I Thought Shakespeare Was Just for Literature Buffs

B picProbably the worst thing to do to Shakespeare is just to read his plays in the English of 400 years ago. I doubt he would call that “pleasure in learning” in the fullest sense. If you’re a linguist, it might be pleasure, but for the general reader of today, it might be best to see the bard’s plays as a fixed text from which to adapt. But first consider the surprising statement of my grad school Shakespeare professor, Dr. Nancy Hancock, who said that in Shakespeare’s day people said, “Let’s go hear a play.” Plays were considered an aural experience.

Shakespeare was quite a teacher as well as a writer. He aimed to reach everybody. It might be that he thought like movie makers of today: “Let’s aim for universal appeal.” Thus, rather than market only to the educated, Shakespeare wrote to entertain everybody. He took familiar stories from history and adapted them into dramas that fell into the categories of comedies, histories, and tragedies. Using lots of imagination and plenty of humor in the form of jesters and fools with pointed wit and riddles, Shakespeare had something for every social class, and England was definitely a class society.

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

He did this by an array of characters so rich and full that everyone could identify plenty enough to be entertained and instructed. By instructing, however, the bard did not resort to what is overt and lecture-like in format. Rather, he showed one slice of life after another and let the characters speak for themselves—leaving audiences to bandy their interpretations with each other. It might be impossible to find Shakespeare’s own philosophy or doctrine because his themes are so universal. That’s just it: who doesn’t know what ambition is, or lust or greed or romance. Who doesn’t know what love is, or hate, or intrigue and retaliation.

In college, I remember my Shakespeare class; it met at 8:00 AM class and was based on reading the plays. I’m sure the lecturer did his best to bring the plays to life, but I’m equally sure that Cliffs Notes got quite a workout. That’s sad. Nothing is more unlike a book than a set of generic study notes—all of the story with none of the flavor. This isn’t to bunk reading the plays; it’s more to suggest taking in Shakespeare on a performance level, with the written text as part of the experience, not the whole of it.

Ethan Hawke at a screening for "What Does...

When a play has difficult language, even with adaptation, it will be challenging to see it on stage, and so it can help to read the text beforehand. But today, many stage adaptations and films are accessible even to a viewer who doesn’t want to take two to four hours to read the play first. This doesn’t mean that modern adaptations both on stage and in film are bastardizations; they are genuine ways to present an ancient and difficult text and make part or all of it live in a new medium.

There’s still plenty of room for the purist as well. I remember going to the Austin Peay library several times with my book and checking out a video of a stage production. I would read, listen, and watch. It was a powerful experience to have the brain working in three ways simultaneously. Filled is the word that came to mind.

Yet I also enjoy film adaptations and have reveled in Hamlet performed by Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, and Kenneth Branagh. These four film versions could not be more different for being the same play and using Shakespeare’s language. The 2000 Ethan Hawke version is even set in New York City, with Bill Murray as Polonius (not a comedic role however, though Polonius is a buffoon at times in his blustering ways) and Julia Stiles as an edgy Ophelia.

'The Comedy of Errors' by William Shakespeare

‘The Comedy of Errors’ by William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

Taking a fixed text, yet adapting it to different mediums and senses, as well as changing the time period and cultural setting from Shakespeare’s choice, is certainly fair play. That’s exactly what Shakespeare himself did with old stories, so he would find it appealing that in his train, others would do the same with his works. It is engaging to take a work of art and meld it into offshoot art. Think of how many chicken recipes there are, yet chicken is chicken. Shakespeare will remain Shakespeare as well—with all the pleasure of sight, sound, text, and imaginative adaptation.

pleasureteam note: Kudos to Brian for providing an illustration of how sensory pleasure, surprise, and humor are all part of Shakespeare’s repertoire.  Brian has used all these to help his students feel part of a group that meets an achievable challenge and ultimately owns something of value

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“So Much Depends on a Red Wheelbarrow”: an Interview with Dr. Kristin Wilson

We had the pleasure of spending some time with Dr. Kristin Wilson earlier this week, chatting with her about aspects of pleasure that she has used in teaching her classes in composition and literature.  It seemed that no matter where the discussion roamed, we kept circling back to poetry.  Here are some excerpts:

pleasureteam: How did you help your students to feel a part of the group?

KW: There’s this poem, “My Papa’s Waltz“, and you can either read the poem as a father abusing his young child, or as a father dancing with his young child. We would read it silently, and then they would write to some little prompts on a piece of paper.  Then they would pass and read everybody’s prompts….nobody could talk yet.  People would be quite surprised, either way, whichever way they read it, that the others read it the other way.  Then they would discuss the poetry, the way they read it.

pleasureteam: What about sensory pleasure? Because you don’t teach a hands-on kind of class? You can’t touch it, taste it, smell it?

KW: No, but when you teach writing, especially, you always say ‘sight, touch, sound, taste, smell.’ So whatever you’re writing, you want to engage the senses.  Even if you’re writing an argumentation paper, you want to be thinking about the senses. If you’re writing an essay, how much better is it if you engage the senses?  In my poetry class, there’s a museum in downtown St. Louis, City Museum, where all the exhibits are made of trash.  We would visit that museum, and we would find places where people would sit and take a look at what’s there….it’s almost like a kids’ jungle gym.  The poetry students would go out there and write poems based on what they saw.  It was surprising what they came up with, based on what they saw.

pleasureteam: You said that they were surprised about what other members saw in “Papa’s Waltz.”  Do they find anything surprising about your teaching style?  For instance, some people have a bias against poetry.

KW: If you’re teaching a literature class, people always have biases against poetry.  Some people think all poetry should rhyme.  But what they’re most convinced of is that they won’t like it.  So at the end of the semester if you can convince them that they actually do like poetry, well, you’ve done your job. (Laughs.)

pleasureteam:  The surprise is often that they like what you’re serving.

KW: We think that it’s about acquiring knowledge or comprehension or something like that.  But really the whole work of education is convincing people about things…being persuasive. The other thing that they’re often surprised about in literature is how complex it is.  Some students, especially in an introductory lit course, have just never read anything very complex.  So if you read an extended metaphor, they’re just surprised about how complex language can be…even language that they’re familiar with, like the lyrics to a song.  They’re surprised how complex those lyrics are, because they’ve never really analyzed or thought about them.

When I taught composition class, which was my bread-and-butter class for years, I would tell the students to write about something they need to write about.  What is it you need to write about, you need to capture this for all time? Lots of people who didn’t think they could write were surprised when they wrote something really well, when they wrote what they were thinking or believing.

pleasureteam: How do you persuade your students that what they are learning is valuable?

KW: In the lit classes, they always come in thinking it’s not valuable. For literature, in particular, they have to see themselves in a character. As soon as they find a character that they can identify with, it’s all over…you’ve got ’em hooked.

pleasureteam: In a typical community college class, where we have such a diverse population, how do you choose something that appeals to everyone?

KW: Lots of people would disagree with me…LOTS of people…but I think it’s poetry.  Poetry is little tiny ideas that everybody feels.  So “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater, beside the white chickens.” So then everybody says, “I don’t know what that means.”

And then you get underneath it, and you start talking about it, and you talk about William Carlos Williams approach to poetry, which is “no ideas but in things, no ideas but in things.”  And it starts to resonate  for absolutely everyone, that approach to poetry, and they focus on the red wheelbarrow…’Can you see the red wheelbarrow? Can you see the white chickens?’

So I use poetry in developmental reading really quite a lot because I think it brings people together. I love teaching developmental reading…I don’t get to do it much anymore…but I always bring in lyrics, usually one country music song and one rap, different genres, so you get everybody.

pleasureteam: So what kind of value is it? Is it the value of understanding, or the value of seeing themselves as part of mankind with a capital “M”? What is the value that they take away from that experience?

KW: I think it’s seeing the self in language that’s produced by other. So then language takes on significance because I can find myself in this other language, and you just complicate the language.  And the very act of reading, even if you’re sitting alone, becomes a community act.

pleasureteam note: Dr. Wilson is Chief Academic Officer at Hopkinsville Community College. Our conversation with her touched on several other aspects of pleasure in learning which will be featured in a later post.

Click here to see:  William Carlos Williams reads “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

Image of wheelbarrows By Jared and Corin (originally posted to Flickr as 2001080355_G) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons