On Studying Shakespeare

If you are an English Major, you read Shakespeare.  That’s just how it goes.  For my part, I have to say that I was never an enthusiast.  There are moments when it is absolute magic, but on the whole, it never became something I craved.  Clearly, his command of language and structure are other-worldly.  So, conceding all that, I never got to the point where I just loved it.

I also felt it was taught wrong.  The main reason is that I thought that it wasn’t right to read Shakespeare.  It was meant to be performed and it just seemed to me that it would be more accessible to students (/me) that way.  I actually noticed this when I discovered that our library had video recordings of performances of plays…kids, this was 1984 and the first home VCRs were only just popping onto the scene.  You had to watch them in the reserve room of the library on a little monitor about the size of the latest iPhone.)

So I went down and watched a performance of a play and more effectively completed the assignment in half the time.  The caveat was that it was difficult to follow along in the text because (and no one tells you this) directors remove scenes from Shakespeare plays all the time, which you would think would be a no-no.  Anyway, that discovery created my belief that even in literature classes you should watch performances rather than read text.

year of learI had a new revelation on this topic recently.  I am reading The Year of Lear by James Shapiro, a book I paid for and heard about on a New York Times Podcast.  The book is very good but what is so interesting is that it is about the play and the times–and literally the year–it was written in.

And it is fascinating.  The context of the play, the rise of the Jacobeans, the battle to unify Britain, the plague, the actors Shakespeare wrote for….and the older text that Shakespeare drew on…is utterly fascinating.  Shapiro mentions that people consider Shakespeare an Elizabethan writer but his career continued following her death.  I have to confess I had the same assumption.

So here’s the thing.  All of our other literary training included an examination of the cultural times in which the book lived.  We talked about the times that Hawthorne lived in.  Melville.  Twain.  Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Jean Rhys.  It was just the way the curriculum was constructed.

So why not Shakespeare?  I think that we have become so invested in the idea that Shakespeare is timeless that we have forgotten that he wasn’t.  Yes, I know there’s controversy about how to teach and that there’s the idea that the text is the thing, but The Year of Lear clearly shows us that he was a man of his time who explored the issues that were in front of him.

And I think including that into the teaching of Shakespeare would make it that much more accessible and interesting to students.  It would open the door in a way that the timeless approach does not.

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