Shakespeare as you'll like it

Dale Salwak explains how he removes the obstacles that prevent his students connecting with the greatest writer in the English language, allowing them to fall under the Bard's spell

January 27, 2011

A 14-year-old boy who has never heard William Shakespeare's name, let alone seen any of his plays, is taken to a production of Hamlet. During Act One he sits entranced by the events onstage, moved deeply by the spoken words and the hushed expectancy of the audience. At the end of those electrifying 20 minutes, he turns to his older companion and whispers: "Does anyone else know about this?"

I begin each semester of my introductory Shakespeare course with this probably apocryphal story - which I have heard from several sources - in an attempt to prime my undergraduate students for the life-altering experience that the playwright can offer them. I explain how that remarkably intense evening created in the young boy an appetite for the dramatic and poetic canon that would endure for the rest of his life.

"The same might happen to you," I say, "if you are open to it."

At one time we could reasonably expect our college-aged students to arrive at least somewhat acquainted with the plays, sonnets and Elizabethan history. That is no longer the case. There is a prevailing attitude in our culture that Shakespeare has little to say to our times. Moreover, we cannot be bothered with unlocking the "impenetrable" mysteries of a 17th-century writer, a dead white male writer at that, who is historically inaccurate, insufficiently philosophical, insular and elitist.

I firmly reject this attitude. When students say, "I hate Shakespeare", what they are really saying is that they hate the way his work has been taught to them.

"You may not be interested in Shakespeare," I respond, "but Shakespeare is interested in you."

My love of the playwright, which began in the eighth grade with The Merchant of Venice, fuels my desire to make each class a positive and enriching experience, regardless of any negative attitudes or the polite detachment the students may bring with them. At the heart of the course we consider some fundamental questions, the possible answers to which, although obvious to experienced Shakespeareans, are new to most of the students.

To begin, they need to know that the class is not about familiarity with the plays but about their relationship to the text. The text is the authority, I tell them on the first day, and that leads me to pose the first of our guiding questions: "What are we not going to do?"

To their surprise, my answer is that we are not going to spend much class time discussing what happens in the plays. While they may have done that in high school, my approach suggests that they can discover most of this for themselves by reading each assigned work more than once while answering questions I have devised that lead them chronologically through the complexities of the text.

I also suggest that an open mind, a dictionary and a good audio recording will enable them to understand the story. I acknowledge that archaic words, unfamiliar allusions, historical or topical references and other textual nuances are difficult to understand at first reading or hearing. And surely, as the late literary critic Sir Frank Kermode noted, they must have been so in Shakespeare's day.

But don't be discouraged, I say. Developing an ear for Elizabethan English and coming to terms with the playwright's astonishing verbal artistry as well as the theatrical conventions of the period require patience. If they stay with it, I promise, eventually they will follow the story, understand the tensions between characters and learn in unexpected ways.

"All great works of art", I say, "make great demands upon us."

Another thing we will not do is waste precious class time by watching television or film versions of the plays. Seeing the action before hearing and knowing the words can become a distraction even for exceptional students, and they might never know the raw excitement that comes from imagining the characters on their own. Even Shakespeare, we may surmise, was primarily concerned with how his lines sounded and what they meant rather than how his characters appeared.

Students are also universally relieved to hear that we are not going to be sidetracked by the formidable corpus of Shakespearean scholarship. Because most of my students are coming to the subject for the first time, they are understandably daunted, even intimidated, by what the course requires. A crowd of academic voices might easily make them miss the opportunity to form their own judgements and cultivate their own intimate relationship with Shakespeare's work.

For this reason, I use unabridged paperback editions of individual plays - light in the hand with few footnotes and no introductory material, chronological tables, bibliographies or critical appendices that threaten to extinguish the pleasures for first-time readers. I also avoid using jargon or abstract theorising.

This is not in any way to deny the importance of debates over authorship, biographical and historical events, or variant texts and contradictory readings. Much of the scholarship is brilliantly illuminating, but there will be time to explore the critical traditions if my students move on to advanced studies.

Although I do my best to put the plays in some kind of perspective by explaining the important facts of Shakespeare's England, the hectic history of Elizabethan theatre and what we know of Shakespeare's life, what matters most is a close reading of the plays. They are classics partially because they stand on their own.

Finally, I tell them they are not going to be overwhelmed with work. Gone are the days when I required my students to read 18 plays in a 16-week semester. Eventually a colleague said to me: "Don't you realise that this is a sign of your own inexperience? Cut everything by two-thirds."

He was right. Less is more. I narrowed the focus to six or seven representative plays so that students could slow down and devote time to learning the works. I now want my students to read more deeply, not more extensively.

We hone in on Shakespeare's multiple theatrical achievements - including, for example, his command of plot, dramatic structure and linguistic invention in Romeo and Juliet; his variations in pace and mood in The Merchant of Venice; his artistic control of historical material in Richard III; his maintenance of dramatic urgency in Hamlet; his delineation of character in Othello and King Lear; and his use of the supernatural in The Tempest.

If students understand the considerable literary achievements in these plays, they will have gained access to the whole canon, for what is fundamental to one work is common to the whole.

Thus the question of what we will not do in the course gives shape to how we can approach a subject that, for unpractised and perhaps unsophisticated readers, may seem overwhelming. From there, as we work through the semester, we consider four more guiding questions:

• How can we account for each play's timelessness (or as Harvard University professor Marjorie Garber says, their "timeliness")?

• How do the plays help us to interpret human behaviour?

• How may a knowledge of the plays expand our understanding of Western culture?

• How can an achievement of this magnitude be explained? In other words, how did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?

As the students come to discover, these questions only deepen with time - demanding not absolute answers but the dignity of what American scholar and author Joyce Carol Oates calls "sustained, collective concentration".

To foster this kind of concentration and to address the question of Shakespeare's timelessness, I find it helps students to connect with modes of perception that are familiar to them. For example, given that we now live in an image-driven society, one very effective exercise is to compare specific scenes from, say, Othello with the wordless art of photography.

Unless taken with a trained eye, I begin, most photographs carry no certain meaning; they are superficial, recording only the immediate impression of scenes and faces. Photos never tell us as much as we want to know about what is going on inside the subject or what is behind the shot itself. They provide an image but lack context; we don't know what led up to their taking or what followed. In addition, when subjects know they are being photographed, the image may memorialise the artificial or the superficial rather than capture the true or the essential.

Shakespeare's genius - and a key to the timelessness of his characters - is precisely the opposite. The "picture" he creates is dynamic and multidimensional, the context fully established and thoroughly explored.

Through Othello's asides and soliloquies, for instance, the playwright travels to the innermost level of the self, captures dynamic tensions and reproduces his discoveries truthfully. What Shakespeare presents is not a photo's static image that has been randomly and even dispassionately digitised, but, as literary critic Stephen Greenblatt puts it, "a fingerprint of his soul".

Shakespeare also establishes a context by revealing what actions and dialogue precede and follow his carefully selected theatrical moments. What to put in or leave out, and how people behave, are all under his absolute control as he draws us into his world, enclosing us in its particulars.

And because Othello and the other characters are unaware of the narrator or the audience, the imagined personas come across not as posed but as fully realised. In Shakespeare's hands, a thousand words are worth a picture. His art trumps time.

Once students begin to grasp why the characters' depth and passions speak to any era, they can start to examine the next guiding question: how do Shakespeare's plays help us to interpret human behaviour? As Hamlet tells the Players, the moral function of good theatre is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature".

For four centuries, the play has made audiences weep. Hamlet's pain is excruciating not because we don't understand it, but because we do. At 16, I read the tragedy for its melancholy; at 25, for its mystery; but at 58, after the death of my father, for its consolation. In all cases, the play deepened my understanding of Hamlet's soul.

When my class begins its discussion of the troubled Dane and his maddening dilemma, I tell them a personal story. On the day following my father's funeral, I returned to campus to teach my Shakespeare class; coincidentally, I had previously assigned Hamlet.

As I opened the discussion that day, I sensed my father seated at the back of the room. He was dressed in the dark blue suit, light blue shirt and red tie he was buried in.

I could feel that he was listening intently, as he always did when either of his sons spoke. When I recited Hamlet's words - "He was a man, take him for all in all,/I shall not look upon his like again" - I was speaking of my father.

When I talked about Hamlet's broodings on death and the life hereafter and then said the lines, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will", my father was taking in every word.

Afterwards, one student remarked that he had never heard the play discussed with such passion.

"The sources of the truest truths", said Saul Bellow, "are inevitably profoundly personal."

If students begin to understand the common humanity of Shakespeare's plays, then they can more easily imagine the Bard sitting with quill in hand, looking plainly into a mirror.

What must he have seen? Was there an upsetting discrepancy between the face he imagined he had and the face he owned? Did he see the truth in the darkest, most perilous of his traits? Surely his greatest tragic characters took years to emerge even half-formed from those depths. This connection is a gateway through which we can explore the impact of the plays on ourselves.

From interpreting human behaviour, it's a short leap to understanding our culture through the eyes of the playwright - the next overarching question on our list.

If students are acquainted with the history, themes and development of Western culture, they will quickly realise that allusions to the plays appear in music, painting and sculpture - as well as in our everyday lives, in many of the names we hear, the places we visit and the expressions we use.

If students are familiar with psychology or sociology, then they will understand how Shakespeare's work shapes those disciplines' views of emotion, devotion, disloyalty and hubris.

If students have studied political thought or business, they will recognise much about compromise, state-building and power struggles; students of the law will recognise the razor edge of rhetoric, negotiation and strategy.

In other words, in the work are scripted many of an entire culture's thoughts, traditions, institutions, mores, fears, hopes and longings. With Shakespeare we are well connected to the core of English-speaking civilisation.

Of all the questions my classes consider, however, the most perplexing is the last one, as we attempt to understand what led Shakespeare to write at this level. How could one man have seen, felt and known so much? How could he have written with such insight?

Among the responses my students offer are that the man was obsessed, or that he burned with an overwhelming energy, or that he had an intuitive grasp of innate human nature. Perhaps, students suggest, he read voluminously and observed incessantly, or (obviously) had an extraordinarily fertile imagination, or a restless mind and a sure sense of self-worth. One student quite memorably called him "omnicompetent". Another wrote: "It seems that like Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream he wanted to play all the parts."

The truth may lie somewhere within all these possibilities. We will never know. When artists perform with peers of the highest calibre, I explain, they are inspired to greater heights in their own work. Shakespeare was certainly aware of his competition, notably Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman and Robert Greene, and he knew that if he were to survive in the theatre, he had to attract thousands with plays that pleased his audiences while delving deep. He could not depend on permanent royal support.

We conclude the semester by admitting that there is no clear reason why the son of a small-town burgess and high bailiff should go on to become in little more than 20 years the immortal playwright we have discussed.

But we do know that Shakespeare lived in an environment where his talents could be fulfilled; that he remained fully responsive to all experience, occupations, interests and powers of the body, soul and mind; and that he worked very hard to give expression to all this in some of the most beautiful poetry and prose ever written in the English language.

What a noble way to spend a life. What a powerful, potentially life-altering message with which to leave our students - if they are open to it.

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