Saturday, September 27, 2008

Appreciating the Bard

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! O you hard hearts ... ~ William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

I was watching Looking for Richard last night. This movie was done as a labor of love by Al Pacino, in part to show how actors work, in part as an homage to William Shakespeare. In particular, it's about what may be Shakespeare's most complex play, Richard III. Personally, this is one of my favorite Shakespearean works, because Richard is so absolutely evil, and there's something very fascinating about such people.

In the course of the film, Pacino talks to some folks on the street about how they like Shakespeare. The short answer is that, at least of those shown in the film, they mostly don't. Shakespeare is boring, and the Elizabethan-style language is too difficult to understand, so why bother?

Curiously, in the last few days, I happened to be talking to a couple of reasonably intelligent fellows who echoed much the same thoughts. I found this to be depressing, because I'm always depressed when people shut out something wonderful from their lives.

Now I don't love everything Shakespeare ever wrote. I'm not a pure poetry buff, so the sonnets do little for me. Also, I'm not that crazy about the comedies, because how much mistaken identity and women disguised as men can anyone take.

Yes, I know it was convenient to do that sort of thing in Shakespeare's time, since many women's roles were played by men. It's still a plot device that I've never cared for, from Shakespeare or anyone else.

Furthermore, some of Shakespeare's plays really are dull. Coriolanus will put anyone to sleep. No playwright has ever written nothing but great work. But when Shakespeare was on, boy was he on. Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, some of the other historical plays (like Julius Caesar and Henry V), and Othello (with perhaps the nastiest villain of them all, Iago) all capture my attention.

Well, Hamlet does aggravate me a little. I mean, the ghost of your father tells you he was murdered by his brother, who has usurped the throne you should have gotten, and it takes you forever to decide to do anything about it? Please. Sir Lawrence Olivier put it best in the introduction to his movie adaptation of the play: "This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind."

I think there a couple of reasons why people don't like Shakespeare and other classics. First, people are lazy. They don't want to take the time to understand a story that doesn't involve copious amounts of explosions and special effects. They don't want to read books; they want those single page pithy paragraphs found on the web. The pity is that they don't realize how much they're cheating themselves.

The other reason people don't want to read or watch the classics is the way they were introduced to them. The way literature is taught by most teachers is almost criminal. Perhaps it's changed since the stone age when I went to high school, but, given the reactions I mentioned above, I doubt it has. And, it's because of this teaching that people don't realize what they're missing.

The problem is that students can't simply read and enjoy the work. The teacher emphasizes the "analysis" of the story, pounding on the symbolism to be found (whether it's there or not), expounding on the overarching cosmic themes until the average student is so sick of the work, they'll never look at it again. Worst of all, the teacher gives little or no leeway on the analysis, providing the "right" answers, which the student had better parrot back if he or she wants to get a good grade.

Now, not every teacher is like that. When I was in high school, I was fortunate to have a teacher in my junior year who left all the analysis to us. If you could justify what you thought, that was good enough for him, whether it was what conventional teacher wisdom held or not. Unfortunately, my teacher during my sophomore and senior years felt very differently. During class discussions, we got our say, all right, but if what we said wasn't what she had in her notes, we were told to try again. Come test time, you had better have her notes memorized. If she said it was important, it didn't matter what the student thought.

My sophomore year we read Moby Dick. By the time we were done plowing through the book and answering the standard set of work questions she gave us, the joy of Melville's story was gone. A couple of years ago, I sat down and read it for the first time in forty years. You know something? That is a great story! I couldn't put it down.

I've reread a number of classics over the years, finding out just how much I missed when teachers over-taught us.

Shakespeare poses an even thornier problem. Let's face it, Elizabethan English isn't what we're used to. Now, if you dropped an Elizabethan person into a modern theater to watch, say, a Neil Simon play, they'd have exactly the same problem, because modern English usage would be as confusing to him as his Elizabethan argot is to us. So, a here's a student trying to make sense of, say, Hamlet, and he's trying to figure out the symbolism of the ghost and analyze the metric pattern and wondering who the hell this Gonzago character is and what he has to do with the King (the live one, not the ghost; or is it the other way around?). Oh, and in class, he's trying to figure out which of these is going to be important for the exam.

How's about we change our methodology? For starters, before the class reads the first line of Act I, Scene I, they should be given a reasonably detailed summary of what the story is about. If some historical background is needed, that should be provided, too. For example, Richard III becomes a little less confusing if you know about the War of the Roses. It's also a little easier to understand if you realize that the characters are referred to variously by first name and by title. For example, Richard is also Gloucester, because he is Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Clarence is George, Duke of Clarence (which explains a whole lot about why Edward throws him in the Tower to begin with).

The biggest advantage, though, to telling the story is that students can find out just how interesting the plot is.

Once you know the story, it's easier to parse out the Elizabethan lingo. Further, as Mr. Pacino points out in Looking for Richard, you don't have to understand every word. It only matters that you get the gist of what they're seeing. Then, in class, discuss what's happening in the story as the students read it. And, if you must talk about techniques like all that iambic pentameter, just say so. It is not necessary to make them parse sections of the play. Better to spend the time in class discussing key passages and the relationships and motivations of the characters. Finally, when the test rolls around, teacher, remember, there are no absolute correct interpretations in literature.

Who knows? Some of those students might find that they actually like Shakespeare. Wouldn't that be better than their knowing the symbolic significance of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern?

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