Saturday, October 26, 2013
The Journey to RICHARD II (Part 9)
So ... 1985-86 academic year. Harmon Middle School. Aurora, Ohio. And I decided I was going to teach Shakespeare to all of my eighth graders. I had an assortment of reasons. For one thing, I'd been falling in love with the Bard--this after years of hating him (as earlier posts reveal). A surprise for me. But the more I read, the the more I learned, the more I saw? The more I wanted to read, learn see. And I'd realized by 1985, the twentieth year of my teaching career, that if I grew excited by something, that excitement often (not always) transferred to my students.
Another reason? I was starting to believe more firmly in the "cultural literacy" component of my job as an English teacher. I knew that part of my job--a big part--was introducing students to the best that had been thought and said and written. And who produced more of that than William Shakespeare? (This, by the way, is a principle I carried with me to the final day of my career. I tried always to teaching things that were of considerable importance in our cultural history.)
And--as I posted here the other day--having my own son in class that year had caused me to think even more than I had been about what I was doing every day. I know--I should have been thinking about this since 1966, when I started, and I was. But not in the focused way that I was now that my son was sitting there looking at me every day for 43 minutes.
As I also posted the other day, I decided to use The Taming of the Shrew--for a number of reasons. For one, it's a comedy, and I just couldn't see my students wrestling with Othello's demons or Hamlet's or Macbeth's or Lear's. Kids like to laugh (who doesn't?), so I made my first decision: comedy.
I picked Shrew, also, because it is an early work and does not have some of the complexities and darknesses of some of the later comedies. Also, I knew there was an excellent film of the play, Franco Zeffirelli's, the one (1967) featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Michael York, and some very fine Shakespearean actors. I had seen the film a few times and knew the kids would love it.
But there were also "literary" reasons to use it. The play employs all sorts of devices that Shakespeare uses elsewhere: people switching identities, people being duped by others, foolish servants, puns. I could teach about blank verse and other literary terms while we were going along. The play, for example, has a "frame story" involving a drunk named Christopher Sly. A lord--out hunting--finds Sly passed out and decides to play a trick on him: They will carry him to the lord's home, dress him up, put him to bed, and convince him when he wakes that he is a lord who has lost his mind. It works. And the new "lord," learning that some players have appeared, will see the performance of a play--The Taming of the Shrew. Most productions I've seen completely drop the Sly story (he appears only one other time in the text--and it's not at the end), but I have seen some, as well, with a bemused Sly sitting in a chair at Right or Left, watching the play right along with us!
Finally, many of the issues of the play, I thought, remained relevant (so true of so much of Shakespeare): the roles of men and women (and husbands and wives), sibling rivalry, single parents, the rivalry among men for a particular woman, the role of our parents in determining our love lives, how the young deceive their parents, the necessity for forgiveness (a biggie with the Bard), the choreography of love itself. And there's also a very Bardian flip at the end when Bianca, supposedly the sweet innocent sister, turns out to be something quite different. I knew that there was not a thing on that list that was irrelevant in 1985-1986--nearly 400 years after the Bard wrote the play.
I also knew that I had formidable obstacles to deal with--the pervasive notion that Shakespeare is "hard" and "boring," the students' unfamiliarity with the Elizabethan world, with Italian geography (the play has two settings: Padua and Verona), and, of course, with the language. I knew I would have to deal with all of them in some fashion before we could really engage the text.
NEXT TIME: So how did it go, that first attempt with Shrew?