Teaching Shakespeare

Teaching Shakespeare

by Walter Edens

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Here is a rich variety of approaches to teaching Shakespeare, described by authors who are distinguished teachers and scholars. In setting forth their classroom techniques they otter critical insights as well as stimulating ideas for use by other teachers. Their suggestions range from different pairings of plays, provocative questions for discussion, and ways of


Here is a rich variety of approaches to teaching Shakespeare, described by authors who are distinguished teachers and scholars. In setting forth their classroom techniques they otter critical insights as well as stimulating ideas for use by other teachers. Their suggestions range from different pairings of plays, provocative questions for discussion, and ways of reading aloud, to projects for class performances and even possibilities for teaching Shakespeare outside the classroom. The contributors share a concern for developing students' interests and skills beyond strict formal analysis.

Contributors: Walter F. Eggers, Jr., Robert B. Heilman, John W. Velz, D. Allen Carroll, Norman Rabkin, Winfried Schleiner, A. C. Hamilton, Albert Wertheim, Paul M. Cubeta, David M. Bergeron, Ray L. Heffner, Jr., Brian Vickers, Jay L. Halio, G. Wilson Knight, Bernard Beckerman.

Originally published in 1978.

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Teaching Shakespeare

By Walter Edens, Christopher Durer, Walter Eggers, Duncan Harris, Keith Hull


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06339-3




When I think about the teaching of Shakespeare, a number of matters pop into my mind. Like all poppings, this one is not orderly:

1. Someone's aphorism, "Shakespeare is the most taught and the least read of all poets."

2. Someone else's aphorism (I heard it uttered): "When historians have had enough time to do their work, critics will disappear."

3. The counteraphorism would be (surely someone must have framed it long ago): "The critics begin where the antiquarians end."

4. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with a department's teaching schedule will know that almost everyone in a department, whatever his "field," feels able to teach Shakespeare, and that almost everyone wants to. Maybe this works out; at least the teacher may be supposed to be learning something. In my experience, the eighteenth century is the specialism least likely to produce volunteer adjutant Shakespeareans.

5. On the other hand there is the man, not without professional repute (some of it in Renaissance matters), who says he cannot teach Shakespeare because a decent mastery and management of the secondaries would take a lifetime, and he has not a lifetime to give for his countrymen in Shakespeare classes.

6. The image of a Shakespearean heading for class, sloping a little to the left to counterbalance the burden in his right hand, his depot of dainty devices, his satchel of salubrious sound effects, the portable record player.

7. A Ph.D. candidate telling an adviser she hadn't got much into Shakespeare scholarship because her instructor in the Shakespeare seminar had said that what was important in the students' term papers was not what the secondaries said but what the students themselves saw, discovered, etc.

I shall not canvass such matters formally, systematically, or seriatim. They simply constitute a mass point of departure. They set up the situation (or, as one might proclaim in a burst of with-it jargon, delineate its parameters). They sketch (once again I have fought off "adumbrate") a range of attitudes in Shakespeare pedagogy. They remind us of the Shakespeare who can be packaged by specialists only, and of the Shakespeare who is everybody's meat, with everyman his own instant butcher; of Shakespeare as the center of a scholarly system outside of which he is unintelligible, and of Shakespeare as simply a stimulus to everyman's (and every age's) sensibility; of Shakespeare as an object in history who can slowly be identified, pinned down, delimited like an archaeological relic, an organism, a pattern of radiation, and of a Shakespeare who is fluid, evasive, arid inconstant, and therefore equally accessible to everyone who goes at him with any kind of tools at all. These views imply, then, a diversity of pedagogical stances — from fear of defective comprehensiveness to faith in untutored insight, from seeking historical objectivity to telling the world, "This is how Shakespeare strikes me," from a rage for order to a contentment with bull sessions, from a sense of Shakespeare-through-facts to a settling for Shakespeare as sensory stimulus and excitement.

When one makes this kind of summary, of course, he may fall into oppositions a little neater than the unruly actualities that are one's primary theme. The problems in Shakespeare-teaching are a mixed bag that cannot all be conveniently lined up in antipodal, antithetical, dichotomous pairs. Insofar as I use opposites, then, they are a convenience, a way in, rather than a schema inalienably rooted in the nature of things; they open up various theoretical issues. Ideally we should reach theoretical solutions and derive a pedagogy from them. Yet things don't work out that way. Pedagogy goes on all the time, never waiting for theoretical edicts from professional supreme courts. What the instructor does implies pragmatic quasi-answers to theoretical questions; or, given the temperaments of many workers in the humanities, unplanned action comes first, and justifying theory is a sort of a posteriori tailpiece to the body of practice, wagging a philosophic echo to emotive-behavioral goings-on.

Pedagogy usually represents less a formal decision than a kind of drift — a drifting along with one's own personality, perhaps unidentified and probably unquestioned; or a drifting with the times or with those most successfully raised voices that appear to speak for the times; or a drifting along with older times felt, not as objects of demonic loyalty, but as voicing a quasi-permanent truth taken on trust and hardly in need of reordering or renovation. Many of us continue to float comfortably along on the current of historical study that rises in the postromantic fountain of some hundred fifty years ago (Quelle, that is). Many of us, perhaps even more, have felt the pull of the later current usually called "criticism," where the success of the voyages depends on the combined learning, sensibility, and discipline of the voyager, where novel fashions and fads in sailing equipment (literary Kontikis, lined barrels, inflated rafts, and even inner tubes) appear annually, and where the journey may establish a Columbus route good for other explorers, or may be a fantastic voyage on the strange inner seas of some wind-tossed special self. But by now the history-vs.-criticism match-up has been worked to death and cannot shed much light on what goes on in Shakespeare-teaching; in fact, as I will propose later, these two rivals have more to bring them together on a side than to make them challenge each other. We can get a better sense of practices and options, I think, by invoking — only, that is, as an instrument of exploration — another opposed pair that perhaps better describe the current problem: Shakespeare as scientific object and Shakespeare as immediate experience. At the risk of oversimplifying, let's say that in the former, we try to steer through Shakespeare; in the latter, Shakespeare floods over us. In the former, we turn a studious light on the object; in the latter, we are awash in him, as in a shower or sauna or tropical surf. In the former, we try to apply various principles and systems; in the latter, we submerge or we are surrounded or we are passive receptacles in an omnisensory vibratorium. But let me try to clarify my new dualism — Shakespeare as scientific object and Shakespeare as immediate experience — by some quick historical observations.


Romantic critics filtered Shakespeare through their own taste. Periodically men rebel against taste, even good taste (or perhaps especially against good taste, as more and more men — persons, of course — get into the act and generate egalitarian fogs over the literary landscape), and the chief postromantic alternative to taste was science: the move was from the personal intuition that persuades to the impersonal formulation that proves. If we want to be scientific, we naturally stick more and more to what is amenable to this kind of discrimination and ordering — to apparent causes and results and frequencies, to types, influences, forces, sources, and so on; to quantifiable matters within the plays or ascertainable or documentable ones outside them. I myself remember a long regimen in quartos and folios, acting companies, theaters and their structures, audiences, dedications, onlie begetters, historical allusions and parallels, local and contemporary analogies, etc. These were regarded, I gathered, as humanistic equivalents of enzymes, cell growth, amino acids, genes, blood types, dietary determinants, viruses, etc. The Shakespeare canon became a kind of anatomical specimen which dissection, essentially nonliterary, would show to have been of such-and-such a nature, and to have behaved in such-and-such a way, because it had had to because of such environmental and hereditary factors. Classes were fifty-minute transmission belts for all the varieties of laboratory equipage. The spirit of this never dies. In its more recent avatars Shakespeare science becomes typographic and compositorial, and Shakespeare seems a singular Feathertop conjured up by printer's devils — all this, of course, more for graduate teaching but also filtering down to undergraduate levels.

Deathless though it be, the view of Shakespeare-as-scientific-object is regularly needled, shoved, stepped on, and maybe modified by other concepts of what his works are and how to approach them. On rare occasions there is a tiny flash of skepticism even in the laboratory itself. I remember my shock when an apparently sound insider said (whispered, I'm sure) to me, "All this editional science is a great chess game. It doesn't amount to very much, but you can't say so." New textbook fashions all but did-in the Kittredge version of commonsensical pedagogical science: Kittredge would patrol the classroom — marching, strolling — telling what words meant and what the characters meant. Then paperbacks grew a glut of glossarial aids on every page, so classroom lexicographic science went down the drain, and the man behind the lectern had to resort to other laboratory materials and processes. One odd kind of subversiveness is the sudden outburst of nonscientific passion that can occur in an otherwise ordered world. I remember an authority who for some days had dictated to us all the quarto-folio-theaters-players business on Ben Jonson and then at the end, in an unfilled minute, suddenly declared, with abandon, "I like Ben Jonson, don't you? I hope you do." We were as shaken as if he had suddenly committed an act of indecent exposure.

From "I like Jonson" it may seem just a step to the post-1940 aesthetic analysis: from registering a response to explicating the structural conditions that make the response what it has to be, from saying "This is the way it strikes me" to accounting for the way it strikes me (and hence should strike others); from saying "I like Shakespeare" to saying "I find Shakespeare interesting because of his use of wit and irony." In some quarters it will indeed be believed that all we have here is two different versions — an earlier hasty amateur one, and a later more earnest and fancy one — of opting for personal responsiveness rather than impersonal responsibility. But I mention this apparent resemblance, or even identity, of earlier gusto and later widespread practice (psst, the new criticism) only as limbering up for a jump from appearance to reality. For the fact is that this critical movement has not really been an antagonist of the scientific-object credo. On the contrary it has been rather a translation of it into a new idiom: the object — the play — is not so much formed, like a geological entity, by the external pressure of temporal, societal, and theatrical habits, or identified as an imperfect assemblage of fragments to be integrated by editional and typographic evidence, as it is constituted by inner elements whose organic functioning can be so accounted for as to reveal what the play is. The move is not so much from science to feeling as it is from natural to biological science. And it is not biological science of a postmortem kind, for here, Shakespeare is not a cadaver inviting dissection, but a live body in which we try to see processes. The functioning elements may be poetic, actional, personal, conceptual, thematic; one may be predominant, but all may be active.

Though, in my view, this latter organic idiom is a more penetrating and productive one than the geological-pressure concept and its modes, still there is a strong family resemblance between them: for both, the play is an object that, whatever the resistance offered by its complexities, is still solidly there to be placed and understood. The struggle of informed intelligence and imagination with mystery, constant but rarely triumphant, leads us to the gratifications that the play can afford.


So much, then, for this account of one pole of Shakespeareanism — a pole surrounded by a very large and diverse continent of Shakespeareans at work — where the Shakespeare play or poem is an object amenable to rational exploration and explanation and suitable for genetic, constitutional, or qualitative analysis. If so much diversity may be found here, what, then, is the opposite pole? To help identify it I hark back to my initial image of the instructor carrying the department record player off to class. This proposes a quite different treatment or use of the bard. But before we try to say what that is, we can note that the instrument-bearing instructor is only the electronic-equipment version of an earlier sound-effects type whom the profession has long known. I allude to the classroom actor who triumphs through a master's voice: less a taker of roles than a vocalist, to whom the usual tribute is "He reads so beautifully." What we get from him, in place of the dramatic object to be apprehended, is an aura of phonetic charm and acoustical seduction, an aural/oral (to borrow from science) hypnosis. Sometimes this laryngeal thespian will be a baritone of such resonance as to spread the benefits of his performance far beyond the immediate scene, especially if he is a devote of the open-door policy; on the other hand I once knew an open-door man who could be strangely intimidated by a passing colleague and who tended, under the collegial eye, to make a visibly sudden shift from sound to sense. The "great reader," I suppose, is passé, a casualty of the general decay of spellbinding ("elocution") in these states. But the function he performed — ministering to a kind of passive seductibility — is not dead: what was once done by the professor as vocalist or verse choir is now carried on by the professor as disc-jockey or, so to speak, as tapeworm. In place of live sound he offers recorded sound, the one-man cast gives way to the full company, the solo to the chorus, plugged into the wall or transistorized. The class, whether enthralled or asleep, need fear no more the heat of the questioning sun; the solar professor need have only a trace of electrical or mechanical talent. I once heard a colleague say, of this genial impresario, "He can't think of anything to say, so he plays records." Doubtless a naughty way of deflating a classroom performer who, in the eyes of the devoted, may be seen as a very pedagod. Human or pedagodlike, this provisioner of classroom goodies may insist, perhaps even without self-deception, that indeed he can think of something to say but that anything he might say is thin compared with the rich "total experience" of Shakespeare that he wants students to have. Well, why not? Shakespeare was meant to be heard rather than read (though even in Renaissance days, when hearing was more widespread than reading, stationers were never averse to rushing him into print), and to hear a decently spoken English may be desirable for ears corrupted by daily-life sound effects that pass for language. Profitable experiences surely.

But the question rarely asked about Shakespeare-by-ear is the question rarely asked about any proposal to get bright new materials into English studies. Someone says, "We ought to have a course in the black humor of the 1960s," or "We ought to have a course in English fiction from 1770 to 1800," or "We ought to have a course in the stereotyping of females by male novelists from i860 to 1890." The loud ought, apparently deriving fire-power from the passions of the speaker, is mistaken for a valid imperative, and it intimidates. So no one ever asks the indispensable question, "In place of what?" I know I must avoid plunging into dismay at the multiplicity of asseverated, undefended "oughts" which, brought into curricular life at an Asiatic birthrate, have made English studies into a chaos of unrelated and unintegratable options with which the customer can deal only by convenience, preconception, gambling, grapevine, guesswork, and dope sheets on the charitableness and credulity of the faculty emcees. Still this overall state of affairs is the context in which to glance at electronic delights in class. In place of what? Though we can add English courses ad infinitum, we cannot add hours to the Shakespeare course, and every hour that goes for records and tapes is taken away from orderly discussion. Of course, one might ask another question: how many tapes and records? Once a term? Manageable, perhaps. But this is a little bit like planning to have a cold only once a year. What is catching is not amenable to rational limitation.


Excerpted from Teaching Shakespeare by Walter Edens, Christopher Durer, Walter Eggers, Duncan Harris, Keith Hull. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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