Not-So-Great Expectations

I recently got my hands on a teacher’s edition of the 11th-grade textbook for American literature that is used in most Virginia public schools. (Why American literature, you may ask? Well, I’m looking for ways to connect Shakespeare to American lit, which actually isn’t as difficult or as incongruous as it may at first sound). To get a better sense of what I’m aiming at, I’ve been reading through some of the sections. It’s been a while since I was in the 11th grade, after all, and as an AP student, my material was somewhat different. We actually didn’t use a textbook that year; we had class sets of individual books. So I wanted to see what it is that most 11th-graders get.

Frankly, I’m alarmed. Not by the selection of works — it all seems pretty standard, but still comprehensive, hitting the major authors, all of the overarching trends, while also introducing some offbeat selections and some cultural diversity. The book is well-organized, arranged chronologically but also cross-referenced by genre. The layout is accessible and easy-to-follow. What concerns and troubles me is how low the bar seems to be set for these students.

Should words like “habitually,” “morbid,” or “comply” really be words that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds need defined in the margins for them? “Lucid”? “Virtuous”? “Obstinate”? (Personally, “obstinate” was a word I had in my lexicon by the time I was 8, mostly because my mother used it to describe me so often. As for “pillage” and “plunder,” also terms the book thinks need defining, I think the recent crazes for pirates and fantasy worlds have assured widespread knowledge of those concepts). These are just a few examples — I’m actually keeping a running list as I go through of terms that the book thinks are beyond the grasp of 11th-graders, that I know I remember being on vocab lists when I was in 6th or 7th grade — and it’s a long list. But the problems extend beyond underwhelming vocabulary. Do you really need to be an “advanced learner” to talk about how an author’s use of adjectives creates mood and atmosphere? Shouldn’t identifying cause and effect be something an 11th-grader already knows how to do? Or choosing the correct case for a pronoun?

This is not to say everything in the textbook is so appalling. The selection of works seems appropriate, an analogous to what I remember being the major topics and heavy-hitters of American lit. There are quite a few good ideas in here — I particularly enjoy some of the creative writing prompts, imitating different styles or genres, such as satire or Gothic romance, or playing with conventions like frame stories. Many of the activities, essay prompts, and discussion topics are thoughtful and appropriate. Working with metaphors, exploring ethos and pathos with advanced learners, applying an author’s perspective to the word choices he or she makes — these are worthy ideas. (There are also, though, some terribly misleading ideas — like suggesting that the narrative of Poe’s “The Raven” what’s important about the poem, moreso than the rhyme and rhythm). Some of the cross-curriculum connections open up wonderful opportunities for exploration. And I have no problem with defining obscure or archaic terms, like “binnacle” in Moby Dick or “termagant” in The Devil and Tom Webster, or with identifying allusions, such as references to scripture or to historical places and people, that could easily be lost on modern readers. Those are all good and useful margin notes. If this was a 7th or 8th grade textbook, I’d be perfectly content with it. It seems about on the level of what I remember from middle school. But for the 11th grade? For 16- and 17-year-olds, who are only a year or so away from college? It’s a little absurd.

Here at the OCS, in all of our seminars and workshops, we tell teachers and students alike that Shakespeare’s language just isn’t that hard. 98.5% of his words are still in use — and The fault, then, dear readers, is not in the vocabulary, but in ourselves. Because the thing is, if you tell students they won’t understand the words — as this textbook does, by over-defining words well within the grasp of your average 16-year-old — then they’re more likely to decide that whatever they’re reading is just “too hard” and to consign it away to something they can’t do, could never understand, and, subsequently, won’t do. Tell them it’s too difficult, tell them these words are beyond their understanding, tell them something written in the past is removed from their own experience, and you’re giving them permission to fail. Tell them it’s within their grasp, that it applies to them, and that you expect them to get it, and they just might believe you, put in the effort, and succeed.

We should expect better. Is teaching to the lowest common denominator really the best way of approaching material? How many of those kids who we think “couldn’t” keep up just haven’t ever been properly challenged? I know I always performed better in classes where more was expected of me, not less. When teachers expect little, little is what they’ll get.

Clearly, it needs to start well before the 11th grade. Language skills and reading comprehension need to be fostered much earlier. Kids also need to know from the start that the expectations are high. They’ll learn to meet them. But if the expectations are always low, they’ll pretty quickly figure out just how little they have to do to get by.

So, my challenge to teachers — and one that I put myself to as well — is this: Set the bar high. They’ll clear it. They might need your help to do so, but that’s what you’re there for. Judging by this textbook, right now the bar is so low they’re more in danger of tripping on it.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 22 October 2010

We’re instituting a new feature here on the OCS Education Blog, a weekly “links round-up” that I’ll be posting every Friday. So much happens in the world of Shakespeare, so many people write interesting articles, and we don’t have the time to respond in-depth to each one — but we don’t want to pass up the opportunity to comment or to send the articles your way, either. Fridays will now feature short blasts of things the education team found interesting during the week.

  • The Shakespeare Authorship Debate, by Allan Batchelder. Sarah says: Allan starts this piece with an interest grabber that won’t immediately turn off the doubters and then moves on to, shall we say, refudiate their claims with some modern day links and analogies. Thanks, Allan.
  • Op-Ed piece – Save the Arts and They’ll Save Us. Sarah says: SMAT (that is Science, Math, and Technology) folks are clamoring for a more creative worker. In this article, a coed explains her worries about a post-theatrical (read: post-collaborative and creative) world at her university. Advocates for the arts must grab a mic and spread the word that kids who study theatre, visual, musical, and written art do better in the very aspects we are looking to improve. By removing those subjects from our curriculum, we are only endangering our futures.
  • An Op-Ed at the Sydney Morning Herald wonders about the value of teaching social media, blogs, and TV shows in English class. Cass says: While I’m glad Shakespeare made the cut to stay in the curriculum, I’m with the author of the article — study social media in a social studies class, by all means, I think it’s important and worth examining, but it isn’t the same as literature, not by a long shot.
  • American Theatre Wing blog entry asks how long plays ought to be. Cass says: The article seems to lament a trend towards 90-minute, no-intermission plays. The criticism is leveled against new plays, but I think the issue can extend to all performances. What do we think? The OCS aims for the “2 hours traffic,” so we certainly value fast-paced performances, and we’re against the three-hour-long shows lots of theatres produce — but is less always more in this case? Personally, I’d rather a two-hour show with an interlude (and the music played by our wonderful casts) than a 90-minute with no interlude.
  • Op-Ed: “Making Ignorance Chic?” by Maureen Dowd in the NYTimes. Cass says: Only a brief mention of Shakespeare in here — recalling Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” controversy from the summer — but the article on the whole is quite good, examining the current trend in America towards glamorizing ignorance. I’ll refrain from offering my opinion on the article’s political commentary, but I think you can all probably guess where I stand on the issue of fashionable ignorance.
  • Finally, the Guide to Online Schools posts their top 30 Shakespeare Blogs — and two of the OCS blogs are on the list! If you’re in need of more items for your RSS feed, this list is a great place to start.

Enjoy your weekends, everyone — we’ll be hearing soon from Sarah, who’s at the Virginia Association of Teachers of English conference in Virginia Beach this weekend. I, in the meantime, will finish off this post with a little shameless self-promotion; I’ll be performing in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a directing project by MFA candidate Casey Caldwell, Sunday and Monday nights — and you can bet I’ll be blogging about that next week. If you’re in the area, you should definitely come see the show — it’s a guaranteed laugh riot (and free of charge).


As our friends at Shakespeare’s Globe in London embark on their 2010-11 Education Programming, Shakespeare is German, and the National Theatre takes on Olivier’s Shakespeare : Violence and Memory (looking at Olivier’s films), I had the pleasure of seeing Euripedes’s Hecuba at Randolph College. While I sat on the rock benches in the open-air Mabel K. Whiteside Theatre (“the Dell”) and watched actors playing in carefully researched and created masks against the backdrop of a three-entrance Skene, I realized that this interpretation of an ancient Greek play was re-defining “translation” for me.

The first place I always start when I am mulling words is the Oxford English Dictionary. When I was working on my first Master’s thesis (“‘He Words Me’– Shakespeare’s Invention and Teaching of Language”), my loved ones joked that if I could sleep with that book, I would have. Their ribbing wasn’t far off the mark, I do love the two-volume set that Mom gave me, though my OED of choice is the excellent online edition and computers just don’t cozily fit under the pillow. I was not surprised to see that the OED defines translation in terms of language, but I was intrigued to see that it also does so in terms of movement (change of place, or, interestingly, date). I would hazard a guess that most folks think of translation as relating directly to language, but limiting the definition to our spoken or written or even gestural language is not enough. The OED definition is right when it comes to Art. Works of Art, whether made of marble or created by words and action, move through place and time, but when the medium and shape (in the case of dramatic literature, the language and the playing space) remain available to the audience, shouldn’t they have the opportunity to take the journey for themselves? Translation of that work, from marble to a representation on photographic paper, from English to German, or from lit, open playing space to darkened proscenium theatre, changes its very substance and filters the experience through someone else’s perception.

A confession: I did not dedicate myself to fluency in a language other than English. I studied German, Spanish, and American Sign Language, but I never got to the point in any of them that I felt I was “thinking” in the language. As much as I might like to, I cannot read Moliere in French, Chekov in Russian, or Goethe in German, and that means that I cannot ever grasp, wholly, the magic of their work. I will (until I learn those languages) have to take for granted that the person whose translation I am reading did a good job and that I am getting a sense of the originals. Thing is, though, “a sense” is not “the thing.” Another consideration: when I read a translation, the changes are all “quiet,” that is to say, the translations I’ve read do not identify the grammatical/syntactical/sense changes the translator makes, in spite of the fact that a translator must inevitably make those choices must. I can see the choices clearly when I watch, for example, an ASL interpreted performance: the sign language and the words coming out of the actors’ mouths do not line up exactly. The Deaf audience member is at the mercy of the skill of the interpreter, just as we, the readers (and, in the case of theatrical literature, performers) are at the mercy of the translator– only we don’t have the benefit of visual signposts telling the us where paths diverge. So, those of us without a second (or third, fourth, or fifth) language must acknowledge that we are not reading/seeing the author’s work as s/he wrote it. Moreover, we may be seeing something entirely outside of the imagination (and, perhaps, intention) of the artist who originally composed it. Not, as Seinfeld says, that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I joy in adaptations.

Case Study: I once directed a successful adaptation of The Imaginary Invalid for the University Interscholastic League One Act Play Contest in Texas. My actors did a fine job making a good translation come to life but we were, in fact, fighting with the play the entire time. For example: we pasted a circus theme on top of Moliere’s characters, added stage directions that were not called for in the text, and added a spectacular dance scene in which Argon was tossed from Dottore to Dottore to the tunes of “Mr. Bungle.” Talk about a translation. Did the audience who attended this play see Moliere? Debatable. Did they have a good time? Enthusiastically.

What are we missing when we see Sophocles or Aeschylus in translation? If the audience leaves entertained, is that enough? I would argue that it is, as long as we (the audience and the producers) acknowledge that we are not, in fact, seeing Sophocles and Aeschylus. Just as when Germans read or see Shakespeare in German, they are not, in fact, reading or seeing Shakespeare. Shakespeare painted pictures with words. The way he arranged them, just as the choice of paint color or paint brush matters to an artist, makes a difference to the development of his subjects. The double meanings he built in add layer upon layer, an effect that is not possible to achieve outside of the original language.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. A visit to see the oil on canvas will reveal layers of paint, the vibrancy of the newly developed (when he painted it) chrome pigment, and other details unavailable to the website observer, the art student holding an exhibition catalogue, or the print collector who hangs a framed version in her den. The translation from the original medium, whether to print or to screen printed umbrella, changes the experience. Sometimes the choice of the medium causes the change, sometimes the arrangement, and sometimes even the surroundings – usually all three. Someone, not you, translated the painting through his experience. My grandmother used to dabble in oils; when she died, each grandchild inherited one of her paintings. I received her take on Van Gogh’s painting. I love it. Then I saw his. Which is to say: then I saw the difference that translation makes. I had already formed an opinion about how sunflowers should look when painted in oil on a canvas, and I had heard my mom and aunts praise the beauty and technique my grandmother achieved, but when I saw the original, I saw so much more than I saw in the translation. We can love art that is derived from masterpieces, but, if we are unacquainted with the first form from which the copies come, are we enjoying the height of experience?

I’m a purist. I want to see art in its purest–closest to the original–form. I realize that it is foolhardy to say audiences should see everything in the original, but whether the medium of translation is language or place or both, the experience changes for the audience member, so why not get as close as possible? When I go to Shakespeare in English performed in a thrust theatre with the audience as part of the play, I feel closer to his work. Moreover, I feel so much joy in the transaction which filters little and allows my experience to be, well, mine. When I go to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in Italian with the instruments and vocal parts for which he wrote it represented, I have the same sense of closeness. I want to see Pinter and Shaw in English on a stage built with 3 walls to look like a realistic room, or I want it to be called a translation or adaptation. And, if we have to translate one (the language) for an audience, let’s leave the other (the movement) as intact as possible, as in Amy Cohen’s Hecuba. The experience of seeing art in as close to its original form is too precious to ignore. Translation is a necessity in this world of blending cultures and far reaching media, but it does not replace the original, that’s why I am so glad that I was born into a culture that taught me to speak the language of Shakespeare and that I found a theatre that chooses to stick close to the staging with which he worked. What a joy it is to see actors playing to an audience in light, playing in rep, playing Shakespeare in the original. No translation required.

Review: "Hear My Soul Speak: Wedding Quotations from Shakespeare"

Duane over at ShakespeareGeek has written a book, Hear My Soul Speak: Wedding Quotations from Shakespeare, and, as one of his fellow Shakespeare bloggers, I can heartily recommend it as an asset for brides, grooms, and their friends and family.

The idea of the book came from an over-inundation of the same sonnet (#116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) at weddings. Tired of hearing the same material over and over again, Duane decided to compose a comprehensive guide to Shakespearean quotations about love, family, and knitting those eternal bonds. Rather than just presenting the quotes, Duane gives them context and explicates the language, helping the Shakespeare novice find the meaning in some less-obviously-romantic passages. Most helpfully, the quotes are divided up topically: there’s a section for proposals, one for exchanging vows, one for the father-of-the-bride, one for reception toasts, and so forth. My only wish, really, is that Duane had gone further with that theming. I would’ve loved a section for bridesmaids and maids of honor, since Shakespeare’s women have so many great things to say to each other about friendship and loyalty. All of the quotes he’s pulled are great, though, whether you’re looking for something to use during the ceremony, to say at the reception, or just to print on little cocktail napkins.

What’s really great about the book is its accessibility. It really is Shakespeare for anyone who wants to pick it up, but not, I think, at the cost of cheapening Shakespeare’s words. To the contrary, I think the book might make someone who picked it up just looking for wedding ideas actually want to read further and explore the plays. Duane’s explanations of the lines bring up some intriguing points, and they shine a light on some of Shakespeare’s best characters and most sparkling moments. I’m a fan of anything that can be a gateway to getting more people more interested in the plays, and I think this book could accomplish that goal.

Duane also helps conquer some ShakesFear by including a section of tips on how to deliver Shakespeare’s words. He covers, to my delight, scansion, with a non-intimidating rundown of iambic pentameter, and he even manages to slip in some rhetoric without using the Greek and Latin terms that could easily send a casual reader running for the hills. Then he goes on with a few general public-speaking tips which I think would be helpful to anyone who gets a bit nervous at the thought of it.

Hear My Soul Speak is available online, for eReaders or as a PDF download, at — and if you don’t already follow Duane’s blog, you should. The content is always thought-provoking and and thoroughly entertaining as well.

So now I’m wondering — is there a market for a whole line of books like this, Chicken-Soup-Style? Shakespeare for All Special Occasions? Certainly he has enough things to say about learning and scholarship to fill a book for graduations or for those heading off to college. You could easily use Shakespeare’s words to fill a book on bereavement or to provide a compendium of comfort for those nursing broken hearts. How far could it go? I’m not sure, but it might be worth exploring, if only to further the truth that, yes, Shakespeare has applications to the situations and emotions of modern life.

OCS Study Guides are Live

I am pleased and proud to announce that all five of this year’s study guides for curriculum shows are live and loaded onto our website. Just visit our Educator Resources section for further information. We’ve completely revamped the guides this year, adding new material and upgrading old, so that these guides can be the best resource possible for teachers to draw from when taking their students through Shakespeare. Eventually, we hope to have a full set, one for each play in the canon; this year we’ve started with Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, As You Like It, and The Comedy of Errors. Why those five? The first two are from our resident season, currently running, the second two come are on the road with our touring company, and the last is in our Actors’ Renaissance Season, running January through April.

For anyone who has used OCS Study Guides before, here’s what’s changed, and for anyone who hasn’t used them before, here’s why you should:

We’re gearing the new guides towards getting students off of their feet to engage with the texts. Shakespeare belongs on a stage, not confined to the page, and so we’re helping teachers turn their classrooms into mini-theatres. We walk through the basics of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions and encourage teachers to make theirs an “Elizabethan Classroom,” arranging the room to resemble a thrust stage. This setup allows students to explore the opportunities presented by the space — lights-on, working diagonals, audience contact, all the things that make Shakespeare so vibrant and alive at the Blackfriars Playhouse. We’re keying in on playable choices, on the opportunities Shakespeare offers an actor. Lots of the activities offer suggestions for playing a scene in two distinctly different ways as a means of examining the dynamics between characters. For example, in the opening scene of The Taming of the Shrew, how does the story change if Bianca is the spoiled brat her sister calls her instead of the meek and mild maiden that Lucentio sees? In As You Like It, how does an actively irritated Celia change the dynamic of “Ganymede” and Orlando’s wooing as compared to a passively observing Celia? Playing a scene in multiple ways offers students a chance of ownership of their choiecs and gives them an opportunity to read the text closely in order to make decisions about their actions and delivery. They get to decide what they think works and what doesn’t, what ideas flow with the text and which fight against it. Students can discover the infinite variety of possibilities that the text and the theatrical space offer, empowering them to make the play “their own,” vivid and immediate, rather than thinking of it as a distant and obscure relic.

Now, we know that not everyone has had directing training, and as much as teachers might be enthusiastic about the idea of getting kids on their feet, it’s not always easy to know what to do with them once they’re up there. It’s something I find hard to do on the spur of the moment — it’s all too easy to let them run the scene and then talk afterwards, but then you lose opportunities for redirection, which is where discovery and choices live. So, to combat the urge to just let the scene run without comment, we’ve provided a number of guides to scenes. The teacher’s copy of the text has a number of callout boxes along the side — one at least every four to eight lines, and often even more frequently — indicating places where a teacher can choose to pause the students running the scene. It may be to point out an embedded stage direction or an opportunity for audience contact, or to encourage a student to look closer at the scansion or rhetoric of a certain line, or to offer a suggestion for playing the moment a different way. Look at this preview example from the As You Like It study guide.

All of this work stems, of course, from the text itself, and we spend a lot of time in the guides helping teachers attack the nitty-gritty of the words. We have an activity aimed at making students familiar with scansion and iambic pentameter, as well as an activity which focuses on textual differences between editions of the text, to illustrate that the words have not been immutable through time. We also include a section rhetoric, to help students discover how Shakespeare constructed his words and lines to create a certain emotional effect on the stage. Engaging with the text in such a deep and focused way can open up so many incredible avenues of thought, and we want to put those tools in the students’ hands.

Possibly my favorite change to the guides is what we’ve done to the Perspectives section, which used to be called Viewpoints. Formerly, this section was sort of a vague, nebulous catch-all for miscellaneous activities. Now, we’ve focused it down to a specific purpose: to help your students draw connections between the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and their own world. In The Comedy of Errors, for example, the issue on the table is marriage, as I talked about in my last post. Another section in the same guide looks at the idea of adaptation, something Shakespeare certainly practiced and that writers do all the time today. In Othello, Perspectives looks at race relations, inside the play and in 16th century England, and asks teachers to make the brave choice to let their students talk about what makes that issue uncomfortable or difficult to talk about. In Macbeth, Perspectives looks at the rights ad responsibilities of a ruler, not just a medieval king or the monarchs in Shakespeare’s life time, but also in our own political system. These are just a few examples — I’m so pleased with how those sections turned out. I come from a strong background in historical studies, moreso than theatrical, and Perspectives gave me a great opportunity to stretch my research limbs.

Not only in Perspectives, but in other sections as well, we’ve also tried to create more cross-curriculum opportunities. The Comedy of Errors, for example, offers opportunities for classic teachers to get in on the Shakespearean fun, comparing the Latin source material to Shakespeare’s work. In As You Like It, one activity focuses on music. We even managed to work in a math crossover, in an activity related to cutting a play for performance, where students fill in a table of lines per scene and then determine what percentage of the play needs to be cut in order to make a certain time limit. Shakespeare doesn’t exist in a literary/theatrical vacuum; his plays have applications in so many different spheres, and we wanted to encourage that exploration.

Finally, for Virginia teachers (since most of the teachers who bring students to our shows are from our Commonwealth), we’ve added a section at the end which matches up each activity in the guide to corresponding Standards of Learning. We hope this will help with lesson planning and show that having to conform to standardized tests doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to just one way of approaching the material.

The end result of all of these changes and additions is that our new study guides are better than ever. We go deeper into the meat of the plays, encouraging teachers to have students explore scansion, rhetoric, and staging choices. Hopefully, these opportunities will make the plays vital and vivid for students in a way that dry text left to itself on the page doesn’t. Our goal isn’t just to get kids to test well on Shakespeare — we want them to love it. I enjoyed putting these together so much that I can’t wait to start on next year’s — Julius Caesar, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V.

With all of that said, I’d like to take the opportunity to plug our study guide video contest: If you’re a teacher using our study guides in your classroom, film your students engaging in an activity from one of the guides, and you could win tickets for you and your class to attend a student matinee of The Comedy of Errors this winter. Further information is available on our website.

"Better than thy dear self’s better part": Shakespeare and Early Modern Marriage

One of my current projects is the compilation of a magazine designed to preview our Actors’ Renaissance Season. I’ll be talking a lot more about that project when it’s nearer to completion, but for the time being, I’m working on my own contribution — an article on The Comedy of Errors. I’ve chosen to focus on the things in the play which are surprising, despite it being, in many ways, Shakespeare’s least original and most traditional play.

The idea for this article came out of an activity in the study guide I prepared for the play. We’ve retooled a section that used to be called “Viewpoints,” which was initially a rather vague catch-all for things that didn’t fit into other categories. The section is now “Perspectives,” and its purpose is to help connect the dots between the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and the modern world. In researching this portion of the study guide for The Comedy of Errors, I went looking for different commentaries on marriage in early modern Europe. A lot of what I found was precisely the kind of misogynistic and paternalistic dictate-from-on-high which we’re often led to believe represents the monolithic opinion of all societies pre-dating suffrage or the sexual revolution. Consider the following examples:

Erasmus: The Institution of Marriage: “Maintaining a Harmonious Relationship” (1526) : “Thus the girl needs to be told by her parents to be obliging and compliant towards her husband and, if he should upset her, to give him the benefit of the doubt, or at least put up with it. She must not rush headlong into recrimination and arguments, nor flounce out of the house: in time, when life together has bred intimacy between them, it will ensure that things that upset her at first will now amuse her, and that what once seemed intolerable will prove very easy to bear. … “However, although there must be mutual respect, both nature and scriptural authority lay down that the wife should obey her husband rather than the opposite. Paul recommends love and gentleness to husbands: ‘You men,’ he says, ‘love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. But what does he prescribe for the women? Obedience and submissiveness.”

Michel de Montaigne: “On Friendship” (1580) : “As for marriage, not only is it a bargain to which only the entrance is free… but it is a bargain commonly made for other ends. There occur in it innumerable extraneous complications which have to be unraveled, and are enough to break the thread and disturb the course of lively affection”

Francis Bacon: Essays (1597) : “There was never proud man thought so absurdly well of himself as the lover doth of the person loved; and therefore it was well said, That it is impossible to love and be wise. … He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly, the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from unmarried or childless men. Which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public.”

I think it helps to remember, though, that these opinions were as likely (and perhaps moreso) to be prescriptive, the fruit of wishful thinking, as they were to be descriptive of the reality of early modern marriages. After all, Erasmus, a Catholic priest, never married. However enlightened this humanist’s views were in many respects, on the the subject of marital harmony, he may not have been fully qualified to offer his opinion. Montaigne rarely saw his wife, and his essays indicate dissatisfaction with the state of marriage, which he seems to have considered useful primarily for procreation, and therefore necessary but regrettable. Francis Bacon suffered a jilting in his youth, and when he later married, he became so estranged from his wife that he wrote her out of his will. Are these really men whose advice on wedded bliss we want to be taking as representative of the whole of society?

Probably not — and a little more digging unearths some viewpoints markedly different from the paternalistic chorus. I thoroughly enjoyed the viewpoint of Dutch historian Emmanuel Van Meteran, who observed of English wives in 1575:

“Wives in England are entirely in the power of their husbands, their lives only excepted… yet they are not kept so strictly as they are in Spain or elsewhere. Nor are they shut up, but they have the free management of the house or housekeeping. … They go to market to buy what they like best to eat. They are well dressed, fond of taking it easy, and commonly leave the care of household matters and drudgery to their servants. … All the rest of their time they employ in walking or riding, in playing at cards or otherwise, in visiting their friends and keeping company, conversing with their equals (whom they term, gossips) and their neighbors, and making merry with them at childbirths, christenings, churchings and funerals.”

Granted, Van Meteran was describing the life of the gentry and the wealthy merchant class in London, the set amid which he had traveled and lodged, rather than the life of your average country swain, but that sounds like a pretty good life to my modern ears. It also sounds not unlike what we see of marriage in The Merry Wives of Windsor or in many early modern city comedies. I think Nell from The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Madge from The Shoemaker’s Holiday, or any of the gossips in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside would find Van Meteran’s description entirely appropriate.

A collection of essays published in 1617 (after Shakespeare’s death, but still within the bounds of relevance for the time period when looking at societal trends) featured women themselves speaking out on the matter, either under their own names or under pseudonyms. The collection was in response to a pamphlet, The Arraignment of Women, which broadly slandered the whole gender, making exceptions only for Lucretia (who killed herself after being raped), Sarah (for calling her husband “Lord”), Susanna (for “creeping on her knees to please her husband”), and the Virgin Mary. The rebuttals are furiously eloquent:

Rachel Speght: “The Worthiness of Women” (1617) : “…for man was created of the dust of the earth, but woman was made a part of man, after that he was a living soul; yet was she not produced from Adam’s foot, to be his too low inferior, nor from his head, to be his superior, but from his side, near his heart, to be his equal; that where he is Lord, she may be Lady.”

‘Ester Sowernam’: “The Weakness of Men” (1617) :”In no one thing men do acknowledge a more excellent perfection in women than in the estimate of offences which a woman doth commit: the worthiness of the person doth make the sin more markable. What a hateful thing it is to see a woman overcome with drink, when as in a man it is noted for a sign of good fellowship. And whosoever doth observe it, for one woman which doth make a custom of drunkenness you shall find a hundred men. It is abhorred in women, and therefore they avoid it; it is laughed at and made but as a jest among men, and therefore so many practice it. Likewise if a man abuse a maid and get her with child, no matter is made of it but as a trick of youth; but it is made so heinous an offence in the maid, that she is disparaged and utterly undone by it. So in all offences, those which men commit are made light and as nothing, slighted over; but those which women do commit, those are made grievous and shameful.”

The first passage struck me because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that sentiment, slightly reworded, on a bumper sticker. The second made me think of Emilia in Othello, wondering why women suffer more for the same sins men commit so freely.

After reading these passages, I find myself yearning for a full compendium of primary sources on early modern marriage, similar to the one that exists on race. Anyone who would like to take that on as a thesis project or doctorate would have my undying gratitude. There’s just something magnificent about reading the original sources, whether descriptive or prescriptive, and finding out just how varied opinions were. I think history can sometimes get flattened in classrooms, not least to fit time constraints and to hit the main points of education requirements, and so we end up thinking of any society more than a century or so back as much less divergent and pluralistic than it really was.

All of this brings me around to thinking about marriage in Shakespeare. As I said at the top of this post, I’m working on an article on The Comedy of Errors. One of the most surprising things in the play is Adriana, the supposedly shrewish wife. I don’t want to give too much of my article away — because I’m hoping you’ll all buy the magazine — but I focus on the difference between Adriana and the wife in the source material, Plautus’s Menaechmi, who really is the most ill-tempered harpy you can imagine. Adriana, though, not only has just cause to be irked with her husband (who spends his afternoons with a courtesan), but she expresses her supposed jealousy (actually, I think, genuine heartbreak) with some astonishingly beautiful poetry. Her words of censure are nowhere near s violent or caustic as the wife in Menaechmi; she makes a personal appeal to her husband, one that calls on profoundly spiritual language. Certainly the character can be played as a shrew, and the scenes can be played for laughs, but I think that does a disservice to one of the few moments of psychological complexity in a relatively straightforward play.

I’ll leave you with part of Adriana’s speech, which is one of my favorite moments in the play. If you want to know my in-depth thoughts about it, you’ll have to pick up (or read online) a copy of Playhouse Insider when it comes out. For now, I’ll just say this: Shakespeare writes a lot about love, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more genuine, more emotional, or more heart-tugging treatise on marriage anywhere in his works.

The time was once when thou unurged wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savor’d in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or look’d, or touch’d, or carved to thee.
How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art thus estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self’s better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!
For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.
–Adriana, The Comedy of Errors, 2.2

Looking Scornfully: Stage Directions in Richard III

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is the ability to stumble into discoveries while working on something else entirely.

Yesterday, I was editing a bit of text to go into our study guides. We adhere to the Folio text as far as stage directions, line breaks, and entrances/exits go, because we think there’s a reason those things were put where they are. Are some of them printer errors? Sure. But we like to err on the side of at least trying things the Folio way first, then making adjustments, because more often than not, you make great discoveries that way. Doing theatre the way we do at the OCS, you sometimes discover that, yes, that person is supposed to enter that early even though no-one sees or talks to him until later in the scene. My favorite example is from 2.2 of Macbeth; many modern editors used to move Macbeth’s entrance until just before Lady Macbeth says “My husband!”. This change turns his earlier line into a “within” delivery — but if your actors are playing the darkness, there’s no reason at all to move the entrance from where the Folio has it, before Macbeth’s first line. You lose so much wonderful stagecraft by delaying his appearance on the stage.

Having found nuggets of revelation like these in the texts, I’ve started getting agitated (much to the delight of my boss, Sarah) when a modern editor changes or moves a stage direction for no logical reason, and so yesterday, as I was pulling from 1.2 of Richard III, I saw the direction “She looks scornfully at him” and mentally tsked at the editor. ‘Surely,’ I thought, ‘that’s not in the Folio. Surely some editor has been taking liberties.’ Off to the Folio I went, prepared to delete the extraneous editorial suggestion, but much to my alarm… that stage direction exists. What’s more, it’s not the only bizarrely specific direction in the scene. “Spits at him,” “He lays his breast open. She offers at with his sword,” and “She falls the sword” also appear:

I kind of can’t get over this. It’s just so… weird. A quick poll of the office revealed that I was not the only one who would’ve lost money betting on those directions being editorial. We all thought they sounded far too modern, far too post-Ibsen to be original to the Folio. These stage directions are alarmingly specific, but there’s really no reason for them, because all the action is embedded in the lines. I don’t need a direction telling me that Lady Anne looks scornfully at him when Richard says “Teach not thy lip such scorn.” Nor do I need the direction for Richard to lay his breast open and for Lady Anne to “offer at” it when Richard has just spent five lines instructing her to do that. As attuned as I’ve become to embedded stage directions, the explicit ones feel redundant.

The directions in the 1597 Quarto are not so specific or detailed, but still pretty odd for early modern theatre. The Quarto gives us “She spitteth at him” and “Here she lets fall the sword,” but not the other two, more explicit, directions. How did those creep in, then, I wonder?

Sarah suggested to me that this might fit in with recently-bandied-about theories regarding the training of boy actors. Perhaps the text for the Folio was taken off of a prompt book that had been specifically designed for helping a younger boy through the part of Lady Anne? That suggestion makes me want to look through the rest of the play, at the other female roles, to see if the trend continues. Is 1.2 an anomaly, or is it representative of the role?

It isn’t as though there aren’t other weirdly specific (or bizarrely obscure) stage directions in the early modern period. Two of my favorites are from two of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, “She runs lunatic” in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and “Enter Hans, like a Dutch shoemaker” and “Enter Rafe, being lame” in Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday. Those type of directions are the exception rather than the rule, though, which is why they’re notable when they do occur.

Thoughts? What are your favorite odd stage directions from the early modern period?

"As if he master’d there a double spirit, of teaching and of learning instantly"

This past weekend, OCS Education hosted our first Teachers’ Seminar of the year. We took the opportunity to showcase the new direction we’re moving with our study guides, our workshops, and the rest of our educational activities, focusing strongly on playable aspects of Shakespeare’s works and demonstrating how those playable moments can work in a classroom.

The activities kicked off on Friday afternoon with a lecture from our Director of Mission, Ralph Cohen, exploring key moments from 2 Henry IV. Ralph explored the language of the play using Wordles, asking the teachers to pick out words they thought their students wouldn’t understand. In most of what we looked at, there weren’t many unfamiliar words, and Ralph then showed how, in the one speech he gave them where there were strange and unconventional word choices, the unfamiliar vocabulary still wasn’t anything to be frightened of. He also got them started on an on-your-feet exercise, playing with the interaction between Mistress Quickly, Snare, and Fang before Falstaff enters in 2.1. After the workshop, we held a Master Minds session, featuring two of the best presentations from last year’s MLitt students, by Sarah Keyes Chang and Glenn Schudel. This session gave our participants the opportunity to see examples of the research produced by students in the MBC program — and, as Sarah pointed out, we in the education department (three program alumnae and one current student) get some of our best ideas from concepts explored by graduate research.

Saturday morning, Ben Curns, who plays Iago in the current OCS production of Othello, came by to help Sarah lead a workshop on asides and audience contact. The goal of this workshop was to give teachers an easy tool into working with the text by getting students to consider the dynamics at play on stage. Who’s talking to whom? When is someone talking to the audience, and how does that change the scene? How can you tell if it’s just audience contact, when the other character on stage can still hear what’s being said, or a true “aside,” when the audience must believe in the stage fiction that the other character can’t hear? We worked a scene between Iago and Roderigo to start, with Ben playing Iago and one of the workshop participants acting Roderigo, and for the first run of the scene, we had them do the whole scene without talking to the audience at all. After that run, Ben’s immediate response was that it was “really difficult” not to talk to the audience– which just shows how naturally Shakespeare builds that kind of contact into the lines. When we ran the scene a second time, this time allowing for audience contact and asides, the whole energy of the stage changed. We talked a lot about using the audience as an ally and how to build that rapport during a scene. We then set Iago and Roderigo up for a third run, where Roderigo was really trying to leave the scene, and we saw how that changed the dynamics at play. Iago could no longer devote quite so much attention to the audience, as he had to focus on Roderigo. All of these runs stressed the choices an actor (or a student) can make in performance — what opportunities open up each time you make a different choice?

After the mid-morning break, we had the participants use an activity out of the guides, marking whether given lines were for normal delivery to the other character, audience contact, or an aside, and then we got two volunteers up to work through the scene according to those determinations. We asked them to determine the goal of the scene for each character, then decide if and how the audience could help the character reach that goal. It was so great to get people offering different opinions on how a line should be delivered; I love it when people argue about Shakespeare, and it’s always my goal to get students arguing — because if they argue, it means they care. It means they’ve officially put a dog in the fight, often without even realizing that they’ve been absorbed into the process.

Sunday morning we worked through some activities from the Taming study guide. We kept with our theme of making choices in performance, this time using 1.1 of Taming, when Lucentio first sees Bianca. The goal was to run the scene two ways, first with a Bianca who was sweetness and light, and the second with Bianca as a total brat. Sarah and I were both delighted when we found a spot — “sit and gaze your fill” — where scanning the iambic pentameter line provided direction for the action. What was really wonderful, though, was how much the participants wanted to make suggestions and redirect each other. I had such a rush of energy just watching them make decisions on their own, finding the ways to have fun with the scene. It’s exactly the sort of interaction we hope (and believe) will happen in classrooms.

After Sunday’s mid-morning break, Ralph came in and helped us work two more key moments. He began by talking about “fighting two centuries of editorial misogyny” in regard to a stage direction often added into the play, which indicates that Petruchio strikes a servant on the line “Take that.” Using two volunteers, Ralph explored different ways to realize that embedded direction, running the spectrum from threateningly violent to remarkably generous and gentle. He then moved on to the final exit of the play, which involved every participant in the workshop, to demonstrate the difference in mood created by leaving everyone on the stage at the end of the play (as the Folio does not include an exeunt), rather than having all your actors file off.

All of these activities demonstrated how you can teach so much about the play just by going deep and narrow into a very few lines. We never worked an entire scene from Taming — often we would only work 2-5 lines — but it didn’t matter that we weren’t getting all the way to the end of a section. What mattered were the conversations happening as we worked, the excitement and energy of discovering hidden clues in the scene. I was so excited to see the activities out of our guides working so well on their feet (and I’ll be talking some more, probably later this week, about what’s gone into the reconstruction of our guides this year) — it really makes me feel confident that teachers will find these useful tools for their classrooms.

I’m so grateful for all the teachers who came out for the weekend. I know we on the education team had a blast, and I feel confident that all of our participants enjoyed themselves as well. See the OCS website for more information on future seminars — in the winter we’ll be working with The Comedy of Errors, and Macbeth and As You Like It will be on the docket for April.

"On hill, in dale, forest or mead" : Shakespeare and an Eco-Conscious Life

An interesting article fell into my inbox this morning: Teaching My Child About Mother Earth. The article discusses a mother rediscovering her own love of the natural world through her daughter, whose natural biophilia has not yet been stifled, who loves grassy fields, ocean waves, and bumblebees. The article makes suggestions on how to foster a child’s interest in nature, creating life-long habits of conservation — and the author chooses to frame these modern concerns with a quote from Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” from Troilus and Cressida. Though Ulysses means it, in context, more cynically than does the author of this article, it still made me think about the implications of pairing Shakespeare’s words to ecological concepts.

The idea of getting back to nature runs through a lot of Shakespeare’s plays. From Midsummer to Cymbeline, wild forests provide a place for the snarls and tangles of life to work themselves out to healthy resolution. There may be dangers (or meddling fairies), but if you’re a good-hearted soul on an honest quest, you can get through the darkness, reunite with long-lost relatives, win back ancestral titles, successfully woo your lady-or-lord-love, and return to your previously scheduled life in peace and merriment. The OCS’s production of As You Like It, currently touring, highlights the peace and comforts of the country life, drawing the audience into an idyllic world far removed from the conniving politics and superficial concerns of the urbanized court. The shepherd Colin declares, “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” Would that we could all be so contented.

The (perhaps nostalgic) affinity for country life presented in Shakespeare’s plays probably shouldn’t be surprising to us. He was, after all, more a country boy than a Londoner like Ben Jonson. Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 16th-century was a town of about 2000 people, close to expansive forests and to the picturesque Cotswold hill ranges. Beyond seeing the biographical connections, however, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s yearning for the green world more personally, based on the experiences of late-20th- and early-21st-century living. Shakespeare’s world was pre-Industrial, but only just. Like us, Shakespeare lived in a world that was rapidly urbanizing, where pollution was becoming a major concern, where the health of those in the inner-cities was in decline. Then, as now, changes in climate and weather patterns disrupted food production and threatened the livelihoods of those dependent on the soil or the sea. We may worry about offshore oil platforms and the ethics of farming corn for ethanol, while people in 1600 worried about sheep enclosures and fishing rights, but the basis of concern is the same — How do we use our land? How do we weigh profitability versus responsibility? How can we make the best decisions, not just for ourselves, but for future generations?

I wonder if there’s a way to enrich this connection. How can we integrate Shakespeare into the green movement? Perhaps this connection can provide another in-road for students, another way to demonstrate Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to them, as the millennial generation is more likely to be concerned with conservation, renewable energy, and responsible stewardship of the land than previous generations have been. If we can show them that Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate care about the green world, too, it might be another opportunity to catch their interest (and I always like finding those).

Just for fun, what’s your favorite quote from Shakespeare about the natural world?

Titling the History Plays

The Staunton Newsleader’s review of 2 Henry IV opens by criticizing the play’s title.

For a man who had more than his share of creative chops, William Shakespeare could come up with some pretty dull titles. The “Henry Whichever, Part Whatever” plays are chief examples, as their titles absolutely fail to reflect, or even hint at, the theatrical glory lurking behind them.

This statement caught my eye because the same idea came up here on the blog a couple of weeks ago, when I talked about 1 Henry VI. Are the titles of the history plays really that great a barrier? It strikes me as a slightly odd criticism — it’s not like Hamlet or Othello give you any more to go on as titles. Is it the numbers that people find intimidating? How might a different title alter perception of the play?

I’ll refrain from giving too pedantic a lecture about playhouse traditions and the early modern publishing industry, and simply say that there’s really no way to pin this exclusively on Shakespeare, as he may well not have been responsible for titling his own plays during his lifetime, and he certainly hasn’t controlled what we call them in the centuries since his death. Many of the history plays appear under alternate titles in Henslowe’s Diary or with variations in the titles between different printings. Additionally, many of the histories did have fuller, more descriptive titles in their printed forms. I submit, for your consideration:

  • Richard II, alternately (in the 1615 quarto) The Tragedy of King Richard II, with new additions of the Parliament Scene, and the Deposing of King Richard
  • 1 Henry IV, alternately (in the 1598 quarto) The History of King Henry the Fourth, with the battle at Shrewsbury, between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North, with the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff
  • 2 Henry IV, in full in the Folio The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Containing his Death and the Coronation of King Henry the Fifth
  • Henry V, alternately (in the 1600 quarto) The chronicle history of Henry the Fifth, with his battle fought at Agincourt in France, Together with Ancient Pistol
  • 2 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1594 quarto) The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the Tragical end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke’s first claim unto the crown
  • 3 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1595 octavo) The The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixth, with the Whole Contention between the two Houses, Lancaster and York
  • Richard III, alternately (in the 1597 quarto) The tragedy of King Richard the third Containing his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the whole course of the detested life, and most deserved death, or, in the Folio, The Tragedy of Richard the Third, with the Landing of Earl Richmond, and the Battle at Bosworth Field.

More descriptive, certainly, but also perhaps a bit too cumbersome for easy marketing purposes. There’s a lesson in here about what publishers thought would sell a book, what audiences had made popular (is Ancient Pistol really the highlight of Henry V?), and it might be something teachers of the history plays would find worth exploring with students. It’s also worth noting how many of those titles “give away” major plot points and character deaths — the very things we consider “spoilers” today. (I will, I’m sure, be encouraging profitable discussion on these matters in next year’s Henry V study guide).

So, just for fun, I propose a game. Retitle the histories! Keep it to, oh, seven words or less — something more like how the comedies or romances are conventionally titled — so we can aim for the happy medium between the short character-based titles and the lengthy expository titles (glorious though those are). What do you want to emphasize out of the play? Who do you think is the central figure, or what’s the main event? Play with me in the comments here or on Twitter.

My suggestions so far:

For Henry V: simply, Agincourt
For Richard II: The Deposition of the King
For 1 Henry VI: A War Won by Witchcraft

As far as 2 Henry IV is concerned, our own Dr. Ralph Cohen, who directed the play, suggests these alternatives in the season program: Fat Jack and the Two Harrys or The Flim Flammer Knight’s Dream.

I’ll compile everyone’s suggestions into a later post, and we can talk about what everyone finds most interesting, most pertinent, or most marketable for these plays, judging by the proposed titles.