Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “English”

Bard Bits: Shakespeare Is For Everyone? (That is the question…)

As an AP English teacher, Shakespeare is naturally part of the curriculum and it’s expected my students adore the Avon man as much as I do. Not usually the case. As for my regular sophomores? The groans when we approach Julius Caesar can discouraging. Yet, it is often in how Shakespeare is taught that makes a difference. This is a separate topic. The main topic is the assumption that Shakespeare is for everyone and they are going to like it. That’s like saying exercising is for everyone. It should be, but face it, not everyone embraces a push-up or a run around the block. Some like the idea of exercising and others have tried it, and many let others revel in it. So it goes with Shakespeare.

AUSTIN TICHENOR is the creator of The Shakespereance; co-artistic director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. He contributed a thought-provoking article about Shakespeare. Here is the gist of his rhetorical stance:

Is Shakespeare for everyone? Of course he is! Absolutely!

I just wish people would stop saying it.

In Shakespeare’s day, his plays — and plays by others, and theater generally — really were for everyone. All levels of society congregated to see and hear plays in performance, to share gossip and news, and to rub literal and metaphorical elbows. Not just a source for entertainment, Shakespeare’s theater was the internet of its day.

But beginning in the 19th century, theater (and opera and symphonies) became co-opted by the upper class who wanted to keep socially — often meaning ethnically and economically — “unacceptable” people out of the theater, turning what was originally popular culture into “high” culture and using the arts as a tool of status and exclusion.

Worse, as a by-product of imperialism, Shakespeare was imposed on non-English speakers in different countries, held up as the best playwright in the world with the understanding that only by learning his plays and accepting his greatness — and, by extension, the greatness of the English language and Anglo-European culture — could one become truly civilized.

So I get it: “Shakespeare is for everyone” is an important correction, a reminder that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be popular entertainments, designed to appeal to everyone from the groundlings to the nobility.

But I worry that “Shakespeare is for everyone” nowadays feels less like a promise and more like a threat; the implication being that if you don’t like him, there’s something wrong with you..

Because the truth is, Shakespeare isn’t for everyone, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that it is. Nothing is for everyone: Personally, I don’t like opera, baseball, or video games, and in London at the turn of the 17th century, there were tens of thousands of people who undoubtedly preferred to skip another one of Shakespeare’s epics and head to the bear-baiting pits instead.

So what’s the alternative? I prefer saying “Shakespeare is for anyone who wants him.” For many reasons (i.e., the comedies aren’t funny, the language is incomprehensible, the kings and their nobles are confusing, the references archaic), Shakespeare is demonstrably not for everyone. And that’s okay. But I’ll argue till my dying day that he can and should be made available to anyone who wants him, with many different entry points for people of all levels and interests, whether they be live productions, fascinating lectures, compelling museum exhibitions, excellent films and videos, or even, dare I suggest, pop-up books. One of the first steps in appreciating Shakespeare, it seems to me, is being honest about his output, for we can only truly appreciate his greatness by being discerning enough to recognize the parts that don’t measure up, and understanding that no matter what we do, he still won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Lost in Translation: Part Two–“The Play’s the Thing” or “How Now, Hamlet?”

Today we finished Hamlet and with the help Mel Gibson, David Tennant, and Danny DeVito I think my students understood (as Ben Jonson once said), “Shakespeare is not for an age, but for all time.”

Laurence Olivier is undoubtedly considered a master actor; however, his is not the version of choice when teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet to a current generation.  Sifting through various versions, and there are numerous, I decided Ahnold would suffice in keeping their attention.

Overall opinion is this is how Hamlet should have handled stuff when he got home from college.  On the other hand, you can see how short the show became when he went from inaction to a “Last Action Hero” (how many recognized the clip?)

Yeah, teaching Hamlet, a four-hour play of a college kid who doesn’t know how to handle his dysfunctional family( one that would rival any modern reality television program) to a roomful of teenagers is a challenge.  Don’t get me wrong– Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.  My problem is how to get my students who thrive on the likes of 300 and Aliens and Cowboys as entertainment to appreciate the play as much as I do, or at least see the reason why it is still relevant for today, even though it is about 200 hundred years old.  So I gave it over to a master teacher to introduce my students to the likes of  the Elsinore gang.

Actually, the movie did help my students understand Hamlet better.  They saw how it improved the lives of the DDs, and comprehended that Shakespeare is a great way to sharpen critical thinking skills.  They may never read another Shakespeare play in their lives, yet, as I always I tell my students, if they can comprehend Old English they can comprehend anything they come across, from a diesel engine manual to putting together their new barbeue.

As we traveled through the emotions, intrigue, and the nitty-gritty of family life gone wrong, my students saw that the interests of the Elizabethan theater crowed wasn’t too much different from today: sex, violence, love and death.

Sometimes only a little is lost in translation.

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