakespeare" - a
socially-constucted metatext - with a post that is at such pains to
uncover critical, social and professional difference.

m

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 08:59:48 -0800
Subject: 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

Sam Small writes of Othello that,

        The plot is absurd and quite un-adaptable.

Clearly he's wrong, since the plot has indeed been adapted, into famous
operas among other things.

 >I remember dragging my truck driver father to the Olivier film version.

"No-one could be that jealous," he said afterwards.  I really had no
answer.  He convinced me by other remarks that he had heard none of the
poetry - but he *had* followed the plot.

And he'd asked a question that many critics ask of it, had become, in
fact, critically engaged.  In fact, from your description, he was led to
ask big questions, about the human condition and the limits of extreme
states.  Engagement in plot is not the opposite of the sort of the
existential questioning that you associate with poetry.

 >He [Shakespeare] was concerned
 >with the inner workings of the human mind and soul.  He could have
 >adapted "Little Red Riding Hood" and made it into a harrowing, erotic
 >study of murder and malice - purely by the dramatic quality of the
 >poetry in the speeches.

It would have been a rather different "Little Red Riding Hood" which I
read in school, perhaps adding other characters or details of the
grandmother's background, bearing only the relationship which
Shakespearean plots usually bear to their sources.  In fact, I'm
reasonably willing to bet (and, of course, no-one can prove otherwise)
that a Shakespearean Little Red Riding Hood would be a tragedy, and
therefore have a plot quite different from that of the children's story.

 >And Mr Larque seems to be another proponent of the school that poo-poos
 >Shakespeare's universality.  I do not mean 'what I believe' I mean
 >'universality'.  Shakespeare wrote his drama-poetry about universal
 >human states - family, love, hate, jealousy, lust, sexuality, justice,
 >violence and much more.  All these things affect all people on this
 >troubled globe.

Indeed.  In fact, I was tempted to write back to Mr. Larque pointing out
that cynics take the same view to the history of philosophy or science
that he does to the history of Shakespeare criticism.  It's nothing more
than a giant "That's your opinion" directed towards all thought.

What doesn't follow is your rather tangential claim that the young are
somehow outside the universal or incapable of comprehending it.

 >What is *not* universal are the other things Mr Larque
 >mentions - feminist / monarchist / Marxist / anti-feminism /
 >anti-monarchism / Marxism / anti-Marxism, etc.  These are external,
 >social constructs born of social engineering - by definition, decidedly
 >anti--Shakespearean.

Not really.  While they aren't existential questions, they certainly
engage with universal issues.  Feminism is all about the possibilities
and limitations of choice, for instance, and monarchism questions
whether and how people are to form communities, if all men are created
equal, and so forth.  One of the definitive characteristics of a
universal would be that it can be approached from different angles.

Yours,
Sean Lawrence.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Sirofchuck <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 08:16:42 -0900
Subject: 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

Some thoughts on teaching Shakespeare to high school students for over
twenty years:

I find that if students are clear on the plot and characters before we
start reading the play, the language becomes less of a barrier.  Since
they know what is going on and who is who, I can help them with
vocabulary as we read the play.

We get up and read the plays in class; if I have some good
readers/actors, I can sit back and add explanation and ask questions to
facilitate discussion and understanding.

At times, I'll read long speeches or important character parts (i.e.
Hamlet) to help keep things from bogging down.  I'm able to stop
periodically and explain/paraphrase to help the students keep up.  Plus,
I get to play the parts that every actor hopes to play, albeit with
questionable skill.

I also use video/DVD generously, sometimes watching scenes after we
read, sometimes before, and sometimes in lieu of reading the scene in
class.  Time and time again the universality of the plays is
demonstrated to me as the kids relate characters, events, motivations,
etc to present day and their own lives.

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Jan 2004 14:02:09 -0600
Subject: 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0103 Shakespeare for Kids

 >Mr Larque says that "Plot is one of the single most important things
 >about Shakespeare" I disagree.  In fact I refute that there is any such
 >thing as a "Shakespearean Plot".
 >
 >Othello is one of his most celebrated plays, but, as many people have
 >noticed, the plot is decidedly dodgy.

What does "dodgy" mean, exactly?

 >I shall take another of Mr Larque's propositions . . .

Whoa, dismissively calling something "dodgy" doesn't refute anything.
You say, "In fact I refute that there is any such thing as a
"Shakespearean Plot, " but give no refutation other than the simple
declaration that Othello's plot is "dodgy."  What kind of refutation is
that?  Are the plots of all other 36 of WS's plays "dodgy," and there an
end?  Then WS must have been the most artful of dodgers to snooker so
many people into thinking that, even if the plots aren't "the single
most important things about Shakespeare"-that "most important" being
arguable-many of them are indeed engaging, charming, even compelling,
unless of course, one's frontal lobe is supercharged or one's sphincters
are super-tight.  The plot of, say, Cymbeline may be "dodgy," whatever
that means, yet so what?  Isn't the point not that the plot is
objectively impossible, or that it couldn't happen that way, but that it
moves us as does the psychology and poetry?   I ask this even as a
science-minded psychologist that can speak reams (and have taught and
written) about objective thinking, scientific method, and all that, but
who can wear his literature hat with no less ease.

 >["WS] could have adapted "Little Red Riding Hood" and
 >made it into a harrowing, erotic study of murder and malice -
 >purely by the dramatic quality of the
 >poetry in the speeches.

Gee, I always thought that Little Red Riding Hood was a great plot.  Had
WS only had a chance to do what you imagine-even better, with all the
Grimm tales!

No-one could imagine Powell being that stupid.

     I could-imagine, I mean.

The plot is absurd and quite un-adaptable.

     You simply declare this to be so, yet with no evidence.

I remember dragging my truck driver father to the Olivier film version.
"No-one could be that jealous," he said afterwards.

With all due respect to your father, this is evidence?   Of course
people can be that jealous. Never mind psychiatry, just tune into you
local news casts.

I really had no answer.  He convinced me by other remarks that he had
heard none of the poetry - but he *had* followed the plot.

What is the point of all this?  Lots of people, even smart people who
are temperamentally not literature types, don't hear poetry.  How does
any of this directly and crisply refute Larque's point?  Are you saying
that only those who don't hear the poetry of WS can follow WS plot, even
a "stupid" one?  Okay.  It's just that, beyond this, I just don't know
what you are talking about, though I suspect there is something
interesting in all this talk of dodginess and dads.  In any case, if the
plot is not THE most important thing, which, again, is arguable, it
doesn't address the more interesting (noncategorical) question of
whether WS's plots are still plenty important to his appeal.

David Cohen

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