Friday, July 4, 2008

Reading Shakespeare and Getting Ready

I recently returned from a week away, where I spent much of the time reading Shakespare and preparing for my summer institute at the Shakespeare Folger Library. The program focuses on four plays - The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear, Richard III, and Much Ado About Nothing.

I am no Shakespare expert. I know Romeo and Juliet like the back of my hand, and have taught Macbeth and Othello and thus know them pretty well, but otherwise my exposure to him has been college, and too scant at that. My alma mater did not require a Shakespeare course, so I think I just read some other ones as part of other courses - Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Tempest. There might have been a couple more, but those are the ones I really remember.

In general, even though I've read less than ten of his plays, I've still formed strong opinions of him. I love his tragedies, like Macbeth, which amazed me as a 10th grader and was just as rich when I taught it a couple of years ago, or Romeo and Juliet, which, despite straining for credibility at times, still manages to give us some fascinating secondary characters and beautiful poetry. Still, I think we over-emphasize him a bit in English education (why do our students, say, read three or more Shakespeare plays throughout their four years, but no Hemingway, no Cather, no Joyce, for example?). And, in general, I've always hated his comedies. Not hate them, no, that's too strong of a word. I just think they're overrated and sitcomish.

Still, despite this, I expected to like Taming of the Shrew, which I've seen at Stratford (years ago, though, before my political mind was formed, and I probably didn't understand it much), and, yes, I admit I liked the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. It seemed like the play would be light and funny and it was - to a point. However, I can't say I much cared for the play overall. In fact, I pretty much hated The Taming of the Shrew. Frankly, I couldn't believe how mean and sexist the play was. Now there were a few chuckles here and there, but, by the end, I felt a little bit dirty for having laughed during it at all. The loss of Kate's spirit and that speech she makes at the end... wow, it's just really sad and mean in spirit. I did a little reading about it afterwards, and it made me feel a little bit better that it was about the first thing that Shakespeare wrote, and that it was criticized by even his contemporary audiences for its sexism. I will be really interested in how the program approaches this text, and will be sure to keep an open mind about it.

But, wow, I sure did love King Lear, which I'd put right alongside Macbeth and Hamlet as amongst my favorites. It was this play where I re-learned some tricks I taught myself in college for reading Shakespeare, and try to tell my students - read it aloud, really picture the stage blocking in my head, view the lines by sentences, use the notes only to clear up questions and not as a starting point. I really, really loved it. I had vague notions of what the play was about - I saw that modernized Jessica Lange movie a few years back, and I have a colleague who references it fairly often - but now know for sure.

I'm going to really push to teach King Lear this year to my IB Juniors. The curriculum is a big negotation between myself and my colleague. So far, we have agreed on two texts: Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle and Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I think it might be interesting to construct the "Free Choice" section of our curriculum around the idea of descending into madness, with Lear and The White Boy Shuffle as two of the texts.

I've got two more to read before the end of the weekend. The program didn't send Richard III to us as they did the others; there was a note that the shipment didn't come in on time. With no further instructions, I just decided to run out and buy it on my own, though I'm not sure of the right version (the program varies the versions so we learn different editions), so I'll probably do that last just in case we get it in the mail on Saturday.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

Maybe without Shakespeare's comedies we'd have no sitcoms. Some might think that a good thing. But "he" (whoever he or she was) was a master at puns.