You don’t read Shakespeare. Shakespeare reads YOU.

BH reading shakespeare

Whilst it sounds trite, I’m increasingly beginning to believe this.

Part of this comes from the Pony Tail Shakespeare project, I’m sure. With a gap of 400+ years now between the works and our readings, we’re constantly confronted with attitudes which are at a variance with ours.  Example?  This month it’s The Taming of the Shrew, with some ‘interesting’ ideas about marriage, domestic violence, and ‘men vs. women’.

Mostly, though, it comes from being a teacher of Shakespeare …

One of the most rewarding things about teaching English Lit. is that it encourages, perhaps requires, independent thinking – in a way that other subjects might not (of course I am NOT an expert in other subjects.  Some would say I’m not an expert in English Lit!).  So – and often to the confusion of students – I refuse to talk about a ‘right’ answer.  The ‘right’ answer is a personal response which you are plausibly and technically able to prove.

I’m going to quote, to this end, from the AQA exam board mark scheme:

“Examiners are encouraged to reward any valid interpretations.”

My emphasis there.

So, it’s a subject that encourages, no rewards, ideas.  A subject that gives you ‘more marks for your working out than the answer’ (another favourite slogan of mine.)  And Shakespeare is in many ways the apotheosis of this. 

Over the past week, I’ve marked quite a bit of Shakespeare – at this stage of the year, my workload includes:

  • Y12:  Revision of Richard III – exam 19 May(!);
  • Y11:  Revision of The Tempest – exam 22 May(!);
  • Y10: Teaching Macbeth – mock exam due 25 May; and
  • Y9:  Teaching Richard III – mock assessment at the end of term

I talk a lot in class about ‘what Shakespeare was trying to do’; ‘how Shakespeare tried to achieve this’; ‘why Shakespeare was writing this, in terms of context’; and ‘how audiences (contemporary to Shakespeare and modern too) might respond’.  I never – but this is creeping into several answers – talk about ‘what Shakespeare thought on this/that issue’.

If there’s one book which really foregrounds the idea that Shakespeare as a man is essentially unknowable, I think it’s probably Bill Bryson’s ‘Shakespeare’.  And this is the point.  Purposefully or not, Shakespeare’s views on any one subject are ambiguous at best.  No wonder we still study the plays.  Because they ask us to consider ideas, themes and moral dilemmas, rather than preaching to us.  They demand it, if we’re going to actively engage with the texts.  He really does, I think:

‘hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature’

And, when we respond, inside or outside of the classroom, we are applying our own filters in describing the reflection we see.  Thus, our responses to Shakespeare reveal who we are:  much like the lad, several years ago, in another town, and eternally anonymous, who exclaimed quite loudly in class that he felt it was OK for Miranda to reject Caliban over Ferdinand for purely superficial reasons, saying something along the lines of it being perfectly reasonable to reject a man’s advances if he was black and the girl was white … hopefully the intervening time has softened that stance!

So, yes, absolutely – we don’t read Shakespeare:  Shakespeare reads us. 

Wonderful, isn’t it?

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