ShakesFear and How to Cure It: The Complete Handbook for Teaching Shakespeare, by Ralph Alan Cohen

Peter J. Smith wishes the UK would adopt a US approach to making the Bard more accessible

August 30, 2018
A line of Shakespeare on a piece of typewriter paper
Source: iStock

Arriving at the University of Massachusetts on teaching exchange in the late 1990s, I took my syllabus, exam questions and essay topics to the head of department for approval. He had no interest in reading them.

“But what about the external examiner?” I asked.

“The what?” he replied.

The provision of undergraduate English was wonderfully autonomous. No prescribed “learning outcomes”, no “benchmarked standards”, no scrutinising bureaucracy – complete freedom to teach two texts per week or to focus on Hamlet for an entire semester – a level of trust in the instructor that UK institutions would consider reckless or even dangerous nowadays.

Ralph Alan Cohen’s “ploys” (practical exercises to cure his students’ “ShakesFear”) would not be welcome in the surveillance culture of UK universities. His playful activities – making Macbeth’s severed head; designing a coat of arms (Pericles); compiling a pop soundtrack (Romeo and Juliet) or even bringing a canine “guest artist” into class with which to improvise (Two Gentlemen of Verona) – would get short shrift on this side of the pond. Similarly, the relaxed and creative indeterminacy of Cohen’s critical discourse is alien to the prevailing utilitarianism over here: “Falstaff is the weeknight party that stands between your students and their homework; he is a Grateful Dead concert; he is a Mallorca beach; he is cutting school to get high, get wasted, or get laid.” What fun it must be to have Cohen as a teacher!

But there is a serious side to all this. When Robert Halfon, chair of Parliament’s Education Committee, told The Times that degrees such as medieval history should cost a premium because they were non-vocational, or when universities minister Sam Gyimah insists on courses providing value for money, or, even worse, when the teaching excellence framework includes graduate wages as a criterion for assessing universities, they manifest the philistinism against which creative and improvisatory teaching such as that proposed by Cohen struggles. Sadly, his exuberant ploys are unlikely to feature in any UK syllabus, constrained as they are by performance indicators and hamstrung by student and parental anxieties arising from £30,000 of debt per head.

The pity of it is that Cohen demonstrates the insight into Shakespeare’s works that springs from his experience of stage practice rather than cossetted critical reading: “the success of [Richard III’s] serial murders is necessary to our entertainment. We become his accomplices”; the audience of Coriolanus “senses – as it should – that Coriolanus’ contempt for the people extends to them”; or “The Early Modern masque was like a Super Bowl half-time show: too long, too overwrought, too empty, and too expensive.” These are the penetrating insights of a practitioner rather than a professor.

“This book is a plea to teachers to let performance help them rid their students of ShakesFear,” Cohen insists. But the key concerns of ShakesFear – Shakespeare is “too hard”, “boring and/or irrelevant” – are just as (perhaps more) likely to be those of our managers. ShakesFear is a symptom of the strangulation of creative thinking and teaching in a marketised system. From this, Cohen’s compelling book offers us a haven but not an escape.

Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University.


ShakesFear and How to Cure It: The Complete Handbook for Teaching Shakespeare
By Ralph Alan Cohen
Arden Shakespeare, 396pp, £75.00 and £24.99
ISBN 9781474228725 and 8718
Published 3 May 2018

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The play’s the thing – if only!

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