Sooner or later, it’s perhaps inevitable that readers of The Merchant of Venice confront one question:is this an anti-Semitic play?In fact, lots of people seem to have a view without having seen or read the play.
‘Why would I bother watching Titanic, when I know how it ends?’ Silence …
Ponytail Shakespeare read-through. Romeo and Juliet: Prologue
As a trainee, I remember ‘inheriting’ R&J from the usual teacher on placements. Twice. And I vividly remember teaching the Prologue to a top set of smart, welcoming, wonderful students.
This was the class that christened Romeo the ‘pervy monkey boy‘ after watching Zeffirelli‘s interpretation of the balcony scene. Thanks, Hannah – I will never forget that. They’re also the bunch that did the ‘Mean Girls‘ recreation of Act III, scene v. They made ‘fetch’ happen! So much for ‘Two households, both alike in dignity‘ …
Despite the brilliant memories, I wonder if it’s significant that I have never, since, opted to teach the play, now that I am largely in charge of my own destiny? And for PTS purposes, what can we, can I, pull out of these fourteen lines that hasn’t been said before over the last 400-years?
“Let’s leave politics out of Shakespeare” … Hello? Hello? Anybody in there?
If I had a pound for each time I was challenged, ‘What’s Shakespeare got to do with me?‘, this blog would have more bells and whistles on it, as well as many more posts to reflect not having to work for a living.
This week’s post was prompted in part by reading somewhere in my recent internet travels, the notion of ‘keeping politics out of Shakespeare.’ That plus a ‘setting the world to rights‘ drinking session which was actively, intensely political, and which was also chock-full of Shakespearean dilemmas and situations.
It’s a wonder Will didn’t end up in prison, when you think about it …
This week’s quotation is from Germaine Greer, Shakespeare (Past Masters series), (Oxford: OUP, 1986), p.75
Classroom experience tells me that [massive generalization] today’s students are disinclined to think for themselves [/massive generalization]. It’s part of the resistance to Shakespeare that seems to be coded into some pupils’ DNA (and another day I might talk about the ‘generational’ thing), but we see it with other texts. A while back, in Manchester, I taught the short film ‘The Virus’ – which I personally think is excellent:
– but it was met with howls of anger (only slight exaggeration) from students who couldn’t work out what had happened, why, and what might happen next. Watch the film, if you have under ten minutes, and then ask yourself if the main character is alive or dead at the end. Then, ask yourself why or how the answer couldn’t be obvious to 14/15 year-olds. This happened with TWO classes. I wasn’t just taken aback: I was worried. Not least because they thought it was ‘rubbish‘ because they couldn’t figure it out.
To be fair, this probably isn’t new – had my students been alive at the time, and in possession of the attention span required to read it, they would have been part of the contemporary outcry over the ending to Great Expectations. But Dickens‘ audience wanted their theories confirmed or refuted. In 2018, it just seems endemic that people have no theories. They just want to be told what to think … and that scares me.
Should we pay more attention to James I before he became King of England?
Thomas Cogswell, James 1: The Phoenix King (Penguin Monarchs series), (Allen Lane: London, 2017)
Studying or teaching Shakespeare’s plays, the figure of Elizabeth looms in the background, like the spectre at the feast.
We see it in the ever-present censorship, in the light of the Treasons Acts in 1571 and 1581, outlawing public discussion of the succession. Or, more positively, in the ‘Gloriana’ cult that produced works like Spenser‘s The Faerie Queen, and flattering nods to Elizabeth wherever you look – like links between her and Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We see it in her discomfort with comparisons to Richard II, and the propagandic lionization of Henry VII.
Reading Cogswell‘s short, sympathetic biography has made me reassess the extent to which we / I ignore James until the succession question becomes absolutely critical.
This article was written for a forthcoming in-house newsletter/magazine. First, hopefully, in a series of articles (Cultural Capital) about influential, dare I say essential works that our students need to get under their belts. I set myself a STRICT word-count of 750, including quotations but excluding titles and references, tried to avoid being too professorial, and I’ve prioritised other texts related to what I’ll be teaching as part of the OCR A Level Engish Literature course. If I’m spared 😉
Inferno is a valuablesource of AO1 and AO3, people. This won’t replace you reading the original, but it might at least persuade you to give it a go.
Next up? James I‘s Daemonologie, Machiavelli‘s The Prince or The Book of Genesis: open to suggestions …
[…] Midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself searching
Through a wood, the right way blurred and lost.
I know the feeling. More importantly, so begins Dante’s Inferno, the sexiest-titled poem no-one’s read.Perhaps only at a certain age do you start asking Really Big Questions:‘What am I doing with my life?What’s the point?What’s left?’Tennyson’s like a dog with a bone on this.Ponytail Shakespeare readers – you’re fed up of hearing this sort of thing from me.
The most important question, though, is surely ‘what’s next?’
WE CANNOT, MUST NOT, WIPE ART WITH ANTI-BACTERIAL WIPES BEFORE ALLOWING THE NEXT GENERATION TO HANDLE IT …
I took this picture – from King Lear – at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival back in 2012. I often show it to pupils who try to tell me that Shakespeare is ‘boring‘. Or indeed I give them some of the plot details from Titus Andronicus that have caused such concern of late …
It’s taken me a little while to allow this one to sink in to the extent that it became a ‘crime’, but in the Dock, ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, I give you no less than the English Faculty of Cambridge University (or at least some members of that august institution) …