“this it is, when men are ruled by women” – or at least by their groins …
Although I’m never going to end up on stage, I often compare teaching to acting.
Non-teachers, think for a second: up to six performances a day, with audiences who require subtly different characterisations from you. (My timetable goes from Y12 to Y7 without interval on a Friday afternoon, for instance). That plus the teacher persona you can only shrug off when you’re safely indoors (because even walking down the street you end up intervening when you see pupils in uniform mucking about). To say nothing of the range of people you have to be – in five minute chunks – at Parents’ Evenings …
No wonder I’m perpetually exhausted.
But if I were asked to play a Shakespearean role, what would be my top three choices?
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]
Act III places us at the game table, jostling Shakespeare for a view of the goings-on in that VERY busy wood …
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III: with apologies to Albert Einstein 
On reflection, it seems odd that as a child experiencing / undergoing / suffering a Catholic education, once a year, on our ‘Saint’s Day’ – St Martin de Porres: 03 November – we were treated to a film in the school hall which was invariably a Ray Harryhausen epic.
Not that I want to complain. I loved them, and still do.
They fostered an appetite for the ancient world – for Perseus, Theseus, Hercules, Jason … any number of heroes and their associated monsters. And, like the Book of Genesis, they’ve proved to be invaluable in teaching Literature.
My life has been filled with obsessions, and for reasons too complex to go into here, about twenty-five years ago, one of them was Scottish history. With no knowledge ever completely wasted, it’s contributed to where and who I am today, struggling with this play, and especially to find any kind of empathy with its male characters.
Put simply, if I had a daughter, none of these men would be son-in-law material …
It doesn’t get much more influential than the ‘good book’ in English Literature …
[Second in a series of articles aimed at our ‘A Level’ students, addressing gaps in their general and literary knowledge. Read the previous article, On Dante’s Inferno, here]
‘Good morning [big smile]!
In the Christmas season, who do you think is the greatest gift-giver of them all?’
(this happened to me a few weeks back)
No – don’t slam the door !I’m genuinely not here to convert you.But if there’s just one text that has gifted the most sources of inspiration and allusion to our Western literary tradition, it’s probably the Old Testament Book of Genesis.Estimates vary, but its very strong messages on obedience and patriarchy have been influencing society for about 3,000 years.
This would be the book to choose alongside Shakespeare’s Complete Works when looking for the most influential literary works.
Claiming ‘Shakespeare was this or that’, or worse, ‘Shakespeare did not write the plays’, does NOT entitle you to a mic-drop. It just shows your intellectual bankruptcy …
I’ve written elsewhere about the Rally of Revenge – about my unease that once you abandon all faith in ‘due process‘ or ‘justice‘ (either earthly or divine); once you understand that inequality is endemic, you have nothing left to lose – if you are already losing – so keep raising the stakes until someone has to leave the game. If it’s uncomfortable, perhaps it’s also sometimes necessary, to affect change of a fundamentally broken system. You might not see the benefits yourself. Hey, if you have to leave the game, then so be it: losing can become preferable to playing along, eventually.
There are always other games, other paths, whilst we are still alive – experience has taught me that, even if Shakespeare hasn’t.
And that’s where I find myself, professionally, this weekend. Approaching change, but ready for it, and maybe, in some ways, relieved that an unhappy stasis has broken. There are always other games.
There is a third way – for revenge – I’ve not written about before. The poet George Herbert(1593-1633) suggested that:
Living well is the best revenge.
And I’ll embrace and adapt that, in a ‘standing on the shoulders of giants‘ sense.
Living well equals happiness. LAUGHTER is the best revenge.
Today, I intend to laugh at someone. Long, and hard.
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?’
Secular authorities had (and still have) every investment in discouraging revenge. If citizens perceive that the law no longer serves them, then we get the kind of situation that Francis Bacon famously warned of:
‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’
And this is a point that Jonathan Bate develops, quoting Fredson Bowers:
Private action undermines the authority of the state:Elizabethan law felt itself capable of meting out justice to murderers, and therefore punished an avenger who took justice into his own hands just as heavily as the original murderer.The authorities, conscious of the Elizabethan inheritance of private justice from earlier ages, recognised that their own times still held the possibilities of serious turmoil; and the were determined that private revenge should not unleash a general disrespect for law.
Act IV however adds the dimension of the breakdown of DIVINE justice to the individual’s decision to subvert the legal process.
Is it me, or does the guy in the picture look like a young James Comey?
Henry VI part III: act V
So, very belatedly, we reach the end of the road for Henry VI, and of history plays for a short while.I’m sad to say goodbye.The comedies aren’t generally my favourites, and these three HVI plays have been ones I’ve unjustly avoided until now.It’s been a brilliant rollercoaster ride.
Last time round, I said there could only be one, and finally, mercifully, someone does for Henry.And we all know who that someone is, right?Only one man for the job …