Friday, September 19, 2014

More Sinned Against Than Sinning: King Lear in the Classroom and On Stage

by Daniel A. Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

I really thought that I would not be able to watch it. Up to the minute the play began, I thought I would only be able to see Will Smith's wry and knowing butler attempting to play one of the most tragic and emotionally exhausting roles in theater. Then, the play began. In classic Globe fashion, it began with a lively folk song. As soon as Lear came on stage, Joseph Marcell, better known as Jeffrey to my generation, had the audience in the palm of his hand. What struck me as I watched the play unfold was not the production itself, but the conversations I could have in my classroom with students if we had all attended together.

One reviewer claimed that this version of Lear gives us the "Boomer Lear." The review can be found here. You may wish to read it before finishing this post since a lot of what I have to say is almost a direct response to the reviewer's idea of what this production means.

Marcell's Lear certainly alternates between entitlement and rage. In fact, this production establishes early on a confusing atmosphere. If a director wishes to make the daughters more sympathetic in the beginning, he or she could cut some of the lines at the end of 1.1 and make Lear a carouser in 1.4. But the sisters already appear to be scheming when we arrive at 1.4, and the director here has chosen to have one of the most riotous Lears I have ever seen. Were I Goneril, I would be pretty upset, too. For example, Oswald is not only struck and then tripped, but Kent then proceeds to wallop him for a good thirty seconds while Lear looks on approvingly. This paints the picture of a petty a violent king, not necessarily one I would feel a whole lot of sympathy for.

Perhaps this is why the madness scenes in this production come across so farcical. There were only a couple points where Lear's madness wandered into pathos, but for the most part, it stayed in fairly unmoving territory. When his madness is most emotional, it is made so by the presence of other grieving characters; this move almost feels like the director knows that his Lear is unsympathetic so we must have bathos from every character in a scene with him. The effect was so alienating that when Lear says he is more "sinned against than sinning," all I could think of was the old Bill Cosby Noah routine: RIIIIIIIIGHT...

Mad Lear and Blind Gloucester from the Globe's Facebook Page
The final scene was done with a bit more gravitas than I expected. Were it not for the snickering teenager over my left shoulder who couldn't stop his laughter at Lear's "howl"s, I would have been completely engrossed. Marcell got the mania and misery of the last scene in a way that few have. He swung from manic denier to morose accepter as a child swings from monkey bar to monkey bar: graceful and surprising. That, more than anything, brought the humanity back to the character and inspired the chain of thought that follows.

Domestic violence is a huge topic right now because of the high-profile athletes involved in legal scandals. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, the NFL's reaction, Roger Goodell's fickle and inconstant method of punishment (although I should just write retribution) all have soaked the front pages of major newspapers for weeks. The Lear we have in this Globe production is less Boomer Lear and more Beater Lear. He falls in line with much scholarship on the character that sees him as a violent and unstable father; a reckless leader bent on control of his subjects with fist and foot, not palm and heart (for a great discussion of this see the Arden Shakespeare Edition edited by R.A. Foakes or A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a novel based on Lear that turns the character into a sexually abusive father). Marcell's Lear seems first to rely on his fists, then on his equally lacerating words. In many of the early scenes between Goneril and Lear, she visibly flinches as he menaces toward her or rails on her as though she expects the fist of her father to come crashing down any moment. Regan's ruthlessness only serves to deepen this image of Lear as abuser; her ruthless behavior feels like survivalism.

Lear hears Regan's speech about how much she loves him from the Globe's Facebook Page
So this Lear brings up contemporary notions of domestic violence in the form of a violent patriarch, but pulls no punches as the daughters move to eclipse their fathers. The eye-gouging scene featured a bloodlusty Regan who would not let Cornwall take the first eye. Rather, she removed her shoe and used the heel to leverage the eye from its socket. She them tossed it to Cornwall who literally set his foot upon it--hard. He then picked up the remains and chucked them into the balcony. In a parallel case, footballer Hope Solo is currently awaiting trial on domestic abuse charges of her own; however, no one has much mentioned her or demanded her deactivation.

One final teaching point that I noticed in this production is the casting. Normally, Lear has ten principle roles and can include a variety of extras. There were only eight principle actors in the performance who were occasionally accompanied by two stage crew members in costume. This short casting led to a variety of doubles. The usual Fool/Cordelia doubling was present, and much has been said about the emotional symbiosis of the two. The ones that are most interesting to me as theatrical choices are the doubling (or rather tripling) of Daniel Pirrie as Edmund/Oswald/King of France and the doubling (again, rather tripling) of Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar/Cornwall/Duke of Burgundy.

Daniel Pirrie is brilliant. He swings from Edmund to Oswald so completely that one does not know he is the same actor except for his costume. He even manages this change in a scene where both characters appear at once. As Goneril addresses each man, she turns, points, says the name of the character, and waits for Pirrie to run to that spot (donning a cap if Oswald, removing it if Edmund). Oswald's self-serving sycophancy melts into Edmund's arrogant posturing seamlessly; this scene provides much needed, and not normally included, comic relief after the removal of Gloucester's eyes. The choice to make him the King of France is also confusing. Seeing an actor who clearly plays the "bad guys" so well portray one of the few "good" characters in the play is less jarring than it should be because it happens in 1.1; however, it sets an odd tone wherein I want to like Edmund. After all, his ambition to climb beyond others' classifications of him as "illegitimate," "bastard," and "base" is a quintessentially American theme. It is Edmund's lack of a moral direction that makes him so despicable in the end (even though his final acts are acts he does freely because he wants to do some good before he dies). The conversation that could be had about this multiple casting in class invite much close reading and analysis of all three figures.

Alex Mugnaioni's range is unbelieveable. He makes a rather convincing Edgar, Poor Tom, Cornwall, and Burgundy without making any of them anything like the other characters. He even seems to command his face to shift its shape a bit as he goes from naive, schoolboy Edgar to ruthless and conniving Cornwall from scene change to scene change. His Poor Tom borders on theatrical stereotype, but his belief in the character brings through a spark of humanity even in the madman's rantings. I also was confused as to why Mugnaioni would play the sniveling Duke of Burgundy, but he carried the part well. The early portrayal had an equal effect to that of Pirrie's France: I felt less sympathetic toward Edgar early on than I did in the end. Again, this tripling makes for a great close reading and analysis discussion of the character.

Brother vs. Brother from the Globe's Facebook Page
In the end, the play does what Lear should do: it interrogates us about our notions of justice. If Lear is truly the heavy-handed and violent father/king he appears in the play, then the loss of all he holds dear and his own life seems a sort of cosmic account, a reaping of the bitter oats he has sown. Before the play began, as the actors sang and danced, pulling on costumes as they did, an already costumed Lear pulls a string revealing a huge map of England. The daughers then grab chalk and sketch it onto the floor of the stage itself. In the final scene, as Lear cradles his dead Cordelia, the faint echo of the Britain of Lear's rule still appears on stage. Edgar authoritatively delivers the final commanding lines while standing atop this relic of a lost kingdom while the actresses who portrayed Goneril and Regan emerge humming a funeral tune; they grab the same chalk from the beginning and outline the body of Lear like a crime scene. Lear and Cordelia rise to their feet and morose trace the outline of his body with their fingers. The old kingdom has faded. The old king is dead. Nothing came from nothing and so the cast moves on, surprisingly singing a rousing version of Feste's song from the end of Twelfth Night. The wind and the rain have brought tragedy, but have washed away the violent and bloated kingdom of a small and petty king.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Gift of Opportunity: An Open Letter to Teachers Starting a New Year

I remember going to practice for rugby and thinking that all of the running and diving and sliding in the summer heat was fun, but not that fun. Then, I got into my first game. The intensity and athleticism required pushed me to a new point of physical exhaustion. I was spent, but exhilarated. I went back to practice with a new enthusiasm. I played harder and harder, pushed my exhaustion point further and further. I felt like Superman because of what I was proving to myself I could do.

The same is true of the opening of school years. The relentless drudge of the meeting machine. The mind-numbing banality of printing lists, labeling folders, etc. The more exciting, yet still somewhat low-impact, drive to revisit lessons and revise them into better, more effective incarnations of themselves (or to pitch them on the fire of high-minded yet unpractical ones). The moment when the chrysalis of anticipation blooms into the butterflies of the first day. Getting to know new kids while saying hello to those already known. Some teachers say that the first day is almost like Christmas morning. I agree. Teachers on the first day are just like those children on Christmas morning: recipients of a gift that we know is beyond our deserving, the gift of opportunity.

I encourage you all, as you start or are preparing to start after the holiday, to remember the what it means that people entrust us with their children. Some might do so because we are an institutional constant, a necessity born of truancy laws and a vaguely democratic ideal, but that does not change the respect I have for my position as teacher. It is an awesome (and not in the trite, cliche, Spicoli-esque use of the word) responsibility to be a teacher. I find that most issues that arise in the classroom are the result of the moments when we forget that.

And I do not blame you if, in the middle of your planning weeks or your first days, you get frustrated, question your decision to return. I have been there. This year, I have the opportunity to see it from a different perspective. This year, I have to watch from the sidelines as colleagues go back to classrooms. Having recently moved to the Southeastern region of Pennsylvania, I am currently without a teaching position. My wife, also a teacher, was asked to come work in the region because of her exemplary success with her choral program. We made the move unaware of how difficult it would be for me to get a job in the area. So, now I am on the sidelines, trying to get back to the classroom, but grateful for the opportunity to observe. In my observations, I have seen teachers complaining about having to go back, wishing that their summer-long lack of students would go on. As they complain, I seethe. How could they be so unhappy when they have jobs? Then the self-righteousness of my soapbox collapses and I return to earth. I have done the same thing. I have made the same complaints.

So, from my seat on the sidelines, I have become more aware of how special a time the beginning of the new year should be. I now lay this challenge before you: before you launch into the day's issues, before you complain about that kid, before you lose your patience with that administrative policy, try to think of something for which you are grateful. I would never support the rhetoric of the past few years, the idea that any one should just be thankful they have a job, but I would encourage each of us to take the time to remember why we love what we do.

This letter is my attempt to do just that. Of course, the job search is frustrating and infuriating; however, I am grateful for what I have learned about myself while I sit on the bench. Take up the challenge, and take it to twitter. The High School Matters twitter feed is @HSMatters. I am challenging you to comment here or tweet there (or both) about what you are grateful for at the beginning of this school year. When you tweet, use the hashtag #teacheropp so that others can easily find them, especially when they need a shot of optimism. I look forward to seeing what you all write. If I have learned nothing else in all of my professional development with teachers, it is that we are surprising sources of hope and optimism. Let's see if we can start a movement of hope and optimism this year.

Best wishes as you embark on the new school year,

Dan Bruno

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bootleg Pericles: or, how the Blogger got a crazy idea that might get him fired

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

If you've never read Pericles, you are fine. I am not sure I would have enjoyed it as much, or would have wanted to read it as much, if I hadn't seen the production that Taffety Punk put on Monday night, July 14th, at the Folger Theatre. For those unfamiliar with Taffety Punk, some words of introduction are warranted.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company, found here, operates with the not-so-simple mission of making theatre more accessible and affordable. They do this in a variety of ways; the way I and others here at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute experienced that mission was through Bootleg Shakespeare. The company memorized their lines ahead of time, but did not rehearse until the day of the performance. This means they had 6 hours to build a performance of the entirety of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It was incredible.

Back on the Friday prior to the performance, we sat around the Foulke Conference Room, receiving a direct challenge to us as both teachers and people from Dr. Ayanna Thompson, now of the George Washington University. I left this discussion out in previous entries because it deserves its own post; however, given the nature of what I experienced at the Pericles performance, now seemed to be a good time to bring it up. But first, a digression.

If you go to scorebig.com, you will see a claim that the site peddles sporting event tickets at a 60% discount. Let's all take a moment to blink at what used to be scalping and head to the heart of it. Even at a 60% discount, tickets for an Eagles home game cost approximately $40 to sit where the game would look like Tecmo Bowl. For those of you with math skills, the original price was $99 plus tax. I'm afraid the NFL is unaware of the gross percentage of the population un- or underemployed. Those people scraping by to feed themselves and their families do not have the ability to spend even $40 on a ticket to root for the home team. During the Great Depression, despite a decrease in attendance of 40%, baseball tickets only cost $.50 or $8.17 in 2014 money. In times of strife and uncertainty what is more uplifting than gathering with the community at the stadium and rooting for your team to crush the other team? Sports have long been a vicarious form of warfare and many still attend games to relieve the stresses of everyday life. Taking the metaphor back a few hundred years and we see groundlings gazing at an open expanse of wood, walking through the theater door wanting to believe in something.

I hold that this desire to believe is true today. In our discussion with Dr. Thompson, who specializes in, for lack of a more definitive term, equity and access in relation to Shakespeare. She observed, and rightly if my experience is anything to add to the data, that many audiences for Shakespeare are getting older, staying whiter, keeping the majority of society at arms length behind a manufactured sense of power. Shakespeare's groundlings were not MENSA members. So why is it that we have constructed a fantasy about who Shakespeare's work belongs to today? Why do those with less education feel disenfranchised from the world of Shakespeare's stories? As the talk sped on, fever-pitched past the resistance of subconscious biases, one thing became clear: sometimes the ways we teach Shakespeare set up these social constructs of how can and should access his works.

So, I tried to do some back of the envelope research as I sat in my seat waiting for Pericles to begin. I gave up about five minutes in; the crowd was miraculously antithetical to the discussion we'd had days before. I, of course, have a theory why.

Taffety Punk, in its desire to share the works of Shakespeare with the community for free, cracked the power seal placed over the Bard's works by privilege and class. No expense tickets. No reserved seats. Only free tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. And the energy of the theatre company that would offer Shakespeare to the general public for free ruled the day. The house was packed with a crowd, while admittedly still overwhelmingly white, was younger and more multicultural than any other I'd seen for  Shakespeare performance. And the infectious nature of the show, a nature that had the audience laughing hysterically and cheering for a little boy with theater in his veins, drew every last person into the world of the play. For three hours, we were with Pericles through it all.

So, that brings me to "my great idea." Wherever I end up, I am going to give this a try; however, feel free to do the same wherever you are. I only ask that you write in and let me know how it went.

Every school has lunch shifts. My idea is, during our Shakespeare unit, to have students work up one scene for performance. Once we have rehearsed and prepared to the best of our ability, we are going to run down to the cafeteria, unannounced, and perform the scene. Right in front of the gathered school. When we are finished, we will disappear whence we came. I have more specifics in my head, but until I see what facilities I end up with, it is still only the kernel of an idea. Let me know what other embellishments you might throw in.

Every student deserves Shakespeare. He teaches us so much about being human, it seems to me that being human is the only prerequisite for access to his masterful lines.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The End of Illyria: Synthesizing Wednesday-Friday of Week 2

As we approached the end of Twelfth Night, it was apparent that doing one post a day was going to become tedious for me as the writer and, more importantly, more so for you as the reader. The design of the lectures and activities began to take a more synthetic shape: ideas and activities blending together in a more coherent whole.

Wednesday began with a lecture from one of our scholars on the idea of perspective in Twelfth Night. Using visual art as a point of access, and relating to the idea of practice as a trick, we dove into the text using a mathematical approach similar to that mentioned in a previous entry of this experience. Looking at all of the words related to perspective in Twelfth Night, we noticed that few of the references on their own were significant, but that the word vision itself does not appear in the text of the play. People can see, but they have no vision beyond what is apparent on the surface; thus does Viola masquerade as a man and others practice self-deception about what they want and what they can have. The characters must lack vision because unless they are complicit in the doubling present throughout the play, the poor disguises cannot work. Think about how "womanly" Orsino says Viola's voice is; she is no Frank Caliendo.

The doubling becomes part and parcel of an identity constructed in the liminal space of Illyria. Viola, acknowledging her own doubleness, says that she is a "poor monster" trapped between her womanly love for Orsino and Olivia's love for the young man Cesario. This fluid construction of gender created a porous border between sexes that was by turns humorous and discomforting (news flash: this is not the first generation to be uncomfortable with homosexuality). The mention of monster draws a parallel between The Tempest, the play that features the word monster the most, specifically between Caliban and Viola. In the end, acknowledging her two halves, one as man and the other as woman, Viola is caught in an inbetween world that is fraught with social danger; luckily, Sebastian arrives just in time to prevent the liminality of the moment from resolving in Viola's mortal end. After all, she couldn't very well be Cesario for the rest of her life with the demands being made of her.

After this discussion, we had a seminar and an interesting talk from Holly Doogan about the smells of Elizabethan England. Specifically, we discussed pomanders and their cultural connection with the plague, a topic I would encourage you to investigate further. Apparently, perfumes also existed in a liminal, inbetween space. Because perfumes were used to improve smell and to protect against the plague, they were both pestilence and prophylactic, a monstrous construct of scent. The olfactory imagery in Twelfth Night is mostly connected with Olivia's body, leading to interesting observations about Olivia and her scent.


The week ended, through lectures on both Thursday and Friday, focusing on the inbetween nature of the ending: the marriages that don't quite happen but will happen soon and the sadness of Feste's song. The liminality is spread thick, a veritable Nutella of uncertainty on the crispy toast of the play. The sweetness comes from the weddings that, though sudden, are the conventional outcomes for this play; the nuttiness is how much of it doesn't seem to resolve. When the play ends, Viola is still Cesario and Orsino cannot bring himself to call her Viola, Malvolio has stormed off somewhere doing who knows what, Andrew has been cast out to his destitution (yep, Toby spent it all), Toby and Mariah are married, Sebastian and Olivia are married, and nothing is resolved. Then, the damn clown starts singing. A sad song. To close the comedy. We are left where Viola's journey started: a vast and empty shore that is foreign to our eyes and understanding.

But, we are English teachers. We are nothing if not comfortable with unresolved, ambiguous stories. The gift we are giving our students is the ability to cope with these ambiguities. Daily, students wander our halls dealing with questions of sexual and gender identity, of personal identity, of love and desire, and of how their lives may progress when they step beyond the protection of our walls and onto the vast shores of their lives. The play becomes the liminal space wherein these ambiguous problems can be addressed, discussed, and played with in a way that avoids personalizing these issues (that is making them personal in a way that ends up setting a student up for ridicule and alienation).

As one of our visiting scholars pointed out, Twelfth Night is the end of the holiday season. Now are we turned out to the world to return to the daily rain that pours on until we can no longer focus on that bright future toward which we stumble with the best intentions. When we study this play, we give students surer footing in that all important journey to what we desire, or what we will.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Brothers, Sisters, Mothers, Fathers, and the Rest of the Tree

When I was younger, I used to get in fights with my sisters all the time. Sure, a part of it was the lack of gender similarity, but mostly it was because we were siblings. It seems that in my life, in every situation where some form of sibling or friend is involved, we are comfortable enough to fight, and caring enough to mend. As one of our scholars mentioned on Tuesday, this mending is oddly absent from the various endings of Twelfth Night.

The easiest place to analyze this fighting and mending between supposed siblings is between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Both Knights, they are brothers-in-arms, comrades on the front lines of battle. But what does that specific type of siblinghood mean in the context of peace? Apparently, if we observe Sir Toby, not much. Throughout the play, read this as "throughout the time Sir Andrew has money that Sir Toby wishes to dispossess him of," Sir Toby treats Sir Andrew as an equal, on the surface. Underneath his somewhat convivial exterior, a sneer is forming that finds its fullest expression in the final scene. As Sir Andrew tries to lump the two of them together in distress as in reveling, Sir Toby wheels on him, roundly rejecting him as brother in any sense. The brotherhood of the battlefield means nothing in the end of this comedy. There were many more examples, but I don't want to give anything away. I wonder how many we can get in the comments section below.

After the morning's lecture, we spent time in our seminar discussing the various familial connections we could interpret in the text. We didn't limit these to bonds of fraternity or other types of siblinghood, but we extended, mostly, to fathers. The very odd and obvious absence of fathers in the play drew most of our discussion, particularly as we discussed the idea of Feste and Malvolio being two different types of fathers to Olivia. In discussion, we determined that Feste can be seen as a comforting father figure to Olivia wile Malvolio plays the more stentorian role.When Sebastian, questioning Olivia's sanity after they have been amorous with one another, looks around and sees the orderliness of her household, remarking that that same orderliness indicates an orderliness in the mind of the woman in charge.If we think about it, the orderliness here is a result of Malvolio's work, not Olivia's. She has been too busy hiding behind closed doors, covering her face, sobbing. This melancholy is what Feste, as the comforting father, gets her to confront in his "take away the fool" discussion with her.

Following seminar discussions and lunch, we met with Dana Huff (@danamhuff) again. We finished looking at some tools, them got our hands on some different forms of technology, including:
I am going to start with the Folger Digital Texts site because it ties nicely into the Voyant tools website. The Folger Digital Text site is deceptively simple. First, the not-so-nice part: there are none of Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine's glosses by line. I know, bummer. Now that we are over it, let's look at what we can do. The search capability is beyond helpful. From the titles page (the one that has all of the titles on it that is pictured below), you can search the ENTIRE Shakespeare Corpus. All of the plays (and soon the sonnets, too).

You can also search within the play itself as you read. If you click search results in either window, you will jump directly to that spot in the text. There is also a fairly interesting navigator that allows jumping between lines with ease.

The real gift of the site is its open source code. (Listen up AP Computer Science teachers and students.) You can create custom searches and other types of programming exercises using the Folger's XML source code. You can get it on the home page at the button marked XML. Because the source is XML and very flexible, you can play with it by visiting the Folger Digital Text API.

One possible lesson derived from the API is one that deals with deeply reading and understanding the characters and text. First, click this link. The text you see is the entirety of Romeo & Juliet without dialogue tags or stage directions. Select a portion and make some copies. Handout copies to students. In groups, ask them to read through the section of the text together (I would recommend a round robin where everyone reads one line until they finish). Then, when they finish, ask them to divide the text into its parts (Romeo, Juliet, whoever). As they work, circulate and listen. Are they discussing the text? Are they justifying their decisions? This activity is no gimmick; as Mike Jones says: "It is all about close reading." Once they finish, ask them to read the scene to the class. Focus on the diversity, or lack of diversity, of how the class reconstituted this scene. Oh, and don't forget to enjoy yourself.

Voyant is a great website for what some people are calling distance reading, or the opposite of close reading. The greatest use of this site is to take the unlabeled text of a play from the API and plug it into the front page. When you hit "Reveal," get ready. The amount of information and the flexibility of analysis is fantastic. One sample exercise I already ran was to analyze two sonnets (one Petrarchan and one Shakespeaerean). In the end, the analysis revealed that the most repeated word in the Petrarchan sonnet was "she" while the Shakespearean sonnet featured "you." This led to an interesting discussion with Spencer Nissly about the focal points for each poet, and the relationship each had with those focal points.

A great day at the Folger filled with learning. What a "brave new world" we are approaching in our classrooms.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Men Their Creation Mar: Teaching Reading and Digital Literacy

In Measure for Measure, as Angelo makes his indecent proposal to Isabella, Isabella councils him that he should not try and use her brother's sentence of death as a means to gain her virginity. "Men their creatin mar" she says, in reference to Eve arising from Adam's rib. In much the same way, though not nearly in such an affecting way, man of either sex has abused that which it has created throughout our history as makers. What started as fire became a violent, nihilistic device that erased two Japanese cities from the Earth, never to return as they were. We sometimes disrespect or misunderstand that which we create, particularly as teachers in a 21st century classroom.

As much as I'd like to believe it, no one is a digital native in the sense that we immediately apprehend the use or effect of a specific piece of classroom technology. How many times have we, or our colleagues, "taught" a "technology" lesson by signing out the laptop cart? How often do we simply use a Wordle to discuss vocabulary, substituting design for meaning? The fact is, some of us are willing to experiment, some of us know how to use it, and some of us refuse to acknowledge its existence. Luckily, teachers across the country are working hard to help us organize and understand these rapidly developing technology tools.

The SAMR Model (pictured below) is one way to organize technology tools that allows us to be in control of when and how we use them.


The model also helps us to sort and identify tools once we have experimented with them.

The reason this matters is that we started a presentation with the great Dana Huff about technology tools in the classroom today. (Her blog, which is beyond helpful, can be found here.) You should also follow her on Twitter @danamhuff. In any case, we opened the technology discussion with an unusual activity: Director Of Education at the Folger Peggy O'Brien asked us to write words that describe the kids we teach on one post-it easel page and words hat describe the schools in which we teach on another post-it easel page. Once this was done, we went through the pages. We came to the conclusion that classroom technology should be used to enhance what is already here, not replace or diminish it. This discussion prompted Dana to bring up the SAMR model seen above. Finally, we went through a list of technology tools that Dana has used in her classrooms and school to teach, with a focus on Shakespeare teaching.

What is really valuable here is the thought process. Unfortunately, many people let opinion conquer them when it comes to the use of technology. Hopefully the SAMR model above is a step in the direction of creating professional conversations that help teachers separate the wheat from the 21st century chaff.

Heading back to the beginning of the day, a visiting scholar asked us to consider how the word "practice," as used in the play to mean trick or prank, could be applied to the play itself. Specifically, we attempted a thought experiment where Sebastian and Viola are played by a single actor. In this theatrical world, another actor would be required to play one of these parts in the final scene. Which actor? Which character? We went into how that would change the reading of the play we already developed when considering it in the context of the needs of this imaginary theatrical world.

We then had a colloquium with the same speaker during lunch. During the conversation, she brought up the following question: "What are we teaching when we teach Shakespeare?" That was and is the million dollar question. For her part, she suggested that we are teaching higher level reading, the sort that Speed is incapable of doing in the following scene:
SPEED How now, Signior Lance? What news with your
Mastership?LANCE With my master’s ship? Why, it is at sea.
SPEED Well, your old vice still: mistake the word. What
news, then, in your paper?

LANCE The black’st news that ever thou heard’st.
SPEED Why, man? How black?
LANCE Why, as black as ink.
SPEED Let me read them.
LANCE Fie on thee, jolt-head, thou canst not read.
SPEED Thou liest. I can.
LANCE I will try thee. Tell me this, who begot thee?
SPEED Marry, the son of my grandfather.
LANCE O, illiterate loiterer, it was the son of thy grandmother.
This proves that thou canst not read.

The problem here is that fathers beget their children while women are the ones who bear them. So, Speed's father begot him, but his father is of his father's mother, not of his father's father. The joke only works if you understand the context.

My answer is a bit different. The other day, we were talking at dinner and I posited that fate never really plays a role in Shakespeare's work because that is the easy, complication-free way of doing things and Shakespeare seems nothing if not complicated. His characters choose their "fates" by the sum total of their actions. One specific choice does not lead Juliet to the knife, but a series of choices place her on that path. These choices are also influenced by the actions of the other characters around her. Without the Nurse's suggestion that Juliet marry Paris, she might have sat tight, sought another way through, or not. The point is that these characters are wonderfully complicated, just like we are. Like Bloom says, Shakespeare seems to have understood how to invent the human as an idea.

That leads me to why we teach Shakespeare. We teach what it means to be human in all literature, but only in Shakespeare do we get to become that human. The performance, the embodying of someone so extremely representative of a type, helps our students to inhabit that space, to be someone else, for a moment. As another well-known literary figure has said, sometimes you have to get into another person's skin and walk around for a while to gain perspective.

These people, the characters in this play, have become part of our cultural unconsciousness. Consider the following. I bet you know who they are.


And yet the cultural understanding does not stay in one place. Even cultures that can seem about as opposite to our own as they can get appreciate and identify with the people in Shakespeare's work. Consider this picture:
Kurosawa saw Shakespeare's characters and knew that his countrymen would connect with the people in a play set in faraway highlands.

When I think about what I want when I teach, I think about helping my students understand how to live a good life. When I need models for that, I turn to Shakespeare. I teach him to show my students models of what a good life could be if they wanted it; that is they learn how to respect, rather than mar, that which they have created. Unsurprisingly, these characters walk with them long after they have closed the text and passed the test, companions for the long, difficult road ahead.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Leaning into the Wind: Preparing for the Second Whilrwind Week

Very few things can get high school English teachers as excited as books: the rarer, the better. As I sat in the reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library on Saturday Morning (yep, I just wrote that), I realized that these old books, like any other, would open new doors to me, tempting me with a musky rustle to walk through them to new discoveries. As I picked up the very small edition of Luigi da Porto's novella, Julietta, I felt a sense of connection with the past that surprised and thrilled me. The translation of da Porto's medieval novella was published in 1894 and included an introduction comparing various versions of the Romeo and Juliet story that predated Shakespeare's enduring classic. One of the things that struck me about these various versions is the fact that Shakespeare was able to say so much in such a small space when compared with his predecessors.

For example, in Albert Brooke's poetic version (which is most likely the original source of Shakespeare's play), the Friar requires about 10 lines less, but comes across far less poetically. On the opposite end of the spectrum, William Painter (or Paynter if you are feeling fancy) required about six pages in the introduction to say the same thing. This difference is so disproportionate, that the author of the introduction writes that Juliet's relief at the end of the Friar's speech was not from the discovery of a way out, but that the man had stopped talking. I agree with him.

But what really struck me was da Porto's story. By way of comparison, I'll summarize the beginning:
Romeo Montecchi and Julietta Cappelletti live in Verona. Their families disagree about the existential condition of one another. The Cappellettis love to throw parties, so they do. Romeo shows up--dressed as a woman and wearing a mask (and we all thought Baz Luhrmann was way out on some limb). He puts aside his mask and is so beautiful, he throws all of the women into a jealous fit, save one: Julietta. She falls deeply in love with the "beautiful" Romeo. He does not feel the same way as he is there in pursuit of Julietta's cousin: the woman we all know as Rosaline. Romeo goes home when no affection comes his way from Rosaline. He wakes up the next day to mull over the fact that Julietta seemed pretty interested in him and how that made him feel better than Rosaline's stone cold rejection. Meanwhile, back at the Cappelletti estate, Julietta is still swooning, thinking actively to hersef that if she got Romeo to marry her, the families might stop fighting.

Obviously, I have paraphrased a bit, but you get the gist: this is not the story we know; however, it is the earliest recorded use of the names Romeo and Juliet and the earliest use of Verona as setting. It is the source text for the translations created by Brooke and Paynter (felt fancy). Why the change? The explanations are many, the least of which is that Shakespeare, being a good writer, changed details and added dialogue because a play is a far different genre than a novel.

All of this brings me back around to the beginning of Thursday's work at the Folger. Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger and Digital Humanist, walked us through what exactly the digital humanities are trying to accomplish. In a word, they are trying to create Access. The Folger's modern stacks (books published after 1830) run the length of a city block underground. Needless to say, that is a lot of text to rifle through looking for a specific piece of information. What the digital humanities seek to do is to turn the scholarly labyrinth into an easily navigable place. You looking for other texts that treat a specific pattern in a specific play by Shakespeare, or even contemporary plays that employ similar patterns, do a search and the computer compiles which books fit your criteria. Think about a card catalog with enhanced eyesight, seeing on the level of the page the context you seek and bringing it to your attention. What might have been a hidden jewel becomes a visible, useful, polished gem. At one point, Witmore explained a discovery a colleague of his made at one of the universities where he worked. In short, using a computer to analyze the text of Shakespeare's plays, a report was generated that scientifically classified Shakespeare's plays in a sort of taxonomy of dramatic structures: a classification identical to the one Heminge and Condell created in the Table of Contents in the First Folio. They had no computer, but they made judgments we now know to be based on an intuited understanding of the mechanics of the play. The only difference? The computer did it in 30 minutes.

After this eye-opening lecture, we discussed in our seminar groups the potential gifts of the digital humanities. We also discussed whether or not knowing that Shakespeare built his works upon familiar and consistent structures would reduce the view of him as exceptional. As one member said it, this might destroy the cult of Shakespeare.

But there is more to a writer than structure and form. Homer, or whoever Homer might have been (notice that genius in the modern age is received with the skepticism that only the well-educated and well-traveled could be truly great), used phrases like epithets to build repetition into the form of his works. Do the structures of the oral tradition depreciate the value of Homer's work? Does our lives lack the four elements? In other words, NO. There are reasons why so little survives from antiquity, but Homer's work is so surprisingly complete. It is the same reason that tomorrow, next year, next decade, or next century, when the inevitable hand is played and we nearly eradicate ourselves with this or that horrific weapon, the survivors will find treasured volumes like the plays of Shakespeare kept safe from the indiscriminate destruction we so often unleash.

Besides, Shakespeare's stories are not really his stories; they are the stories of the European cultures of his time. The fact is that Shakespeare's characters, like those of Dickens or Faulkner, are so fully realized, so infused with vitality on the page and stage that we cannot help but see something of ourselves in them all. From our wild, Sir Toby sides to our buttoned-up, Malvolio sides, Shakespeare knew how to create humans, to place them in conflict, and to make that conflict matter in the most basic of ways. After all, what is more fundamentally human than the means of our deaths, the creation of unions that generate life, and teh pursuit of our own happiness? The structures do not speak to our hearts, the words do.

Enough waxing philosophical, need to get back on track. We ended our day with a virtual tour of the library's online catalog and the online image database. Access to these is well beyond the value of the time and energy we are putting in here. We received our charge to do some research (for ourselves!), and the dreamy look I saw in the eyes of my friends (for that is what we have become) as we sat in the reading room on Saturday told the story of love beyond two Veronese lovers.

Bring on the week. We are ready for more.