I’m currently in a very intensive, two week, summer Shakespeare Institute. The institute itself is a great deal: $250, 2 weeks, 6 or 7 presenters who are pros in the Shakespeare, theatre, and voice worlds. For that $250 we get lunch daily, entry into two paid plays and one free one. AND, entry/parking into 3 museums. To top all that off, it’s worth 5 salary points, which if you work in LAUSD, you know that’s a lot.
One of our homework assignments was to write about our life’s experiences with Shakespeare. Since I haven’t posted here in FOREVER, I thought I’d go ahead and share…who knows if anyone still reads this?
MY EXPERIENCES WITH SHAKESPEARE
I don’t really recall a relationship with Shakespeare before college. I’m pretty sure I read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school. I even think I can remember the class; set up in traditional rows with one half of the class facing the other with a gap down the middle like the parting of the Red Sea. If my memory serves me correctly, we did the traditional and boring way of reading: up and down the rows when reading novels and when reading plays, of course we read our parts. This is all I remember.
When I entered San Diego State University I was older than the average college student. I was about 27 and a half and much more experienced in both life and education. I don’t know why nobody told me not to do this but my first semester I was enrolled in four literature courses. One lit course would have been enough, as this was when I signed up for Renaissance Literature with Professor Peter Herman.
Professor Herman was incredible! I loved and hated the class equally. It was interesting and exhilarating while overwhelming, challenging, and frankly a bit intimidating. From day one I was told that Herman did NOT give A’s and it was very hard for anyone to earn one. We studied, obviously, the Renaissance period including the explorers, all those love sonnets by this king and that queen, and then there was Shakespeare. This was my first real introduction, interaction, and investigation of Shakespeare.
I remember we studied both “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” (MSND). For my first essay, which was an analytical essay with the requirement of using a minimum of five sources; I ended up using nine. I wrote my essay on MSND. I analyzed Bottom’s obsession with food and came to the conclusion that Shakespeare was making a social commentary on the state of the economy, famine, and access to food during the period. I recall I got one fact quite wrong and the professor definitely noticed. I earned a B on that first draft. I was determined to get that impossible A and after a hearty revision, earned an A. I was extremely proud. It was during this course that I learned to truly appreciate Shakespeare. However, it was only after I learned how to read his works from an historical lens. Ironically, my memory for historical facts is horrible; yet, this is what allowed me to appreciate his works.
My next two interactions with Shakespeare came during an honors critical writing course and a Shakespeare course at SDSU. To be honest, the Shakespeare course was terrible because of the professor. I know I earned a B but I truly do not remember doing any work for that class. Odd. In contrast, the critical writing course is where I think my true appreciation blossomed.
Like my students, when I can find a real world connection to a piece of literature, I can engulf myself in it and really draw out an understanding. In that critical writing course I wrote an essay about “Othello” and the power names. I discussed and analyzed how Iago refuses to call Othello by his name and only refers to him as “the moor”. I looked at what happens when the group in power takes ones’ name and how that dehumanizes a person or group. To this day I love this essay. When I was applying for teaching positions the professor of this course wrote me a letter of recommendation and even quoted my own essay! I was flabbergasted in the best of ways. She quoted me with the following excerpt. In all honesty, I can’t even believe I wrote this. Sometimes I wonder where that skill went.:
The power of naming is a key factor in the progression of the play. Iago consistently refers to Othello not by his name, but by “the Moor.” Shakespeare clearly suggests that Iago’s refusal to call Othello by his real name is his final attempt to cast aspersion on Othello’s character. The power of naming is a process by which an oppressor attempts to divest power from another. This theme is commonly found in writings of Shakespeare’s and is evident in the literature of the explorers of the Americas. Just as the explorers took land from the natives, renaming it, and calling it theirs, Iago attempts to steal Othello’s name. In doing this, Iago seeks to defile Othello, seizing from him his honor and his power.
When I began student teaching I taught “Othello”. It went quite well considering it was my first attempt teaching Shakespeare and I wasn’t even a teacher officially. It was a great experience and although I’ve never taught seniors since then, I look forward to building some sort of Project Based Learning unit for a second semester Shakespeare experience for my students. I do believe it is of value to teach Shakespeare. Oddly, my father (a 30 year retired metal shop teacher) asked me this SAME question the night before I knew I would be writing this reflection. My answer to him has not changed. I think it’s important to expose students to Shakespeare because we learn from the greats, we learn from mentors. It’s important to understand history and not only that, Shakespeare helps us to use and teach skills that are, in and of themselves, challenging to teach: critical thinking, analysis, connecting self to texts. I believe it should be encouraged for all English teachers, where appropriate, to teach Shakespeare. He is one of our classics for a reason. Finally, if we don’t expose students to the challenging texts, to the unpopular texts, to the texts that they fear and “think” they can’t read – then when will they learn it? When will the read it? Likely never. This, if for no other reason, is why it is my responsibility as a teacher to expose my students to Shakespeare.\