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?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Updating Clue

He would make a lovely corpse. ~ Charles Dickens

Is nothing sacred? Hasbro, which purchased Parker Brothers a while back, has decided that the venerable old board game, Clue, needs updating. Mr. Boddy still gets offed at the mansion, but now it's during a posh affair rather than a sedate dinner party. The mansion now has a spa, a theater and a guest house. Presumably, "modern" players wouldn't know what a conservatory and, heaven forbid, a library are.

What's worse is what's been done to the characters. Colonel Mustard is now Jack Mustard, a former football player. Professor Plum is now a video-game designer. No library, no professor: What does that tell us about the opinion "modern" players have about intellectual pursuits? Even the cook has been replaced by a child movie star.

Apparently, "modern" players don't understand that someone who lives in a mansion might have to have hired help.

Even the weapons have changed. Evidently, the lead pipe wasn't eco-friendly, so it's been replaced by a trophy, an ax, and a baseball bat. The "modern audience" likes more variety in its mayhem. Perhaps these new "hip" players are expecting to actually see the murder acted out? I mean, dead is dead. How many different ways do you need to have available to kill the poor guy.

Also, the revolver is now a "pistol", for reasons that are completely unclear to me. I guess the vocabulary of "modern" players has gotten so narrow that "revolver" is too archaic. I'm surprised they didn't just use "gun." Or "9 mm Glock", which everybody who watches CSI would understand.

However, it could have been even worse. Our cracked--er--crack reporting staff here at Gog's Blog (pat. pending) have uncovered a top secret internal Hasbro memo that listed some other ideas that the marketing brains considered but mercifully decided to leave out.

  • If you make an incorrect accusation, the person you accuse could sue you for defamation. On the other hand, you could file a civil suit against the person you falsely accused for "negligent responsibility" in the murder. Discarded because the game would go on for ten years.
  • Set the game in Los Angeles. Discarded because to set the game in the last time period the LA DA actually convicted anyone in a high-profile murder, the weapons would have had to have been a musket, a tomahawk, a rock, a bowie knife, and a bow and arrow.
  • You could take DNA samples of someone you suspected. Discarded because everyone would have to put a blood smear on their character card
  • Give Mr. Boddy a background as a lawyer or a an oil company exec. Discarded nobody would have cared who did it.
  • Discarded alternative weapons: AK-47 (clashes with formal wear), bazooka (won't fit into the female characters' purses), various pharmaceutical products that have "causes occasional death" as a side effect (Hasbro didn't want to get sued).
  • Characters would all have "Facebook" pages. Discarded because idiot murderer would post that they did it with the trophy in the spa on their own page.
  • A new character was going to be added to make up for the loss of the cook: A butler. Discarded because everyone knows the butler did it (sorry).
Personally, I'd have gone with the bazooka thing.