Something rotten? The play’s not the thing.

Happy New Year, one and all!

I just came across this link through Twitter– Ralph E. Shaffer, emeritus professor of History at Cal Poly Pomona, recently wrote about Shakespeare and education in the Chicago Tribune:

In it, he states clearly that he is “not a fan” of Shakespeare’s work, calls his language “outdated,” and concludes “If today’s secondary students don’t read Shakespeare they won’t be much worse off than my generation.”

I’m all in favor of everyone having an opinion, and frequently encounter students who are “not fans” of Shakespeare when they take my required-for-all-English-majors courses. Nor am I in the business of ‘converting’ anyone to any kind of Bardolatry.

But what such blithe dismissals miss is the possibility that students might end up a great deal better than they already are after working with Shakespeare’s texts. Often, in fact, those students who claimed to loathe Shakespeare at the outset of the course end up with both changed opinions and a new way of looking at the world by term’s end. I make a bargain with them, as I do with all my students: you don’t like Shakespeare? That’s fine– all I ask is that you give his works a genuine try by bringing some curiosity to the table.

When they do, and we start asking questions together, suddenly all kinds of light bulbs go off. Just what is iambic pentameter for, anyway? What happens when he doesn’t use it? Are there really that many dirty jokes in the plays? (Answer: yes, actually. I suggest to the class that if something looks like a dirty joke in what they read, it probably is– and it’s probably far filthier than they’ve imagined. I’ve seen jaws literally drop as I explain some common early-modern phallic references.)

As we go on, some naysayers find themselves, knowingly or not, having fun– which leads to even more discoveries, including a realization that here is an incredibly rich language they can use to articulate circumstances in their own lives. They’ve found ways to discuss the impossible effects of fame via Antony and Cleopatra, the impact of financial implosion through Timon of Athens, and I, for one, will never forget what I was teaching on September 11, 2001: Titus Andronicus in one class and Henry IV Part 1 in the other. The plays gave my students and I the means to talk about vengeance and war (and their complexities) at a time when those very matters filled the air we all breathed.

Professor Shaffer writes that he “never saw a Shakespeare play,” and perhaps there’s the rub– as an actor, I admit I’m biased toward performance, and teach all of my classes with performance firmly in mind. Seeing, and more importantly, hearing Shakespeare’s words brought to life engages even the most hardcore haters in my classes most of the time. Shaffer might be surprised at just how much he enjoys the “outdated language” (a curious objection for a historian, that) if he were to experience it in the theatre rather than on the state-required page.

I freely admit that not everyone in my classes ends up liking Shakespeare at the end of each course– and that’s fine. But they do leave having had an encounter with a wide set of circumstances from the past and a different way of thinking about the world around them, a way they can accept or reject, as they choose. And isn’t that one of the purposes of classroom work, to enable students to make informed decisions?

Shaffer is perfectly entitled to say that something’s rotten– but it’s his own (mandated, unperformed, and evidently unengaging) experience of Shakespeare that stinks, rather than the original texts themselves. If Shakespeare remains a closed book to him, fair enough: I’m delighted that he eventually found material he loved. But I have seen these plays open worlds for hundreds of others– students who may well have been “no worse” if they’d not read them, but who end up better in innumerable ways for having done so.

Best part of the day:

Monologue Day in class today. Yes, there was real theatre– some wonderful moments in both classes. But the best moment of all was when one of my Shakespeare students put up her hand at the end of class and asked, “Can we do another one of these?” as a number of her classmates chorused their approval.

This from the students who originally moaned, groaned, and grumbled at the prospect of having to do a monologue at all.

*does professorial happy dance*

I’ll freely admit that some days are tough in the classroom, but today I win.