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.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Undrowning the Reader

There is an odd sense of time here in Shakespeareland. Even though we spent a portion of the morning looking over these intensely interesting forgeries made by an early modern con man, it feels like weeks ago. There is so much to learn, see, and do at the Folger, the brain has to expand time to make sense of all that we learn in one day.

The forgeries were part of an opening lecture by one of our scholars-in-residence. As we are looking at Twelfth Night first, this talk was on the notion of shipwrecks as loss that, despite the apparent irretrievable nature of the loss, will often lead to weird resurrections. In the case of the play, Sebastian and Viola are resurrected, one for the other, in the final scene of the play. What the sea has torn asunder, the earth has restored. There were a number of other plays in which undrowning occurred, but it was a common enough motif to pattern and preoccupation, a somewhat obsession with the notion of restoration. This idea even shows up in the sonnets.

What was most interesting to me was what it made me think of in terms of how we, as high school teachers of Shakespeare, have the most important task when it comes to undrowning the works of Shakespeare: keeping our students comfortably afloat on the sea of his language. This task become especially problematic when your students are not gifted or highly motivated; often for these kids, reading Shakespeare is akin to being drenched in a foreign language that seems to be a frustrating cognate of the language they speak, but defies (or denies) translation.

I have had colleagues in the past who flee in the face of teaching Shakespeare to a standard class. The lines fly thick and fast: "They just don't get it";"It is too hard for them";"They cannot handle that"; fill in from here. The litany of excuses leads to one of two conclusions: either the people using them are power hungry or they do not understand the text. Neither of these options are particularly appealing.

If the first is true, if we are power hungry, then I ask what right do we have to withhold knowledge from any student? The question is legitimate and completely free of sarcasm. Teaching is about walking down new pathways with students, leading them to knowledge they will need and showing them how to understand it. If we believe this to be true, what we teach to our students should be about leading them into places they cannot access themselves. Every student, as we know from experience, struggles with accessing Shakespeare: the difference is how deeply they can access the text. A student who has difficulty reading does not need to be able to intellectualize the multiple meanings of a specific mythological allusion, but simply to enjoy the plots, characters, and linguistic fun of the play. The intellectualization can come after they allow themselves into the work. But, in providing adapted texts or merely barring the way altogether, we unconsciously deny students access to these great works that, if we think about it, were written for every citizen from groundling to queen. We submerge the texts in the sea of high culture that excludes many students, particularly those at risk of poor academic performance.

However, if the second is true, it is certainly more excusable. We all had to discuss who taught us how to teach Shakespeare, and for the most part the answer was really ourselves. When we are learning on the job from colleagues, we are applying those lessons to our own style of teaching, synthesizing a new, untested method. Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to impugn anyone's Shakespeare professor. The ugly truth is that knowing a text and understanding it well enough to teach it are very different provinces in the mind. If I am uncomfortable with a text, I am either going to skip it or teach it fairly poorly. My inexperience, though not my fault, leads to a poorly developed educational experience for my students, drowning them in my own confusion.

To dive on this wreck, we must understand more about how we learn. The thing that makes the Folger's method so effective is something cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham emphasizes in the video below.


The blending of modalities plays to the various strengths and weaknesses in our brains, but also helps us focus on meaning and not merely the visual, auditory, or kinesthetic quality of a topic. The Folger's philosophy blends multiple modalities in the interpretation of these plays that, frankly, were intended to exploit multiple modalities in its audience. We hear dialogue, see movements, and experience emotional connection with characters and events playing out in front of us.

After the talk and seminar in the morning, we had great performance session where our group was given a series of really great maxims that are well-worth sharing.
  • This scene is your whole play: this further reinforces the Folger philosophy that close reading on one's feet does not require the teaching of a whole play; focus on what the scene shows us about the people in it, etc.
  • All plays are contemporary: despite the original context of the play, students bring their own cultural contexts and personal contexts to the plays they are reading; validating those contexts validates the student and builds confidence
  • Characters are defined by what they do, not what they say: helping students focus on action eases some of the anxiety with the foreign quality of the language
  • Words can convey many meanings: What do you mean when you say it?: this one reminds students that they have choice and ownership over their readings of the text while validating that there is no one way to play it
  • What does the script tell us, NOT what would we like it to tell us?: this one reminds students that everything they need to know is on this page; there is no secret code to reading Shakespeare
  • Dialogue is action-oriented: all utterances have a goal behind them, even if that goal is to be left alone; understanding these helps link performance movement choice to how the line is read
  • Good plays are about human behavior: this one links to the previous one; how do people behave when they are in specific contexts attempting to gain specific desires
  • You cannot play themes or literary tropes: these things are great for the world of literary analysis, but alien to the world of the actor; people don't consider themes when they are trying to bed lovers or destroy rivals; themes arise from our reflection on those events
The highlight of the day followed the performance sessions and tea time. Barbara Mowat came to speak to us about how she and her co-editor edit the Folger Shakespeare Editions. I could not hope to explain the process or what we did in this medium, but I do want to share what one of our fabulous master teachers asked. As the final question of our session, one of the master teachers asked Barbara Mowat what she had learned about Shakespeare the man after spending so many years intimately involved with the text of the plays. Her response moved the room. What I am typing here is paraphrase; if you are not moved, it is most definitely my fault. First, she said, Shakespeare loved language; second, he believed in compassion, and compassion that came from unusual places. Finally, she defended Shakespeare against those who say he is just a plagiarist, explaining that Shakespeare was adapting well-known stories, much like people do now with screen adaptations of classic novels. His genius is in the portrayal, not the plot.

These responses resonated so with us for, I believe, two reasons. First, that English teachers are a fairly compassionate bunch who want to teach that virtue to their students. I would argue that this compassion is what make Shakespeare such a rich and valuable text in our minds. Second, we have a concrete example upon which we have focused this week: the mistreatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night that so unsettles us at the end. The fact that we can feel sympathy at all for such an intransigent man is remarkable because it makes us feel a way that we would not traditionally feel. The challenge to compassion is something I had not considered and am grateful for learning.

Later in the evening, we watched Henry IV, Part 2 live from Stratford-upon-Avon. This fact is not specific to TSI, but being in a room full of people you know who also love Shakespeare enhances the experience. We laughed together, sighed together, sympathized together. We learned more about being human together and, as a result, undrowned our often saturated hearts and minds. Isn't that why we teach and love the humanities?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Imaginative Geography, Comedic Arguments, and Rare Books...Oh My!

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

Before I begin, I have to point something out. This point may be obvious to everyone but me, God knows it took me long enough to figure it out, but Washington, D.C. is a special place. Take the word special with whatever size grain of salt. As I stood in the hallway outside the reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I was confronted by two deep, penetrating eyes; I have no idea their original color, but the greyscale of the black and white photo took me to Ithaca and tales of a grey-eyed goddess of wisdom. The man in possession of these eyes would probably rather I compared him to someone more heroic, but I think the wisdom allusion is more apt. In this modern city of grasping greedy special interests, of wobbling wonky politicians, of emerging energetic arts of all kinds, a thread of American Exceptionalism that actually rings true stands proud and unnoticed by many: selfless, active charity.

In the shadow of the Capital dome that has come, for many, to represent the dysfunction and disappointment that has plagued the politics of the federal government, institutions sit that embody the best parts of American culture: that drive and desire to learn more, to know more, and, by virtue of the transformative power of knowledge, to become more present in the gifts of people like the Smithsons and the Folgers. Henry Folger could simply have locked away his collection, hidden it deep within his private home, and, Golem-esque, cooed over the brightly bound volumes of his collection. He didn't. I don't think it hit me how remarkable this fact is until today. While power is used as a billy club down the street, Henry Folger, in a way that would make Zeno proud, turned the power of his wealth into an open hand of learning.

Enough with my Orsino impersonation; what did we do today? After an early 7:45 AM departure, we arrived at the Folger Library and heard a talk from one of our resident scholars on the Imaginative Geography of Twelfth Night. We discussed the location of Illyria (near modern Croatia), its history of violence and reputation for pirates, and how this exotic and dangerous place shapes the ways the characters are and how they behave. There was also consideration of some of the domestic geography of places like the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of servant and served and the purity and power of the Garden as liminal (in-between) space. For example, consider how the garden wall encloses the space in Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation. Mary is seen as an enclosed garden, bearing fruit but never penetrated; therefore, she is without original sin.



This idea of Garden as liminal space arose from an analysis of Northrop Frye's "The Argument of Comedy." In it, Frye divides the spaces in a comedy thus:

  • City and Civilization: Law/Fathers are Harsh; Young peoples' desires are frustrated
  • Green World: Inversion of hierarchy; magic agent; disorder; sexual freedom and violence
  • Renewed Society: Law and society accommodate young people (Fathers are tempered); Young people adjust to social order (Young people are tempered); Lower-class individuals invited into society
The questions we asked about Twelfth Night in relation to this paradigm dealt with whether or not Illyria is a green world, or whether or not Malvolio, with the malevolent parting shot of "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," is ever fully restored to the renewed society. This led to a discussion of characters as liminal representations, too. So much of Twelfth Night seems predicated upon disorder, and a disorder that seems only tentatively resolved at the play's end. Though, this tentative order is perfect for the twelfth night holiday, a time of inversion. This disorder is represented in Feasts of Fools where masters of the household would serve the table and the fool would sit in state at the head of the table.

Lastly, we discussed Viola as a liminal character, one who is "in standing water, between boy and man." Dr. Desmet explained that standing water was when the shore was stable between tides, suggesting that Viola exists as the ebb and flow, changing from role to role, living an in-between life.

After this engaging talk, we broke into seminars. These seminars are led by our scholars in residence. In our seminar, we discussed the following topics:
  • How the Play opens: one of our group members mentioned that he believed that the opening was practical for the play in that it sets up the idea to be discussed; given that Twelfth Night covers three months, people seem to do very little in the play (that is except the women who, as one person observed, seem to be "working their asses off.")
  • Orsino: emo, unstable, and love-sick, the initial descriptions we receive of him from others are all positive (see 1.2 and the discussion between the sea captain and Viola)
  • Olivia's role as head of household: Women in charge of households at the time is very unusual and places a certain burden on Olivia that she seems to want and at the same time wants to give away; one person speculated that Cesario's take charge and aggressive manner of wooing might indicate to Olivia one who could run her household (I mean, at least Cesario is there instead of pining away in his castle all by himself--Ors-emo)
  • Eunuchs: Yep. Apparently this reference alone would have conjured up an entire world of images and ideas associated with the exotic and far away lands of the Illyrians and Turks (this viewpoint was later supported by one of the rare books we saw that had drawings from a production of Twelfth Night; the drawings played heavily on the idea of the harem and other near/middle-eastern cultural icons)
  • Marriage: there are two types in Shakespeare's plays: 1) Dynastic and 2) Affective; Dynastic is the arranged, power-brokering type while Affective is that done for love
  • Toby as the parodic ghost of the absent (because they are dead) fathers in the play
  • Service: 60% of Early Modern English people were in service for some portion of their lives; llike Maria, middle or lower class people would work in close proximity with people of higher classes, and, also like Maria, perhaps end up marrying up in station; there was a remarkable amount of class mobility for such a regiment time and society
  • Sumptuary Laws: at the time, they were very harsh; the harshness was tied more to infractions of class than infractions of gender.
Having a scholar lead the group was both enlightening, informative, and transformative. For every cogent, salient point a seminar member made, the scholar was able to expand and deepen our understanding. This experience is another that you should consider invaluable and should lead you to apply for the next TSI.

For the bibliophile: After lunch, we were treated to a great presentation by one of the Folger librarians which included a number of rare books, and a first folio. Yeah. You need to apply. Some of the notable other volumes present were an early printing of Chaucer, a promptbook of an Augustin Daly production of Twelfth Night, two original Quartos of Romeo & Juliet, and the original novella that inspired Romeo & Juliet. Then, we traveled to the reading rooms to see the beautiful architecture (the stained-glass window depicting the Seven Ages of man, for example) and the extraordinary collection of the Folger library.

To close out the day, we did some curriculum. We discussed Peggy O'Brien's beliefs about teachers which underlie the Folger's Teaching Philosophy, available on their website. Then, we did two popular activities that some may have experienced at National Convention presentations: Slugs vs. Clods and Two-Line Scenes. Both of these are readily available online through the Folger's education website and lesson plan archive.

In sum, we expanded our knowledge of the library, saw wonderful things, and learned a lot about the depth of setting (internal and external) that shapes Twelfth Night. At the end of day two, our imaginative geography is rather crowded, and there is still so much more undiscovered country.