Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Student

[revised 30 April, 2011 to add some brief remarks about The Theatre and The Curtain]

I’ve criticized the way Shakespeare is taught and suggested that the whole Shakespeare Project is a long-delayed reaction to my own bad experiences with Shakespeare in school. Perhaps you’ll recognize bits of your own history in mine.

What is it that the Jesuits used to say? “Give us a boy until he’s seven and we will eat his soul”? They only had me for four years in high school but the bite marks still haven’t entirely healed. They left Shakespeare to their lay teachers, though. Our sophomore English teacher was Ed Doyle, a Phys. Ed. teacher pressed into the service of literature. “Mr. Doyle” came into class on the first day with a baseball bat, slammed it down on his desk, paused for reaction, and said: “Now that we understand each other . . . .”

Not really the man I’d have picked to unlock the secrets of The Merchant of Venice to a pack of teenage boys. Luckily, he worked with a severely expurgated text. Not for the Jesuits the sexually fraught relationship between Antonio and Bassanio (though given that two of the brothers ran away with each other the following year, they may have had a point). Not for them the banter at the end about Nerissa’s ring (not for Stanley Wells either, so they may have had a point there too). No, Jesuit pedagogy, enthusiastically put into practice by Mr. Doyle, relied on rote memorization. I can’t remember anything at all about Shylock from that class, but I can still recite a couple of lines from Portia’s trial speech. If you were ever called to the front of the class to recite and remember nothing about the experience except humiliation and terror, you will understand why I did not leave high school with the most positive feelings about Shakespeare.

It might seem strange, then, that I took a Shakespeare course my freshman year in college. I didn’t have much choice. My college had an English literature requirement and I not only placed out of English 1-2, the course everybody had to take, I placed out of English 11-12, the course all the English majors had to take. Shakespeare was the next class in line. So with some trepidation I delivered myself for a whole year unto a weedy man with a balding pate, a moustache, and three last names. (I won’t say what those three names are because the gentleman is still alive.) My life might have been very different if the professor could have conveyed even a scintilla of the excitement I now feel about Shakespeare, but his stodgy approach had just the opposite effect; it turned me off the idea of becoming an English major, and turned me off Shakespeare for years.

This was the year in which I didn’t read all of Shakespeare, because even with a whole year to work with we were only assigned about half the plays. If I were teaching such a course now, I would spend a week at most on Tudor theater before Shakespeare. In my view it’s important to know this background, but principally so we can understand just how astonishing it must have been when Shakespeare burst upon the scene. It’s crucial to remember that Gutenberg introduced movable type to Europe just over a century before Shakespeare, and that before this event theater was an instrument of the Church, like the magnificent cathedrals that affirmed the might and majesty of God and told the story of Christ in jewel-like stained glass to the largely illiterate faithful. It’s worth knowing, too, that the first real secular plays in English were comedies meant to be performed by students—Gammer Gurton’s Needle and Ralph Roister Doister. But all that could be covered in one lecture, and Shakespeare’s early contemporaries, specifically Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, covered in one more lecture each. (I’ve always thought Marlowe overrated, more important for being first than for being good, and I wouldn’t have students read any more than Doctor Faustus.) That wasn’t how my professor proceeded. He had us read those student plays, as well as three plays by Marlowe and a generous dollop of Shakespeare criticism from one of the most boring periods of its history. Is it any wonder that by the time we got to Shakespeare, a month into the class, we were all alienated?

I think that for an introduction to Shakespeare the background is less important for its own sake than to give us a sense of how amazingly different Shakespeare was, how astonished his first audiences must have been. That’s yet another reason to start with Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare in Love presents it as a very early play—Shakespeare’s breakthrough play, coming not too long after The Two Gentlemen of Verona. That’s what we used to think in Three-Last-Names’s day. Now scholars generally agree that it was written at about the same time as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, between 1594 and 1596. So it’s not as if Shakespeare was an unknown quantity, but there was still much to amaze that first audience at The Theatre (not the Globe, which wasn’t built until 1599; the other possible venue for the premiere is The Curtain, just down the road from The Theatre, where Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed from 1597 to 1599, but that’s probably a little late). So let me invite you to the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet. Take any place you like: up in the gods with the gentry, or standing with the rest of the groundlings (at Shakespeare’s Globe I like to stand right up against the apron). As you settle in, remember what your Elizabethan world is like. It’s an intellectually thrilling time: the explosion of cheaply available printed books that followed the invention of movable type means that you are living in the first period of human history in which mass literacy is possible. The area behind St. Paul’s Cathedral is a maze of booksellers, some of whom will probably be able to sell you a text—pirated—of this very play in the not too distant future. It was even more like the Internet than you’ve been told!

Not only is going to the theater a new experience, the whole idea of a theater, a purpose-built structure for presenting secular drama, is still brand-new. You are sitting in the second permanent theater built in England, The Theatre, built less than twenty years ago, in 1576.  Not only are you anticipating a novel and exciting experience; you’re intensely attuned to the language you expect to hear. Literacy was on the rise, but the capacity for attentive listening that substituted for it was still prevalent. As Simon Palfrey puts it in his book Doing Shakespeare:

Shakespeare’s “auditors” . . . . didn’t listen like we do, struggling to keep up with anything not immediately transparent . . . . They didn’t require the spoken word to be one-paced and single-filed. They probably listened rather like we (if we really try) can sometimes read (11).

So you will expect linguistic effects to help tell the story and put across its meaning. And Shakespeare knows this.

A hush settles over the theatre as an actor strides onto the stage . . .

[to be continued]

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