Monday, June 22, 2015

Still in Love with William

How did anyone get attention before the Internet? I honestly wonder which of my former teachers might have gone viral if we'd had cell phone cameras or social networking.  I suspect, too, that back when we had only three networks (and with a rabbit ears antenna on the TV, only one), the demand for news sufficiently met supply without having to manufacture and elaborate, elevating mere mortals to primetime scrutiny.

Nevertheless, Dana Dusbiber, an English teacher in Sacramento, California, has made the news and made waves with a blog post declaring her apathy or antipathy for Shakespeare.  She calls reliance on his works "odd" and has replaced his works in her  classes with "works by nonwhite authors."  I applaud some of the writers whose works she has chosen instead, and I've had the chance to meet Sharon Draper and Isabel Allende.

I started my teaching career about the same time as Dusbiber--about twenty-five years ago--and I feel certain not a single year has passed without my teaching several sonnets and at least one Shakepearean play --usually several.  No one ever said directly that I had to do so.

I did learn early on that there is more than one right way to teach.  I've long admired teachers up and down the hall whose teaching styles did not match mine.  There are so many wonderful works considered classics that I couldn't even read them all myself, much less assign them.

Why, then, should Shakespeare continue to be taught in the English classroom? For much the same reason literature should continue to be taught in schools.  Shakespeare may be a dead white man, and he may have lived  in the late sixteenth and early sixteenth century, using thee and thou, going hence  and thence, but the man understood human nature. The plot of Romeo and Juliet may come across as corny and improbable, but I've yet to meet any high school freshmen who couldn't identify with the idea of wanting to date someone their parents would oppose.  The eponymous Macbeth may have been ruthless yet manipulated by the women in his life from his wife to the three "weird sisters," but my students often recognize modern political parallels without much suggestion on my part.

The language is difficult, but it truly is beautiful. No, people in Elizabeth English didn't go around spouting iambic pentameter anymore than the founding fathers suddenly broke into song (as one high school junior surmised when viewing the film 1776.) Shakespeare was, after all, a poet. The archaic elements, once understood, shed light, rather than diminishing understanding.  I love to explain the use of the "familiar" forms of pronouns--the thees  and thous, since they offer clues to shifting relationships in the plays.

Literature in general and Shakespeare in particular allow readers--or audiences--to get out of ourselves, to time travel, to see the world in much the way Atticus suggested to Scout.  I'm fascinated with some of the current studies of the value of literary fiction, particularly the "theories of the mind" and the studies of the development of empathy through text. Shakespeare developed characters that ranged from flawed to pure evil. The presence of an anti-Semitic Shylock or the regicidal maniac Macbeth doesn't encourage others to follow suit but allows them to see the consequences and the avenues for justice or redemption.

Shakespeare's comedies allow us to laugh at others' flaws but then see them as our own, holding up the "mirror up to nature" as Hamlet suggests. Shakespeare didn't perpetuate romantic cliches as much as he poked gentle fun at Petrarchan lovers who fell for one another based on superficial beauty. Who wouldn't prefer to be Beatrice or Benedick instead of Claudio or Hero--or Romeo and Juliet? Shakespeare allowed his characters to play with words even more than with swords.

Do I think Dusbiber should repent and turn from her foolish ways?  No. In fact, I fear more harm is done than good when Shakespeare's works are taught out of duty rather than passion. I saw for myself years ago, when I overheard a freshman football player outside my classroom exclaim, "Oh boy! We're starting Romeo and Juliet today!"
"So?" asked his friend.
"Well, Mrs. Posey loves that stuff, so you know it'll be fun!"

I rest my case.

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