What do we teach, when we teach Shakespeare? Especially when we are teaching it (“him”…? “the plays”…?) to young people?
A big, open-ended question, admittedly. It came to me as I read about this new production created by the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival — “Ira Aldridge: Pioneer of the Stage.”
The one-man show, which will be visiting schools in Jefferson County, Ky., strikes me as a creative and smart twist on the traditional Shakespeare-in-the-schools tour, which usually features the performance of scenes, speeches, or sonnets, or perhaps even someone in a ruff collar portraying Shakespeare.
With Aldridge’s life story, students would be introduced to a fascinating historical figure, but also to a brilliant and innovative man who had a passion for performing Shakespeare, and (if I remember my Ira Aldridge story correctly) used the power of Shakespeare as best he could to open doors of opportunity.
And so I would imagine that the performance’s young audience members, in the moments when the Kentucky Shakespeare actor portrays Aldridge as he is diving into his most famous role, Othello, are experiencing two plays at once — the riveting and disturbing story of Othello and the riveting and also disturbing (due to the racism of the time) true-life historical drama of Aldridge’s portrayal of the role in that particular time and place.
So what is being “taught” here is complex and layered, and has Shakespeare’s cultural capital as its foundation.
I suppose my question is a variation on the classic query we seem to hear every few months in an article or post or comment: “Why teach Shakespeare?” (Alex Bezarni’s post in this section two weeks ago, “Why Does No One Talk about Timon of Athens?” set me to wondering about the “why” and also the “what” of teaching the plays.) If you do an internet search of this question, you find a swirling tussle of those who, on one side, pose the question rhetorically and then work on persuading skeptics of the enduring value of studying our favorite author, and, on the other, those who mutter the question in exasperation, and then lay out the case for moving on from “the boring Bard” to modern literature that is more relevant for today’s youth.
The answers to that big question, you begin to notice, are all very personal. Do they perhaps come from, or reflect, what their own teachers had as a goal or focus when they taught Shakespeare?
I can certainly see that in my own relationship to the work — it is profoundly influenced by the first teacher who “awakened” me to the power and relevance of the words in those plays.
So as teachers who introduce Shakespeare to young people — often in situations where the instruction is compulsory, not voluntary (ie, this is not a drama class, but 9th grade English, or 5th grade homeroom…) — what are we going for?
Listen to legendary 5th grade teacher Rafe Esquith in this clip from The Hobart Shakespeareans and you’ll hear what Esquith teaches when he teaches Shakespeare: discipline, vocabulary, teamwork, the sharing of a passion for stories and words. “It’s not about Shakespeare,” he says. To “do Shakespeare” is to take on a challenge — which is especially valuable for the children of immigrants for whom English is often a second language. Shakespeare, as it did for Aldridge, becomes then a vehicle, because of the work’s richness, adaptability, and, again, cultural capital.
So what do you teach, when you teach Shakespeare? (I’m assuming for the moment that if you’ve clicked on “Education” posts you are at least interested in teaching these works….)
If you have an answer you’d be willing to share with us, please write a comment below. I’d be interested to hear what inspires and drives those of you who continue to make room for these words, characters, stories….