Book Review: The Great Night, by Chris Adrian

The Great Night is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in 2008. A group of humans stumble into a disaster implemented by the Faery Queen, Titania, who is in the throes of deep sorrow. Following the death of their latest changeling child, Titania and Oberon had one of their marital spats — but this time, Oberon doesn’t seem to be coming back. Desperate to get the King to show himself and so absorbed with her grief that she loses all sensibility, Titania lifts the controlling enchantment off of Puck, also known as the Beast, freeing him to wreak havoc in the park. (The greater world is protected by walls of air — nothing, mundane or fantastical, gets in our out of the park while those walls, presumably conjured by Oberon, are up). The mortals trapped within are: Molly, recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend; Will, in love with a strange woman who dumped him a year ago; Henry, who can’t remember any of his life before the age of thirteen, and whose obsessive-compulsive habits drove away his boyfriend; and a group of homeless people rehearsing for a musical version of Soylent Green, led by Huff, who believes the Mayor of San Francisco is feeding the indigent population to each other in the soup kitchens. These mortals get wound up in the actions of the faeries, who are either giving over to sensual indulgence in what they presume to be their last hours, or who are seeking ways to put the Beast back under control.

There are things about this book which are really great. It’s definitely at its best when the faeries are the main focus. Titania and Oberon are sweeping, dramatic figures, and Adrian describes the lesser faeries in a way that balances nicely between whimsical and grotesque. The flashback section where Titania and Oberon have to watch their changeling child die is the strongest portion of the book. Because their magic cannot work on anything they care for, they have to turn to human medicine to try and save the Boy. They’re also struggling to deal with the emotional consequences of actually caring for a mortal child, as their self-absorption usually prevents such deep attachments to their changelings. Adrian does a great job showing how mortals perceive the faeries when they enter the mundane world, how the little magics affect them. He also — through his own background as a pediatrician — is able to evoke the tormented feelings of parents watching a child die with great sympathy and precision. The emotionality of this section is strong and compelling, and it paints a very clear picture.

As for the humans, their stories generally start off well enough — Molly, Will, and Henry, at least, inhabit complex emotional and psychological worlds. Huff and his tribe I could have done without. They seemed extraneous, none of them besides Huff developed any real personality, and I can’t figure out the purpose of the Soylent Green trope. Not having enough of a familiarity with that source material, I don’t know if there’s some larger theme at work there, or if the fixation is just a way to demonstrate the extent of Huff’s delusions. Regardless, it seems like that subplot only exists as a tacked-on way to have an analog for the Mechanicals, so that Titania has a fool to dote on when the Beast places her under an enchantment. But the lover-analogs are fOCSinating, if not wholly likeable. They all enter the story in liminal states, hedging between decisions, scared to take decisive action in controlling their lives, hesitant and varying degrees of pathetic. In this way, they’re precisely the opposite of Shakespeare’s lovers, who take to the woods for very specific reasons, but their ambiguity serves the opening of the story, because it makes them vulnerable to ethereal interference.

The second half of the book degrades into confused chaos, though. As the humans fall deeper under the faeries’ spell, the narrative quickly becomes jumbled and hazy. Molly and Will, whose stories had been compelling, get lost entirely in the enchanted shuffle. Henry’s experience is only somewhat clearer. The reader does learn some more pieces of the backstory, some threads that tie these seemingly unrelated people together, but there’s no real sense of a greater point to it, no driving force behind what’s happening, and no ultimate goal for them to work towards.

And perhaps that’s all to the author’s purpose. Perhaps that chaos is precisely what Adrian is aiming for, to portray the senselessness of the whirlwind the Beast creates. Which is why I say, if that’s the case, then it’s extremely well-done. But even well-done, it interfered with my ability to enjoy the book. I like a good, solid story, some sense of cohesion, which The Great Night lacks. As the mortals falls deeper into the madness of the night, their experiences become clogged with symbolism. Adrian takes it a step too far, I think, laying the metaphors on a bit too thick, and the story loses both coherence and emotional engagement as a result.

The ending of the book is a problem. Abrupt and anticlimactic, it circumvents any kind of resolution for the characters. The mortals’ stories, set up so well at the beginning, reach no conclusion. They don’t even move along — we don’t see any indication that they’ve been changed by their time in the woods, that they’ll go back to real life different than before, because we don’t see them at the end. There’s no sense of alteration or growth. No one has a dramatic arc except Titania, perhaps, and even her story ends ambiguously, with no denouement. Adrian throws the reader into a maelstrom and then never calms the seas. Again, this confusion might be intentional, but it’s unsatisfying.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book. I always enjoy seeing how other writers interpret Shakespearean themes, and sections of The Great Night are quite strong and worth reading. The story as a whole, however, just doesn’t hang together. The disparate threads never reconnect, too many characters never reach resolution, and too much seems extraneous. The Great Night is an interesting experiment, but the book would have profited from more tightening and precision.

My Birthday Tribute to Shakespeare

Today, bloggers from all over the world are celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday by sharing how Shakespeare has impacted their lives — Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for putting this project together.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at the age of eleven, when I picked up Romeo and Juliet on a whim. I was vacationing with my family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, strolling through a shop that had a table full of “required summer reading” — encouragement for vacationers to get a start on schoolwork. Never one who needed much encouragement to read, I decided Romeo and Juliet looked like something worth trying, and my mother, far from expressing bemusement at my choice, agreed, saying she thought I’d really like it. I started reading my first Shakespearean play on the sandy shores of Corolla Light, and by the end of the week, I was standing on the back deck of our rental house, declaiming Juliet’s balcony speech in my swimsuit for the benefit of my parents and a gathering of seagulls.

And that was pretty much it. From then on, I was hooked, and I couldn’t get enough. My mother started searching out Shakespeare productions every summer, and we toured all across Virginia in pursuit of new delights. I appropriated my father’s Riverside Shakespeare and spent hours poring over it, stretched out on the floor of my bedroom, reading King John, the Henry VIes, and Troilus and Cressida, just because I wanted to. I begged my 8th grade teacher to let us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream out loud, and I thoroughly frightened all the boys in AP Brit Lit 12 with my perhaps over-enthusiastic rendering of Lady Macbeth. In 2004, I made my first trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It wasn’t my first exposure to the company — I’d seen them as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express years earlier, doing Much Ado about Nothing in Charlottesville — but I was giddy at the realization that I could sit on the stage in such a gorgeous theatre. In college, I took up with an extracurricular Shakespeare performance troupe, which not only gave me the opportunity to act in and to direct some great shows, but which also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve had in my life — amazing people I might never have met if we hadn’t shared a love for Shakespeare’s words.

Fourteen years after that first encounter on the beach, I live in what was once a dizzy daydream for me: I got my BA in English and History at William & Mary, I hold a Master of Letters in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin College, and now I get to work for the American Shakespeare Center, where what I do all day long isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. I get up excited to go to work in the morning, and I’m happy to go to bed tired at night. I’m far from alone in this — I don’t know how many places there are where so many people voluntarily work so hard for so many long hours, just out of sheer love for what they’re doing. I feel so privileged to be part of a truly wonderful and dedicated community — and here again, as at William & Mary, I’ve made incredible friends, who are part of my world wholly due to our mutual love for Shakespeare.

With all of that, the impact that Shakespeare has had on my life is clearly huge. Shakespeare gave me not just a source of entertainment or a focus of study, but a career. My eleven-year-old self had no idea what she started when she opened up that text for the first time, and there are still some days I can’t believe my good fortune.

That impact goes far beyond my scholastic path and my budding career, though. I’ve come, over the years, to appreciate so much about Shakespeare — the wordplay, the rhetoric, his clever use of the space — but what attracted me at the first, and what still sticks with me more than anything, are his characters. Shakespeare populated his plays with such vibrant people, who are so real and so very human. Their words, their thoughts, and their emotions have thoroughly permeated my life. As a teenager, I looked to Beatrice, Kate, and Silvia for strength, for assurance that wit and spirit were valuable traits in a woman. I’ve long borrowed Helena’s words about Hermia to describe myself: “She was a vixen when she went to school, and though she be but little, she is fierce,” and the quote accompanying my picture in the yearbook as a senior in high school came from Beatrice: “But then there was a star danc’d, and under that was I born.” Last year, suffering from a broken heart, I took comfort from Adriana and Julia. In higher spirits in more recent months, the great queen Cleopatra has been my inspiration. I think about the rhetorical cleverness and persuasive power of Mark Antony and Henry V when I speak and write. These magnificent characters always have something to say to me, and there’s always something new to discover within them.

So, happy birthday, Bill. Thanks for bringing so much delight into my life, for filling my world with the most amazing people, both fictional and real, and for providing me with a passion worth giving myself over to. Here’s to your next 447 years.

"A fine volley of words, gentlemen, and quickly shot off" — Two Gentlemen of Verona

Yesterday afforded Stauntonites a rare opportunity — not just the chance to see the little-performed (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) Two Gentlemen of Verona, but the chance to see two different productions of it in the same day. Mary Baldwin College’s MLitt/MFA Acting I class undertook a new challenge this year: mounting a 90-minute production as a culmination of the semester’s work. Directors Matt Davies and Colleen Kelly split the class into two casts, and both directors worked with both sets of actors at some point during the rehearsal process. I entered the Playhouse full of excitement, because — as my colleagues know and don’t hesitate to tease me about — Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of my pet favorite plays. I have a bizarre affinity for it and will vehemently champion its worth to any nay-sayers. Because companies produce this play so infrequently, however (it joins Cymbeline and Pericles as the least-performed comedies at the OCS), I haven’t had the chance to see a production in several years. As such, this opportunity was a real treat for me. The day reminded me just why I love this play so unabashedly, but it also reminded me why I think it deserves more study, to tease out the troubles it contains.

Seeing the play twice in one day illuminated the challenges that Two Gentlemen of Verona presents. I’m not just talking about the very odd relationship dynamics in the final scene — though I will get to that — I’m talking about the play as a whole, which juxtaposes quick, snappy banter with moments of real emotional searching and distress. Two Gents uses, more than any other play of Shakespeare’s, the device of stichomythia, the rapid alternation of lines between characters. You can see it at play in sections of The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III, and The Comedy of Errors comes close to using it as overwhelmingly as Two Gentlemen of Verona does, but nowhere else do as many characters volley words back and forth so much and so often. Both productions kept up the speed, using the stichomythia as an indication for delivery, but it was the first production that took that as their cue for the whole play. The first production had a broadly comic, slapstick sort of feel. They embraced the ridiculous situations, the bad puns, and the delightful humor of the clowns Launce and Speed. This approach definitely highlights the laughter, and it makes for enjoyable viewing

The trouble, though, is that the play also has real poignancy to it, and the rapidity of the language can sometimes overwhelm the need to let the characters have a little space to breathe. It’s easy, certainly, to play Two Gents just for laughs, and all of that stichomytha encourages the temptation. When your focus is on speed, on the back-and-forth of quips and cutting remarks, you can get a barreling-on effect. This approach is good in some ways, but I think that it ultimately undersells the characters.

For anyone unfamiliar with the play, what happens is this: Valentine and Proteus were best friends back in Verona. Valentine left first to join the Emperor’s court in Milan, where he fell in love with the Duke of Milan’s daughter, Silvia. Proteus initially stayed at home with his love, Julia, but when his father sends him along to Milan, he also falls in love with Silvia, and he decides to betray both Valentine and Julia to get her. Proteus exposes Valentine’s plan to elope with Silvia and gets Valentine banished. Julia, meanwhile, dresses like a boy and takes off for Milan to find Proteus. She discovers Proteus wooing Silvia (who is having none of this nonsense), but, despite her anguish, becomes his page in order to be near him. Silvia runs off to the forest to find Valentine, but gets kidnapped by brigands (the same who have made Valentine their chief).

This play is consumed by relationship dynamics — lovers, friends, parents, masters and servants — and in order for relationships to sell, the actors can’t succumb to the temptation to play only for laughs. There are too many moments that lay open the characters’ hearts and minds to the audience, and I thought the second production of the day hit these quite nicely. Julia’s decision to crossdress and to flee to Milan becomes less a gimmick and more a dire decision when you see her maid Lucetta genuinely worried for her safety, and it comments on her relationship with Proteus to hear Lucetta telling her, in stark honesty, that he’s just not worth it, warning her that (as the audience by now knows he has) he might have changed his mind. Silvia demonstrates fierce loyalty, not only to Valentine, but to Julia, a woman she doesn’t even know, as well. Her language when she chides Proteus for his deceit is as delightfully invective and as strong as anything that comes out of Kate’s or Beatrice’s mouth. Valentine has to convey his love for Silvia whole-heartedly, especially in his woeful post-banishment speech, or else he just comes off as a dope. Proteus, more than anyone, needs to show some emotional depth, or else he’s an entirely unsuccessful protagonist. We need to see him struggle with his decision to betray his friend and his lover, and his monologue in 2.6 walks an actor through his rationalization. During that monologue, the audience needs to see the discovery happen within him — to see him brush off hesitation in favor of lust, to see him talk himself into doing very bad things.

All of that emotional investment pays off — or, at least, it should — in the final scene. Proteus, following after Silvia, “rescues” her from the brigands, but when she delivers him another stinging set-down, he tries to rape her. Yes, rape. Yes, in a comedy. Valentine rescues Silvia and berates Proteus for his betrayal. Proteus repents, and Valentine (in strict accord with the rules of homosocial male friendship) accepts his apology and offers Silvia to him. Yes, he offers his fiancee to the man who just tried to rape her. Julia faints, then reveals herself, Proteus decides he loves her after all, and they all live happily ever after.

This is a weird scene, but the underpinnings of the relationship dynamics can clear up a lot. I could go on and on about it, as it formed a large portion of my Master’s thesis (and if you ever want to get me chatting for a good uninterrupted forty-five minutes or so, just ask) — but here I’ll confine myself to the considerations that were in my head last afternoon and evening: There are two ways to stage this. You can either move really fast, embracing absurdity, sending up what appears to be a completely ridiculous reversal. Or, you can let the moments be awkward and uncomfortable. You can let it be troubling. In my opinion, the latter is the better option. I see Two Gents as having as much of a problem ending as, say, Measure for Measure — and the great thing about problem endings is you don’t have to solve them. They have permission to be conflicting.

I was delighted when the second performance’s Silvia reacted so strongly, so negatively, to Valentine attempting to give her to Proteus. Silvia has no lines after Proteus’s attempted rape, but I don’t think that’s an error or an oversight on Shakespeare’s part, nor do I think her silence necessarily implies consent to what’s going on — either the attempted handing-off or Valentine’s reclaiming — not any more than Isabella’s silence in Measure for Measure implies her consent. I think her silence is conspicuous. Valentine acts precisely as he should in the dogma of male friendship, which had been, since the time of Aristotle, a codified relationship, considered the purest and most fulfilling of any human bonds. Many philosophers promoted the idea that “friends hold all things in common” — including, sometimes, wives. Not that you could have them at the same time (usually), but if your friend falls in love with your girl, the honorable thing to prove your devotion to him is to offer her up, as Valentine does. The supremacy of this homosocial dynamic was a familiar trope throughout the Middle Ages, and you can see it at work in other plays of the early modern period — Endymion, Damon and Pithias, The Maid’s Tragedy — but during the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was starting to fall out of fashion as a desirable relationship model. Throughout Two Gents, Shakespeare twists the standard language of male friendship around in a way that I believe is satirical. The end scene is not a promotion of this ideal, but rather an exposition of the trope’s flaws. Silvia’s silence calls attention to the problem of leaving women, romantic love, and sexual desire out of the equation. Sending the final scene up for pure comedy not only glosses over the very real problem of the attempted rape, but also discredits the underlying complexities of Shakespeare’s criticism.

I don’t know if the Acting I class will attempt the same experiment again next year, with two directors sharing two casts of the same play, but for this year, it definitely provided me with a welcome opportunity to reflect on one of my favorite plays. Seeing two different productions throws a lot of moments into stark contrast — and one of the main tenets of OCS Education is to try scenes different ways, discovering what effect different choices can have. Congratulations to both casts on all their hard work!

Pluck It Down — Experiencing 3 HENRY VI at the Blackfriars Playhouse

Overheard at the Playhouse last Saturday night, in escalating probability of physical violence ensuing:

  • “Yeah, I’m not sure I can sit with you. Not if you’re wearing that rose.”
  • “There are way too many Lancastrians in this building. We need to even the odds.”
  • “Is she wearing one of each color?” “Must be a Warwick.”
  • “I side with winners, thank you.”
  • “Traitor!” “Oh, you can talk.”
  • “Oh, sure, wear the murderer’s color.”
  • “I can’t believe you’re wearing Henry’s colors.” “I’m wearing Margaret‘s colors.”
  • “Who won in the bracket?” “Well, no one, yet!” “But who won the semi-final? Richard didn’t win. Margaret. Margaret won.”
  • “Who wins? Tell me who wins!” “We do!” “You do not! Henry of Richmond is not a Lancaster! He’s from a totally different house!”
  • “Who is left standing at the end of this play? Who is left standing? You answer me that!”

As we say in the South, “Them’s fightin’ words.” The occasion which precipitated these verbal volleys was the closing night of 3 Henry VI, from our Actors’ Renaissance Season. To encourage the rivalry between the Houses whose conflict drives the plot of the play, the box office sold white Yorkist and red Lancastrian roses, so that any and all could proclaim their loyalties. The box office staff informs me that they sold over 60 roses that night, so it would appear that many of us feel quite strongly about the question of which branch of a centuries’-extinct dynasty should wield monarchical authority. I witnessed two fistfights (mostly joking) nearly break out, saw lovers managing to sit side-by-side while wearing different colors, and overheard, during both the pre-show and the interlude, any number of slurs, challenges, and insults, thrown about by a proud and suddenly partisan audience.

What fOCSinated me about the ambiance of the evening was seeing how involved nearly everyone in the audience had become with the family drama of the play. Admittedly, a closing night audience at the Blackfriars Playhouse can be a bit of a stacked deck, because it tends to draw in a lot of regulars, a lot of MBC students, a lot of friends and families. Last weekend, we had the OCS’s touring troupe in the house as well, along with large Little Academe groups in from Penn State Harrisburg and Baldwin-Wallace College — so it was an audience predisposed to be riotously joyful. Certainly this success speaks to our wonderfully skilled actors — I also overheard several people saying they’d never seen better performances out of this group, that the show left them constantly and literally on the edges of their seats, that they were exhausted by the sheer emotionality of the performances. 3 Henry VI is definitely an ensemble show, and this ensemble did a thoroughly captivating job making such a large cast of characters compelling. Rather than following a single, straightforward rise and fall, where causes have prescribed effects, 3 Henry VI exists in a more chaotic and haphazard universe. The play is a series of great moments, all belonging to different people, and so the cast must work together to wring emotional response from the audience each time someone new triumphs or flounders. The twists and turnabouts, rocketing from extremes of sympathy to revulsion, would test the ability of any actor, and ours met the challenge admirably.

Another reason for this active audience engagement is that the story itself is just so good. Shakespeare was working with great material, so it’s easy to see why history plays were among the most popular and most-often-produced in the sixteenth century. Admittedly, the Henry VI plays, written so early in Shakespeare’s career, do have their flaws, but a large gulf can exist between the technical merit of the script and the visceral enjoyment experienced by the actors and the audience. If the OCS has proven anything in the last three Actors’ Renaissance Seasons, it’s that these plays can be just as crowd-pleasing and energetic as the more widely appreciated plays in the canon. Even at the OCS, we perform fewer histories than any other genre, because of the popular perception that the public won’t receive them as well as effervescent comedies or psychologically wealthy tragedies, but so many recent productions, 3 Henry VI among them, have put the lie to that assumption. On Saturday night, the Playhouse was electrified, sizzling, the audience members enraptured by the events unspooling in front of them. The feeling at intermission was more akin to that of a major sporting event than a typical theatrical performance. I’m so glad that I live and work in a place where I can heatedly argue the succession of the English crown in the fifteenth century on a Saturday night — and have dozens of others in on the discussion as well — a place where these events still resonate through their theatrical mirrors, where people have come to care enough to pick one rose over the other and to defend their choice vigorously.

For what it’s worth, I do have to confess a personal stake in the affair: I am a descendent by blood of the House of York, I wear the white rose, and I wear it proudly.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 25 March 2011

This week: the value of teachers and the quality of education, some international news, and a slew of focused essays on Shakespeare’s works.

  • An international panel is encouraging the U.S. to raise teachers’ status. Cass says: Whenever this topic comes up, I remember the fantastic speech Sam Seaborne makes in an episode of The West Wing, when he says that schools should be palaces, that teachers should be making six-figure salaries and that the competition to be the best should be fierce. Why aren’t teachers held to the same standards and given the same respect (and salaries) as doctors? Surely they hold a place of equivalent significance to a society’s success.
  • At the same time, U.S. colleges are getting praise from the Brits (who are currently facing their own struggles with education). Sarah says: Hmmm, maybe we do some things right…
  • This article about students texting in class has an interesting link to Shakespeare — towards the end of the article, the teacher discusses methods she’s taken to switch things up in her classroom and encourage her students’ attention to stay on her and on their work rather than on their phones — and one of those methods is getting students up to act out scenes from Hamlet rather than just reading them. Cass says: I wonder if this might be a way to convince some teachers who are still reluctant about classroom staging to give it a try — after all, if your student has a text in his hand and everyone’s eyes on him in the center of the classroom, he’s probably not going to be whipping out his smartphone for a Facebook update.
  • The British education secretary has proposed an initiative to get students as young as 11 reading 50 books a year. Cass says: I think this is a great idea, and I’m confused by all the hullabaloo it’s generated. On the one hand, folk are saying that the government shouldn’t be mandating literature, that they shouldn’t be giving citizens a required reading list (and, it’s worth noting, they aren’t — the proposal has some suggestions, but no forced list), and on the other hand, some are saying that if students just read any fifty books, what’s the point? If they just read “junk,” what’s the benefit? Shouldn’t quality matter more than quantity? Well, I can’t see how getting students — or adults! — reading more is a bad thing. I’d rather someone reading fifty trashy romance novels or than someone who reads nothing at all. Brain candy books have merit, too — your imagination and the language centers of your brain get stimulated whether it’s classic literature or not. In order to get them reading quality, you first have to get them reading at all.
  • In an age when celebrities like Victoria Beckham declare that they’ve never read a book in their lives with no apparent shame or dismay about that, it’s encouraging to see this list of the 15 Most Well-Educated Celebrities.
  • Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust has had a series of Shakespeare debates featuring students aged 15-18. Cass says: I love this idea. From the quotes this article displays, it looks like it’s really getting the students into the nitty-gritty of the play, making them think critically about the character dynamics and the human emotions swirling about in Othello.
  • An interesting op-ed, in the wake of the earthquake in Japan, on how Shakespeare’s words can help cope with grieving.
  • An essay from a Catholic perspective on Henry V and the idea of a “just war.” This essay looks both at Shakespeare’s text, the historical reality, and the scripture relating to declaring war. Cass says: Even if you’re not Catholic, it’s an interesting read, and something worth a dramaturg’s notice.
  • Open Shakespeare has an intriguing essay examining the Macbeths’ marriage. The author asserts that Lord and Lady M are the only “real personalities,” the well-developed characters in the play (Cass says: Not sure I agree there — I would argue that Banquo and Macduff have a fair bit of depth going on as well) and that they are “Shakespeare’s happiest married couple.”
  • The British Museum will be hosting a “blockbuster Shakespeare show” in advance of the 2012 Olympics. “London 1612: Shakespeare’s Theatre of the World … will explore the role of the capital as an emerging international city 400 years ago, interpreted through his plays. The blockbuster show will include more than 150 exhibits, including important paintings from national and private collections, rare jewels and manuscripts including a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.” Cass says: As though I needed more things tempting me into a trip to London.

Why Cass Loves Rhetoric

Yesterday I had to ask Twitter for help finding an example of syllepsis in Shakespeare, but asking that question necessitated first defining the term adequately, and finding the answer necessitated defining what syllepsis is not. Then I had to examine the suggestions that came in to determine which were and were not examples of syllepsis. It’s a tricky term, and getting a grasp on it requires tackling some of the issues that frequently come up when working with these devices — where do the boundaries lie, and how can I distinguish one rhetorical figure from another? When, with help from colleagues across the world, I was able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion — a neat, concise definition with a clear and relatively unambiguous example — I felt triumphant, jubilant. I had won.

I love rhetoric. That is absolutely no secret. I become giddily happy when some part of my day involves sitting down with a chunk of text and pulling it to pieces to find all the rhetorical goodies inside. Sarah once asked me why it is that rhetoric excites me so much. In many ways, it’s down to that feeling of winning when I figure something out — rhetoric is like a game to me. It’s an exciting challenge, a goal that I can meet. I imagine this is the way that math-oriented people feel about numbers or the way that computer programmers feel about coding. I look at a block of text and think: This is a problem, and I know I can solve it. For that reason, I find working with rhetoric immensely satisfying on a quite visceral level.

I also think rhetoric has a lot to teach us, not just about how Shakespeare uses language, but about how we all do. Anthimeria, once a marker of exceptionally high verbal and creative intelligence (as I’ve discussed before), is now something that almost every English-speaker does on a daily basis, largely due to the influence of communications technology — we Google something, rather than using Google to find it, we friend someone on Facebook rather than becoming someone’s friend on Facebook. So it’s not as though these concepts are archaic or of value only to poets and graduate students; it’s just that often we don’t know the terms for what we’re doing. Knowing about rhetoric, I believe, makes you a smarter, more aware, and more active listener.

I play the rhetorical game with myself when I listen to political speeches — I have these tools which make me aware of when someone is trying to manipulate my thoughts or emotions. That’s a valuable skill, and one I believe more of us should have a grasp of, particularly in a pluralistic society with so many different people expressing their opinions, and with the 24-hour news cycle allowing so many of those people to jostle for our attention on a regular basis. A decent grasp of rhetoric can help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Rhetoric helps you answer the questions: Who should I listen to? Who expresses himself well? Who’s hiding something from me? Our political structure demands informed decision-making from voters (or, at least, it ought to), and a grasp of rhetoric can make you more informed. If nothing else, listening more critically to how public speakers use language encourages the audience to question, to probe, and to think critically about the message, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Finally, knowing your way around rhetoric helps you become a more effective and more graceful writer and speaker. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew this, and so did anyone receiving a classical education from the medieval period on up through the 19th century, but it’s an art that has, if not quite died out, at least faded over the past century. It’s now a more specialized skill for certain kinds of writers than it is a part of the general knowledge base for anyone with an education. And that’s a shame. In our communications-driven world, writing is an essential skill for success, but we no longer provide students with this set of tools that they can use to become excellent writers. Rhetoric helps you craft your message in a way that is clear and effective, and that’s a talent worth cultivating, no matter what trade you’re in. If you want to sell yourself and your ideas, rhetorical devices will help you get there.

I’ve seen some opinions that rhetoric shouldn’t be used in high school classrooms — that it’s too advanced, too confusing, involves too many frightening Greek words. While I agree that throwing hendiadys, anthimeria, and anaphora at beginners right off the bat would be a mistake, I don’t think there’s any reason that high schoolers can’t learn rhetoric. I encountered many of these devices first in Latin class, as a tenth-grader. Was it a challenge to learn the figures and to determine how authors use them? Of course. But just because something is challenging doesn’t mean that teachers should shy away from it — entirely the opposite, in fact.

Towards that end, I’m building a two-tiered introduction to rhetoric for both teachers and students. The first level of initiation is R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric, born out of my desire to simplify and Christina’s innate talent for mnemonic devices. At the entry-level, rather than learning the specific Greek terms, my goal is to get students to recognize five basic kinds of rhetorical manipulation: Repetition, Omission, Addition, Direction, and Substitution. The divisions are my own; I didn’t follow Aristotle or Quintilian or Puttenham. I decided to start fresh with a system that would be accessible and easy-to-understand for modern students.

R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric will be included in next year’s Study Guides as part of the expanded “Basics” section. We’ll be encouraging teachers to look to rhetoric for character clues and to bring out greater comprehension of Shakespeare’s use of language. Recognizing the patterns and the choices made by an author, whether Shakespeare or anyone else, helps you to understand how that author crafts character, mood, motifs, and ideas. With Shakespeare, the exploration is particularly exciting, because he’s just plain so good at it. I think introducing rhetoric to the study of Shakespeare at the entry-level is a way to help students see why it is that we make such a fuss over him. Students won’t need to take a teacher’s word for it that he was brilliant if they can see for themselves how he used the building blocks of wordsmithing in inventive and ingenious ways. Rhetoric is, to take a scientific way of looking at it, empirical evidence that Shakespeare really is as good as we say he is.

The second tier of rhetorical study opens up examination of the specific terms. Nuance is important; looking at the sweeping generalities of type will certainly yield results, but for the student or actor who wants to get deeper into the mechanics of a character’s language, to find the hidden clues to personality or thought process, delving into a detailed rhetorical analysis has great profit. That’s where the specific terms come into play — and I do mean play. I think that treating rhetoric with a game mentality could be a great way to engage both halves of the brain, and thus to reach students who might otherwise struggle with the concept. I freely admit that this may not be for everyone, perhaps especially at the high school level (it wasn’t to the tastes of everyone in my class at the grad school level, after all), but for those students who are interested or for those teachers looking to challenge their classes, I want to give them the tools to explore.

To this end, I’m devising a Teacher’s Guide to Rhetoric. This guide lists fifty of the most common rhetorical devices, broken down first by R.O.A.D.S. and then by specifications within those categories. For example, a device of repetition might be listed as repetition of sounds, of words or phrases, or of grammatical structure. For each device, I provide a selection of examples of its use in Shakespeare’s plays, along with a commentary about what that may indicate for character choices and questions to ask when you encounter the device in use. Though I call it a Teacher’s Guide, due to the inclusion of classroom-oriented activities and writing exercises, I don’t see that there’s any reason a student or an actor couldn’t use the guide as well. The bulk of it is designed for accessibility, to explain the terms in a clear and concise way that opens doors for better understanding of Shakespeare’s characters and the dynamics of his plays.

I’m also creating a set of rhetorical flashcards — each one has the name of a device on one side, then the R.O.A.D.S. type, the definition of the term, and at least one example out of Shakespeare on the other. We’ll be giving these flashcards out to the teachers who attend our April Teacher Seminar, and hopefully we’ll also eventually have them for sale to any interested parties. These flashcards will be ideal for studying, to learn the terms, but will also be a valuable quick-reference source.

And, for anyone who was wondering, syllepsis is when a single word which governs or modifies two or more other words or phrases must be understood differently with respect to each. The example we settled on was Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, declaring, “Let’s have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives heels.” And isn’t that a lovely way to turn a phrase? As I post this entry, however, Dr. Ralph is debating the application with me (is a difference between figurative and literal interpretation enough to qualify?) — so, if any of our readers have an even better example, I’d love to hear it! Another great thing about rhetoric: it opens up so many discussions about using language.

International Shakespeare

The past week has given me several occasions to consider Shakespeare in an international context. On Friday, we had visitors from the International Leaders in Education Program, who are currently spending a semester at James Madison University, come down to the playhouse for a tour, a couple of workshops, and a production of The Comedy of Errors. The group was wonderfully diverse — Morocco, Kenya, Senegal, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Brazil, that I can remember. Most were teachers of English in their home countries, and most had been introduced to Shakespeare at the university level. What surprised me, though, was the selection of plays that foreign students receive the most exposure to: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and… The Merchant of Venice, of all things. Those were, far and away, the three that most of our visitors had had experience with, regardless of which country they came from. The choice surprises me because The Merchant of Venice tends to be a play, because of the culturally prejudicial difficulties presented by the text, that American schools don’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. You’ll get the occasional brave teacher, of course, but on the whole, we shy away from it here. It made me curious as to why that play has so much appeal in other countries.

More broadly, however, talking with these teachers piqued my curiosity about teaching Shakespeare outside of the US, the UK, and other English-speaking nations. What is Shakespeare like when taught to those learning English as a second (or third, or fourth) language? What is a production of a Shakespeare play like when presented in a country where English isn’t the primary language? I wonder if foreign students approach Shakespeare with more or less trepidation than American students often do. Are the “thee”s and “thou”s that so intimidate modern students more or less of a problem? I suspect the concept might come easier in those countries whose languages still retain the formal and informal pronouns. I’m curious what challenges might arise as well — would they be the same as we face in American classrooms, or entirely different?

Then, over the weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Globe Education’s Ryan Nelson, who is their digital media guru. He told me about the Globe’s 2012 project, which will be presenting all 38 plays in the Shakespeare canon in different languages, by companies from around the world . The project is part of the Cultural Olympiad leading up to London’s hosting of the Olympic Games (see the Globe’s press release or Twitter hashtag #Globe2012 for their updates). I’ll be so interested to hear how this project goes. Will curiosity drive audiences in to see a familiar play in an unfamiliar language? How easy would it be to follow along? I have to confess my own deficiencies here — I never learned a spoken foreign language. One year of French did me in, but I wonder if my many years of Latin would help me understand an Italian Julius Caesar or a Spanish Henry VIII. Knowing the source, and having that background to the Romance languages, would I be able to keep up in some fashion? It would be fOCSinating to find out — and if I somehow end up in London in the spring of 2012, I’ll certainly try to find out.

The idea of performing Shakespeare in languages other than English brings up its own interesting point. At the OCS, we believe that the heart of Shakespeare’s works lives in his text in performance, and we talk so frequently about his mastery with the English language — how many words he added to it, how freely he played with grammatical expectations, how deft a wordsmith he was. What is it about his mastery that can transcend that language, to continue to have appeal in Italian or Portuguese, in Urdu or Maori? And do other cultures perceive different messages from his plays than those of us in an English, Western background do? As Sarah discussed back in October, there’s a lot to consider when translating Shakespeare into another language.

I’d be interested to hear if any of our readers have had experience with Shakespeare in a foreign language, or have seen a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays presented in English in a country where English isn’t the dominant language. How is it different from Shakespeare in the US or the UK?

"But give me leave to try success": Goals and Achievements from 2010 to 2011

Yesterday, I served as the recorder for the OCS’s strategic planning meeting, which meant I had the privilege of listening in on several of our department heads and board members as they decided how we want to most focus our company’s efforts. Between that and the expected slew of New Year’s Resolutions I’ve been seeing around the Internet, I’ve been thinking a lot about goals and planning. I’ve been with the OCS for just over six months now, so this seems as good a time as any to look back and see what I’ve done so far as a part of the OCS Education team.

2010 Achievements

  • New study guides. When I came on in June, I took this project over from Christina, who had already started us down the new road. These guides were my first project at the OCS, and I’m ridiculously proud of them — they’re so much more directed towards our mission than the earlier generations of guides were, and they’re designed to help teachers get the students on their feet so they can explore the plays as they were meant to be experienced.
  • The Playhouse Insider. This is a huge thing, because we’ve never done something quite like this before. I’m so pleased with how it turned out — the articles are great (thank you, contributors!), the layout is beautiful, and there’s so much room for growth.
  • Growth of the blog — That’s right, this blog. We now get almost 900 hits a month, and that average is rising all the time. So thanks for reading, everyone! I’m so glad to have you all here.
  • Increased confidence in leading workshops, seminars, etc. I’ve gone from basically shadowing Sarah to feeling capable of developing and leading workshops on my own, and it’s been a blast. Whether it’s talking to high school students or retirees in the Road Scholars program, I make new discoveries each time I have the opportunity to share Shakespeare with a new group.
  • Tracking web mentions of the company. This project is ongoing, but I’ve been using Google Alerts to let me know whenever someone out there in the ‘tubes is talking about the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse. It’s been fOCSinating to see where we get mentioned (it’s a great way to keep track of our touring troupe, for one thing!), and it’s also made sure that I get to see what people are saying about us in blogs and reviews from outside the Shenandoah region.
  • I’ve learned how to use Google Docs. This program has made such a huge difference to how education has been able to build documents, refine language, and otherwise communication.
  • Twitter presence. Brand-new for the OCS this year, the whole education department got on Twitter back in the summer. I currently have 53 followers from all over the US and the UK, and the whole experience has been wonderful so far.
  • Facebook growth — Together with the marketing and development teams, we’ve seen steady and significant growth in our “likes” and followers on our Facebook page over the past six months. I use Facebook a lot to redirect to our website or to this blog, and it’s definitely increased traffic.

Not bad for six months, I think. I’m feeling particularly pleased because so many of the projects under my purview contribute to one of the company’s main strategic goals, of enhancing our company’s visibility in the world at large. OCS Education had a great year overall in 2010 — our summer programs were nearly at capacity, we had thousands of students in for school matinees, our seminars and Little Academes all went so well — the whole department has a lot to celebrate.

So, with those things achieved, or at least put into action, where do I want to be by this time next year? Here are my professional goals for my work in OCS Education in 2011 — things I’d like to improve on, expand, or achieve.

2011 Goals

  • 6 new study guides in enhanced format. With help from the rest of the education team, I’ll be building guides this year for Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Richard III, Much Ado about Nothing, and Julius Caesar, and ideally, I’d like them all in the spiffy format our Othello guide was in this year.
  • Online resources for students. Our study guides, as they are, are geared towards teachers; we’d like to re-purpose some of those activities and to build some new projects that we can put out on the web to help students who are looking for resources on Shakespeare.
  • Expand The Playhouse Insider. I’m so excited about this project, and I want to make it even better in 2011. More articles, more world-class scholars as contributors, and, hopefully, a wider readership.
  • Read the Complete Middleton. Okay, this goal isn’t strictly professional, but I’ve had the Middleton Complete Works since last Christmas, and I’ve only cracked it open a few times. This year, I want to read as many of his plays as I can — especially since the OCS has started producing so many of them.
  • More Twitter followers — I’d love to break 100, at the least.
  • Continued growth of blog popularity — Since we went from practically zero to 900 views per month in just the last five months of last year, I’m going to aim for 2000 views a month by the end of 2011.
  • Use all of these social media connections to further relationships with other Shakespeare organizations, both in the US and internationally.
  • Host a successful Blackfriars Conference. This is obviously far from my sole responsibility, but OCS Education will be busy with this through much of the year. I want the conference to run as smoothly as possible, for all of our visiting scholars and other participants to enjoy themselves, and for everyone to learn a little something and come away with some new ideas.

I think it’s going to be a great year. We in OCS Education have so many exciting plans and things we want to make happen, and we definitely have the drive to get to our goals. I love working with Sarah, Christina, Doreen, and our interns, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the interns that will be starting in January, as well as newest team member Tom, who’s recently come on to help with our summer programming.

How about you folks? Any Shakespeare-related resolutions? I know there are several reading challenges floating out on the Internet, or maybe you’ve set a personal goal. Share, if you have — I’d love to hear about it!

Ophelia, Desdemona, and Juliet vs Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola — Is the Tragedy Bias in Schools Sexist?

This post is credit in part to Duane at ShakespeareGeek, because the idea came to me after perusing the responses to a post of his asking “What Shakespeare did you read in high school?” (And if you haven’t popped over there to tell him your experience — do so). The responses have been more or less what I expected — a lot of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, occasionally subbing in Othello or King Lear. Only infrequently does a comedy make the list, almost always A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It — but even those are rare appearances in the curriculum.

It’s long perturbed me that so many high schools will insist on only beating kids over the heads with the tragedies. Now, don’t get me wrong. The tragedies have great material, obviously, and most of it is not beyond your average high-schooler’s capacity to grasp. I just think that you’re more likely to get the kind of excited, engaged reaction we hope for out of teaching the comedies. (I know plenty of folk may disagree with me and think that the comedies rely too much on obscure jokes and convoluted language; flatly, I just believe those naysayers are wrong). I think it’s far easier for teachers to fall into traps with the tragedies, and to get bogged down in the doom and gloom that might be off-putting. Ignoring the comedies causes teachers to miss out on so many opportunities — clever wordplay, cross-dressing heroines, puns galore, and the bawdy, earthy, genuine sexuality that would give teachers a better chance to hook kids on Shakespeare and to keep their attention. Then, once you’ve convinced them it’s good stuff, you’ll have better luck getting them interested in the tragedies.

But that particular pet peeve of mine is a fight for another day. What’s just occurred to me on reading Duane’s post and its responses, however, is the notion that there might be something a little more insidious clinging on to these curriculum choices. The tragedies, far more than the comedies, are boy-centric, peopled with male figures, concerned with the problems and personal journeys of men. I have to wonder — Is the dogged adherence to teaching the same few tragedies in high schools perhaps the legacy of centuries’ worth of education as a male-dominated institution? Teaching, at least at the pre-collegiate levels, has become a more female domain, but that certainly has not always been the case. Do we teach Hamlet and Caesar simply because that’s what has always been taught, never minding what cultural norms might have influenced those decisions centuries ago?

Of course there are women in the tragedies — but, in most cases, hardly women we’d want high-school students emulating. Half the women in the tragedies are the bad guys, after all — Lady M, Goneril, Regan. The heroines of these plays, in the meantime, come off as a little weak. Ophelia is most effective in poignancy, and Gertrude is either astonishingly naive, or her strongest moment is in drinking poison. Portia and Calpurnia barely get any stage time at all in one of the most-frequently-taught tragedies. Cordelia may be sweet and well-intentioned, but her dramatic purpose is pretty much to die to make Lear feel bad about himself. Additionally, the women of the tragedies almost universally act only in reaction to the male central figures. Lady Macbeth may be an exception at the beginning of Macbeth, but she loses that dynamism and that ability to affect events as the play goes on. Juliet is perhaps the most proactive female among the commonly-taught tragedies, but we’d hardly want our fourteen-year-old students following her example. Most of the tragic women, however, don’t have agendas of their own, they don’t take initiative — they respond (usually by dying).

And even when those women do appear, they hardly get the stage time or line counts of their male counterparts. The largest female role in a tragedy is Cleopatra, with close to 700, and she is the exception to pretty much everything I’ve said about women in tragedies so far — and she’s the central figure of a play most high schools don’t attempt. Juliet comes in 2nd, a little over 500, but after that it’s down to Desdemona, just under 400, and Emilia and Lady Macbeth, at around 250 each. Gertrude, Ophelia, all three of the Lear sisters — none of these ladies bank more than 200 lines. Compare that to Iago’s 1100, Othello’s nearly 900, Lear at close to 800, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra) at around 750, Brutus at about 700, Romeo and Macbeth topping 600, and, of course, Hamlet trumping them all at over 1400 lines, nearly as long in his one role as some of Shakespeare’s shorter plays.

The girls, overall, get a much fairer shake in the comedies. Rosalind speaks more than twice as much as her male counterpart, almost 700 to Orlando’s almost 300. Helena speaks almost 100 more lines than Demetrius, and Lysander only has Hermia by about 10; Helena has the third-most lines in the play, falling only just short of Nick Bottom and Theseus. Viola and Olivia top 300, about the same as Feste and Sir Toby, and far more than the romantic heroes of Twelfth Night. Benedick only outstrips Beatrice by about 60 lines. There also tend to be, overall, more women in the comedies than in the tragedies. Midsummer has Helena, Hermia, Titania, and Hippolyta; Much Ado has Beatrice, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula; Love’s Labour’s Lost has the four ladies plus country-girl Jaquenetta; As You Like It has Rosalind, Celia, Phoebe, and Audrey. These women also tend to be in more scenes, making the female presence on stage far greater in the comedies than in the tragedies.

Furthermore, the women of the comedies make their own decisions and act as their own agents. They are, if not always the sole central characters, sharing the stage much more evenly, and they are certainly the characters whose decisions drive the plot in many of the comedies. They often act in defiance of men’s wishes or of societal expectations, rather than succumbing. And, perhaps most importantly, they live. Fiery and feisty and resilient, they live. They survive shipwrecks, heartbreaks, wildernesses, outlaws, exiles, threats of execution — and they go on to triumph. For this, I find the women of the comedies just plain more interesting that the women of the tragedies. Shakespeare seems to give them a lot more credit.

So why don’t we showcase Beatrice’s wit to our high-schoolers? Viola’s eloquence, Rosalind’s spirit, Hermia and Helena’s passions, Titania’s magic, Kate’s fire, Portia’s cleverness? Why does our focus default to the male perspective?

I wonder if it has something to do with something that’s more generally pervasive in our culture — the notion that it’s the male viewpoint that’s considered universal. This debate came up recently in the film world with Disney’s decision first to rebrand the film Rapunzel as Tangled, then to stop making fairy tales all together, because they don’t market as well to boys. Boys, after all, don’t want to go see a movie about a girl, but girls will readily see movies about boys, so Disney’s turning to the Pixar model of the male universal viewpoint. There was also a minor hullabaloo in the literary world this past summer over the marginalization of female authors and female-dominated genres. Publishers and production companies routinely appeal to male readers and male audiences, despite that women go to more movies and purchase more books — precisely because they know they can bank on the women turning up and forking over cash anyway. The bias continues to get validated.

So I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that this trend has carried over, even subconsciously, to how we teach Shakespeare and which of his plays we select. We can get a 16-year-old girl to consider Hamlet, to dig into his words and his psyche, even to identify with him and his struggle, but a 16-year-old boy is far less willing to extend that courtesy for Beatrice or Rosalind. Even within Hamlet, I’m sure it holds true — I’d love to hear from teachers about how many boys choose to write their essays on Ophelia or Gertrude, versus how many girls do. I know as a student in high school and college, I wrote my assignments on the female characters whenever possible, looking closely at Lady Macbeth’s language, trying to coax out Gertrude’s backbone, attempting to vindicate Goneril and Regan, positing Juliet as the far stronger character than Romeo — not out of any desire to make a stand for feminism, but simply because those were the characters, the arcs, and the issues that most interested me. It would’ve been nice, however, to have had the opportunity to consider a female character who was central, rather than marginal, who was the main focus of the play and the instigator of action, rather than a sidelined role.

The good news is that I don’t appear to be alone in desiring an appeal on behalf of the comedies. A few of the teachers who replied to Duane’s post say that, despite having been fed all the tragedies in their own high school years, they now turn to Much Ado about Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, mixed in with the typical tragedies and a few histories. I’d be glad to see this turning of the tide as a continuing trend. Students should get a broader sampling of Shakespeare’s works as early on as possible, and we should be celebrating Shakespeare’s women as much as his men.

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.