Telling stories ABOUT stories seems to be my stock-in-trade when it comes to teaching Shakespeare.
Unusually, I’m going to start with the quotation of the week, from Stephen Greenblatt, rather than work towards it:
Humans cannot live without stories. We surround ourselves with them; we make them up in our sleep; we tell them to our children; we pay to have them told to us. Some of us create them professionally. And a few of us – myself included – spend our entire adult lives trying to understand their beauty, power, and influence. [a]
You probably know my taste for puerile humour by now.
This joke (and there are many versions of it knocking around) has been a favourite since before I got married, a good twenty years ago. You can imagine how well it went down, the first time I used it on my (rather fierce) ex-mother-in-law. I received what we might call an ‘old-fashioned look’, with added chilli. Nowadays, poking fun at someone’s verbosity is also self-referential, because, yes, I unashamedly like to talk! In my defence, it’s because I ‘live’ in 1592.
Sure, it’s only a week away from school, and I ought to be able to control myself. Many of you will also have a handle on the state of my bookshelves – I have no space for these, and yet. Half-terms are an opportunity to catch breath in more ways than one.
Some would suggest I oughtn’t to have bought anything; I like to think of this as a fairly restrained Book Haul, all sourced from the second hand bookshop about 300 yards from ‘her place’. So, what and why …
Maybe it’s growing up in the 70s, but I enjoy an infantile dirty joke as much, if not more, than the next fellow. They don’t always work in the plays, or perhaps audiences are now vastly more sophisticated: I can imagine that even the weakest ones would have had them rolling in the aisles at The Globe.
This week, I decided to work my favourite Shakespearean knob-gag … ooh err!
Richard II = Edward II = Prospero = Duke Vincentio = Henry VI = every useless boss you have ever worked for,
Richard II appears on my reading list for Edward II each year. It’s not just me – this is what Jonathan Bate, who I recently gushed about, has to say:
Richard II’s relationship to Edward II is so obvious that it is not very interesting. The structure of the two plays is identical: the King is surrounded by flatterers and pitted against an assemblage of nobles with vested interests of their own, then isolated and uncrowned, stripped of his royal identity, thus forced to discover his inner self by means of a supple, reflective soliloquy delivered whilst humiliatingly in prison. In each play the Queen is pushed to the margins in part because of the king’s homoerotic leanings. Marlowe is bolder than Shakespeare in his explicit portrayal of the homosexuality and his neat device of joining the Queen with the rebels in revenge. [a]
It should be easy to find something in Richard which’ll look familiar to my Edward students, right? Let’s have a go …
Studying a History play? Look for the playwright’s sources …
My Marxist critical inclinations – that a text can’t be read in isolation from the contextual crucible that created it – get pretty much free reign when it comes to teaching Edward II. For the OCR A Level course, my students need to compare Marlowe’s drama to Tennyson‘s monodrama, ‘Maud‘ and, get this, 50% of the mark is context (that’s AO3, troops).
What, exactly, is context? I’d suggest that for both texts, maybe all texts, context is usually a mix of two things: