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Secret Diary of a PhD Candidate: Soliciting *your* feedback on teaching Shakespeare!

By February 11, 2014 No Comments

In my last post, I mentioned how fifth year graduate students in my department have the opportunity to design and teach their own one-semester course. Currently halfway through my fourth year, I just received my letter to say that I would be teaching a semester of Shakespeare next year. Yay!

In the past, my university has taught Shakespeare in two halves: Elizabethan and Jacobean, not so much for the sake of distinguishing between the two, but out of convenience, so that non-English majors can study it for a semester, rather than the full year. This year, though, the department seems to be lacking in enrollment, funds, and grad students to teach the course, so it looks like my Shakespeare course will be the only 200-level one taught for that year. That’s kind of exciting, but also brings up a couple of questions:

Do I stick to Elizabethan Shakespeare or teach a wider range of his works?

The Elizabethan plays are my favourites – Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet: do I really want to mess with that magic in order to throw in problem plays, tragedies, and romances? Or do I offer a text from every Shakespearean subgenre (comedy, tragedy, history, romance, tragicomedy, or ”tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited”)? My research focuses on Shakespeare’s comedies: should I just teach those, to avoid heavy prep time?

This question, of course, brings up brings up more questions…

How many plays should I teach? And which???

Are the students losing out by learning fewer of the plays, or are the real educational gains found in teaching fewer texts in greater depth? What’s the “magic number” of Shakespeare courses you can teach in a semester, when you still want to leave ample time for lessons on early modern stage history and academic essay writing? The department usually prescribes 8 plays per semester, but I want to teach Hamlet: can you really get through Hamlet in three lessons? Not the way I want to teach it! My initial plan was to teach these 6: Romeo and Juliet, Titus, The Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet. Have I committed any atrocities in leaving something out? Is Shakespeare not Shakespeare without Macbeth, Othello, or King Lear?


Is it worthwhile to teach Hamlet?

Is it just me, or do people seem reluctant to teach Hamlet? Is that because of the play’s length, esoteric themes, or difficult language? Is having it on the syllabus going to scare off students, or bring more in? Can I do it justice?

And after that, I have to think about the wealth of film adaptations available…

If I had to choose one Hamlet film, which would I show my students?

Does Mel Gibson still hold the weight that it did for Cher Horowitz in Clueless? Or are people expecting classic Branagh? Or maybe the Dr. Who-ligans will prefer to see David Tennant pick up Yorick’s skull?


Is it worthwhile to show Shakespeare’s films, if I’m not getting paid for that extra time?

I can answer that one myself: hell yes. In my experience, students do show up, especially if we get some sort of baking rotation going. Not all of them, but a good handful, at least. It helps students understand the content that they might find incomprehensible on the page, and it reminds them that Shakespeare’s plays are written for performance. Watching them performed by our favourite actors and Hollywood soundtracks, these plays can take on new, exciting, and provocative meaning. It has made my experience learning Shakespeare all the richer, and I want to pass that on to my students!

And then, we have my last question, for now…

What edition of the plays do I use?

For my own research, I oscillate between Oxford, Cambridge, and Arden, depending on which editor provides the cheekiest footnotes (I’m looking at you, Philip Edwards). When it comes to teaching Shakespeare, though, I need to factor in price and convenience for the students. Is it preferable to give them an anthology, like the Norton Anthology? But in that case, do I require them to buy the full omnibus? Or only the first half? That would be a problem, because Hamlet is so large that it ended up being included in the second half of the Norton, titled “The Late Plays”.

Or does anyone find that students prefer to buy a set of books that are relatively cheap (hurray for paperbacks of works in the public domain!), have stronger paper, and are easier to carry in their book bags? — That is the question.

As you can see, I have a lot of questions. I feel so privileged to finally be at the point in my career when I can begin to ask them, and allow myself to genuinely contemplate how I would answer them. But I’d love some help. I’d love for this piece to serve as a conversation starter, for Shakespeare students and instructors alike, to suggest how they would want to teach, and be taught, Shakespeare. Please use the comment box below (or tweet me @TheBardolator!) to offer your own invaluable input to this important conversation!


Thanks for your help!

Author Erin Weinberg

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