Ways to Teach Shakespeare,

or the "What You Will" Pedagogical Approach


Paula Huston

Triangulating Shakespeare

How does one best teach the dramatic works of a man almost four hundred years dead? And, particularly, how does one teach them to students with little or no training in theater, to students with minimal exposure to performances of the works, and to students, well-read though they might be, with sketchy historical knowledge of the era? Nothing less, in this situation, than a multi-pronged attack will do; one must attempt to "come at" such works in a number of different ways to compensate for both the experiential gaps of the students and the paradigm gap between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries.

A number of approaches lie open to the creative and hardy professor. One can attempt new historicist, or Greenblattian, scholarship. One can show a number of videos comparing, perhaps, the Polanski Macbeth witches with their Kurasawa or Welles counterparts. Or, if one is blessed with unusual stamina and abnormal optimism, one can actually put on a full play production, complete with costumes, stage, and paying audience. Though there are a number of advantages to each approach, each also has its drawbacks; in this paper, I hope to compare and contrast the experiences of one particularly ill-prepared student whose teacher--much to the student's good fortune--made use of all three methods.

The first third of the course, devoted to historicism, concerned itself with research, primarily document-gathering, the results of which were then presented by each student to the group in the form of a fifteen- to twenty-page archive. At this stage, the research process was loosely focused; the intent of the assignment was not to solidify a paper thesis but instead to pen up the possibility of one. Group participation was essential; not only were archives shared, but suggestions and ideas were freely offered, particularly valuable to the inspired but confused among the seminar participants, our student being foremost among these.

Once such archives, containing everything from the Malleus Malefecarum to the sixteenth-century Star Chamber censorship documents, had circulated, the fledgling new historicists were expected to come up with a viable thesis and produce a publishable paper. At this juncture, the free-wheeling camaraderie of archive-sharing necessarily gave way to the sober and more narrowly focused process of critical thinking.

The advantages of the new historicist approach to the teaching of Shakespeare were numerous. The archives, composed almost solely of documents from Shakespeare's own era, provided a somewhat haphazard but also quite broad historical background for the plays. because the material gathered was for the most part free of commentary from later scholars and historians, students in the class were at greater liberty than is usual in such seminars to do original thinking. The freshness and creativity of this approach tended to produce theses which were less predictable, less tied to contemporary schools of critical theory, and less "safe" than one would expect from a typical seminar group. Our student, for one, found herself embroiled in the most difficult paper she had ever written, simply because her thesis was so much more complex than anything she had ever produced before, a direct result of going to the original historical material rather than concentrating heavily on contemporary journal articles.

A second advantage of the historicist approach was that it acted to reduce, in some ways, student awe of a major literary figure like Shakespeare. Once any literary work is placed within a larger historical context, it becomes part and parcel of its era regardless of how innovative or experimental it might be. Our seminar was no exception; participants discovered in the course of document reading that the intriguing ambiguities in Henry V, for example, are not necessarily all attributable to Shakespeare as twentieth-century-pacifist-before-his-time, but rather arose also out of the intense political debates of the day--debates which eventually toppled the monarchy and ushered in the era of democracy. Shakespeare was as much a reflection of his age as he was its commentator. This vision of the artist proved particularly valuable for our student, a Romantic holdover who stubbornly tends, against all contemporary critical custom, to sacralize art.

Third, the historicist approach facilitated the making of connections between the literature of Shakespeare's era and the literature of other times. A necessary part of the historicist process is the tracing of roots, the seeking out of both direct and indirect sources. Though, as the seminar participants found, Shakespeare made heavy use of a number of historical documents such as Holinshed's Chronicles when he wrote most of the plays, he also drew less directly on a myriad of other Western literary works and oral legends. One student, for example, found that Macbeth contains not only Christian by Druidic symbolism. Another--our student, in fact--discovered a connection between Macbeth, Medieval Miracle Plays, the new Testament Herod story, and the prophecies of Jeremiah. Under the historicist approach, Shakespeare is helped down from the literary pedestal on which he was placed by generations of critics and educators prior to the twentieth century and allowed to take his rightful place in the historical family portrait.

The drawbacks to the classroom use of new historicism, from our student's point of view, were minor but worth noting. First, pulling a defendable thesis from such a vast array of archival material was not only daunting but seemed self-defeating. For her, the beauty of historicism lies in its eclectic nature. Rather than limiting oneself to a standard view of history, one is free to explore, to hypothesize, to indulge one's curiosity. In addition, archive sharing multiplies by many times the possibilities of unexpected insight into the work of a literary figure. For such exploration to be cut short by the time limits of an eleven-week quarter seemed not only counterproductive but contrary to the spirit of creative scholarship.

Second, and to articulate the argument on the other side of the coin, the very qualities of historicism which make it so appealing--its creativity, its exploratory nature--proved to be pitfalls for the unwary. The temptation is to theorize in broad, sweeping terms rather than to hypothesize in narrow, defensible ones. Particularly after reading Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negotiations, the hapless student can be led to believe that metaphor, analogy, and narration are perfectly acceptable ways to prove a point. though it seems to work for Greenblatt, woe to the neophyte who attempts such a game.

Phase two of the quarter was devoted to comparing different performances of the plays. Though most were seen in video form, one was a live production. Our student noticed immediate differences in her impressions of the plays when she made the change from historicist scholar to member of an audience. Suddenly, the plays became plays--to a large extent, entertainment--rather than historical artifacts. She found herself focusing closely on character, plot, staging, and her own emotional reactions to both individual performances and the stories themselves.

In addition, the question of interpretation, heretofore largely ignored under the historicist approach, became central: how, for instance, does Welles see the pagan/Christian issue in Macbeth? How does Polanski interpret it? What does a non-Western culture emphasize in a play like Macbeth? Why? And how does the theatrical staging of scenes, such as in Olivier's Henry V, as opposed to the cinemagraphic staging used by film makers, change the work? The viewing of numerous performances of a single play can be very helpful in breaking down the naive but stubborn notion that there is somehow one correct way to "do" Shakespeare, or any other playwright, for that matter.

Third, individual lines in the plays become clearer and weightier when they were delivered out of the mouths of live human beings whose body language, physical actions, facial expressions, and wordless additions to the scripts--crying, laughing, harrumphing, belching--added immeasurably to the meaning of the words. Reading a written script is necessarily a dry procedure, for the usual "visuals" of fiction--description, narration, action, imagery--are left out; when the play is finally stages, however, color, light, sound, scent, music are all added back into the story. To see the plays performed, therefore, was a far richer experience than to read them. Our student, with her love of such fictional devices, was captivated.

The only drawback to the audience approach was once again the time limitation of the academic quarter. One live performance was not enough; neither were short clips from different films. The entire eleven weeks, in fact, might have been well spent viewing the various versions of three or four major plays; two or more live performances would have added even more to the course.

The class in question, however, did not have such a luxury of time. During the final third of the course, therefore, videos were reluctantly set aside for yet a new endeavor: actual (as opposed to real) acting. Once again, our student made a major mental shift in her perception of Shakespeare; suddenly she was neither pondering over Elizabethan documents nor critiquing Polanski but instead floundering around on stage herself, discovering how difficult it is to get twentieth-century lips around sixteenth-century quips. In addition, the monstrous task of line memorization served to focus her most carefully on each word in the play. Not only did she have to learn her own lines, but it became necessary to learn those of the characters in her scenes. her understanding of the p[lay, in other words, suddenly deepened, a natural outgrowth of sheer terror at the thought of performing in public.

In addition, blocking, or the physical movement of characters on stage, took on major importance; no more could our student remain comfortably seated in the audience thinking of buttered popcorn, for now she was expected to fetch wine glasses on the appropriate cue, pour without spilling or dropping a line, wrench a pair of tight boots from the feet of a drunken knight, spring up and down from his lap while he waved his tankard around and sang into her face, and perform other shocking and uncharacteristic moves while never forgetting she was no longer a grad student but a wench. Her perception of Shakespeare thus became the perception of a contemporary; not only did she actually squeeze herself into a sixteenth-century corset, but she finally came to feel like an actress at the Globe, a member of Shakespeare's own team. Her focus during this third of the quarter was therefore on the limitations of the stage; her respect for Shakespeare's ability to create within such limitations increased in direct proportion to the flounderings of her crew.

Along with a new awareness of the thousand and one unexpected details involved in a play production--costumes, lights, props, tickets, rehearsal schedules, doughnuts--details our naive student had never thought about while reading Shakespeare as an historicist or as audience member--a third revelation came out of putting on the play. Until one has sweated beneath the lights, one cannot begin to grasp what the audience does for the play and the playwright. Whether the audience sits in heavy, open-mouthed silence or falls out of chairs laughing, the actor is intensely aware of audience response, and the acting is thereby affected. The play itself is thus performed a little differently each night, depending upon the live brain cell count of the ticket-holders. And interpretation, which in film versions of Shakespeare seems to be the province of the director, suddenly becomes at least partially the responsibility of individual actors. Shakespeare, from the actor's standpoint, is a partner in the performance.

The drawbacks to the acting approach are of course so numerous that no one in his right mind should ever attempt to put on a play. Fortunately, however, there were few right minds to be found within the seminar group, and certainly one could not classify the director as perfectly sane. Once again, the time limitation proved to be the largest drawback; if students and professor had not been willing to give up food, sleep, loved ones, and their other courses for an intensive rehearsal schedule, they would most likely have been tarred and feathered on opening night.

Secondly, the high emotional price--fear, stress, sleeplessness, and a certain kind of mania--exacted from actors in a Shakespearean production quite naturally affects their tolerance for other versions of the play. In other words, one's seminar production becomes the definitive version of Twelfth Night if one is not careful. One suddenly has an emotional stake in Shakespeare one never had before; sad to say, one has become competitive about it. Our student, for example, try as she might, will never watch another Maria without comparing braids.

In conclusion, then, we can say that the three-pronged approach taken in this seminar--Shakespeare as historical artifact, Shakespeare as literary artist, and Shakespeare as working playwright--was an immensely valuable, if totally exhausting, experience. Our student, always quick to make suggestions, would advise that the seminar be stretched over at least two quarters, or better yet, a year. In the extra time, more plays could be studied, more lines be learned, and a better research paper could be written. But, as Shakespeare would say, "thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." The intrepid professor who taught this course must therefore live with the imperfections of his amateur historicists, critics, and actors, for "that's all one, the seminar is done."

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