It’s not exactly a secret that I’m obsessed with Shakespeare. I mean, I couldn’t really avoid it, given that I was named after one of his characters (albeit one of the more boring ones). For as long as I can remember, my parents have encouraged my love of literature. More importantly, however, they’ve always brought me to plays, and particularly to Shakespeare plays.
I remember my first encounter with Shakespeare. We were on vacation in London, and my parents took me to see a production of Hamlet. Apparently, when the play was over, I wouldn’t stop asking my mom about whether or not Hamlet’s mother really loved him. She tells me I was absolutely fixated on this issue. I like to think of that as seven-year-old Miranda’s first great moment of textual criticism, but I also like to think that mermaids are real and I’m always right, so what I like to think is maybe not always trustworthy.
I don’t think I’ve seen another live production of Hamlet since then, but I’ve made up for it with a whole host of other plays. After all, with Shakespeare, there isn’t exactly a lack of them. Some of my especial favorite Shakespeare encounters included seeing Mandy Patinkin (that’s Inigo Montoya to all you Princess Bride fans) playing my onstage father in The Tempest, and having my dad clap his hand over my innocent young eyes as Ian McKellen tore off all his clothes during Lear’s mad scene on the heath.
Nothing, however, will quite top the Comedy of Errors before the Comedy of Errors. We had tickets to see a production in a tiny little theatre above an old courthouse in Hell’s Kitchen (coincidentally, the same theatre company that gave Robert DeNiro his first big role), but unfortunately we chose those tickets for a day where it seemed that every major street and avenue in New York had been shut down for some sort of parade. By the time three or four “Our Lady of Guadalupe” images had marched past us, my dad had gotten thoroughly fed up and dubbed the day “The Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Traffic Jams”. The usual bickering and complaining lasted right up until we finally got to our seats in the theatre, halfway through Act 2. From then on, we were too transfixed by the sheer acting genius of one of the two Antipholuses (Antipholi?) to continue the bickering.
From the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival to the Ithaca Shakespeare Company, I’ve never seen a production I didn’t enjoy. I’ve seen an all-male cast perform Twelfth Night from onstage seats (and as a result, been within six inches of Stephen Fry himself), I’ve gone to an old aircraft hangar-turned-theatre in Ithaca to watch the local production of Henry V (with some of the best fight choreography I’ve ever seen, hands-down), and I’ve seen Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston playing Scotland’s most famous homicidal maniacs. For that production, they turned the Park Avenue Armory into the Scottish highlands (mist, moss, and standing stones all included). I’ve even been sprayed with fake blood during a particularly gory production of Richard III (with Martin Freeman playing the hunchbacked monarch).
I’m always willing to wait on line for six hours for tickets to Love’s Labour’s Lost, or to sprint across campus with a full backpack to make it to Henry IV on time. My friends usually think I’m crazy, but that’s because they don’t love Shakespeare the way I do. But I think there’s a very simple reason for that: they’ve never really heard his words out loud.
Sure, high school teachers sometimes read passages out loud or force their awkward, shame-faced students to drone out the great speeches of Hamlet and Macbeth. And it’s true that some schools have started showing film versions of Shakespeare’s plays in their English classes. Neither of those quite cut it, though.
Shakespeare’s works are meant to be performed. It’s that simple. I was lucky enough to have a teacher in sixth grade who understood this concept: she assigned each person in the class a specific character for the entire play, so when we read Romeo and Juliet out loud in class we each had some sort of connection to the work. (I was Mercutio. He was and still is my favorite character in that play.) For whatever reason, my high school teachers didn’t use the same formula; all too often, they would assign us nightly reading and then have us discuss the plays together in class. I don’t agree with that approach. While discussion of Shakespeare is necessary and highly enjoyable, I think too few students understood the words they read well enough to actually partake in that discussion. As a result, a lot of my classes turned into the teacher just telling us her interpretation of the work, without a chance for the class to actually engage with Shakespeare’s words at all.
When people are given some sort of connection to the play, however, things are different. If there is a real person saying the words and bringing them to life, then one can begin to consider motives, hidden meanings, the layers beneath the text. Too many high school students, however, spend their whole time trying to understand the text at the most simplistic level, which removes their ability to peer beneath it and consider it from a new angle.
Furthermore, for whatever reason high schools (at least in the United States) seem determined to remove all the actual fun from the plays. On the most basic level, it’s problematic that they only ever teach the tragedies. Don’t get me wrong: I love the tragedies, but I’ve spoken to people in college who weren’t even aware that the comedies existed. I showed my friends 10 Things I Hate About You, and they had no idea the plot was taken from a Shakespeare play.
I think the comedies can often be more accessible than the tragedies, especially for younger readers. Part of the problem might be that a lot of people don’t encounter Shakespeare until high school; I was lucky to have my parents and my middle school English teacher. The comedies would be a good starting point, to get people’s feet wet with the language of the plays, and to show them that Shakespeare can be (and usually is) a lot of fun. I don’t think anyone who reads Much Ado About Nothing can help enjoying the Benedick/Beatrice dynamic on some level. After students have gotten used to the language, the tragedies would probably seem a lot less formidable.
I’m also at a bit of a loss as to why the history plays aren’t more popular. They’re not really historically accurate, but they are a good starting point for understanding the complicated politics of the accession of Henry IV, the Hundred Years War, and the War of the Roses. Heck, high schools could even tie the Canterbury Tales into this; after all, Chaucer lived through the reign of Richard II. There’s a lot of potential for tying together European history classes and English classes. It would require a little coordination on the parts of the teachers though, which is probably why it’s beyond their abilities.
In short, I think the way Shakespeare is taught in American high schools only serves to alienate young readers. And quite frankly, I think that in itself is a tragedy. Luckily, there is a ray of hope for those students who do decide to give Shakespeare a chance outside of the classroom setting. Shakespeare in the Park is a brilliant way for people to have access to good productions. Also, although I make fun of people for not knowing where the plots come from, it’s actually a great idea to point out Shakespearean sources for different rom-coms. (She’s the Man and 10 Things I Hate About You come to mind immediately.)
I’m going to throw in one last recommendation: web series. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has given rise to a beautiful new form of media: literary adaptations using the vlog format. There’s a particularly well-done one called Nothing Much to Do (no points for guessing what play it’s based on), with a sequel series called Lovely Little Losers.
I’ve watched a fair number of literary vlogs, and I’ve noticed something funny in the comment sections. First of all, they’re probably the most polite comment sections on YouTube, but there are also a lot of people who watch these series and then go back and read the source material and are able to appreciate it.
Much as I hate it when people “watch the movie before reading the book”, I think it could actually be a force for good when it comes to Shakespeare. I think my generation suffers from too much focus on plot lines, and not enough focus on language. Once people know the plot line, they might be better equipped to go back and understand what is going on in the text.
I’ll end with a little anecdote. Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Naturally, I decked myself out in my Hamlet pants and my Tempest t-shirt. I teach a basic computer programming class on Saturdays to a group of middle school girls, so I showed up to class completely covered in words and had some of the twelve-year-olds guess what day it was.
One of them got it immediately, so I guess there’s hope yet.