"As if he master’d there a double spirit, of teaching and of learning instantly"

This past weekend, ASC Education hosted our first Teachers’ Seminar of the year. We took the opportunity to showcase the new direction we’re moving with our study guides, our workshops, and the rest of our educational activities, focusing strongly on playable aspects of Shakespeare’s works and demonstrating how those playable moments can work in a classroom.

The activities kicked off on Friday afternoon with a lecture from our Director of Mission, Ralph Cohen, exploring key moments from 2 Henry IV. Ralph explored the language of the play using Wordles, asking the teachers to pick out words they thought their students wouldn’t understand. In most of what we looked at, there weren’t many unfamiliar words, and Ralph then showed how, in the one speech he gave them where there were strange and unconventional word choices, the unfamiliar vocabulary still wasn’t anything to be frightened of. He also got them started on an on-your-feet exercise, playing with the interaction between Mistress Quickly, Snare, and Fang before Falstaff enters in 2.1. After the workshop, we held a Master Minds session, featuring two of the best presentations from last year’s MLitt students, by Sarah Keyes Chang and Glenn Schudel. This session gave our participants the opportunity to see examples of the research produced by students in the MBC program — and, as Sarah pointed out, we in the education department (three program alumnae and one current student) get some of our best ideas from concepts explored by graduate research.

Saturday morning, Ben Curns, who plays Iago in the current ASC production of Othello, came by to help Sarah lead a workshop on asides and audience contact. The goal of this workshop was to give teachers an easy tool into working with the text by getting students to consider the dynamics at play on stage. Who’s talking to whom? When is someone talking to the audience, and how does that change the scene? How can you tell if it’s just audience contact, when the other character on stage can still hear what’s being said, or a true “aside,” when the audience must believe in the stage fiction that the other character can’t hear? We worked a scene between Iago and Roderigo to start, with Ben playing Iago and one of the workshop participants acting Roderigo, and for the first run of the scene, we had them do the whole scene without talking to the audience at all. After that run, Ben’s immediate response was that it was “really difficult” not to talk to the audience– which just shows how naturally Shakespeare builds that kind of contact into the lines. When we ran the scene a second time, this time allowing for audience contact and asides, the whole energy of the stage changed. We talked a lot about using the audience as an ally and how to build that rapport during a scene. We then set Iago and Roderigo up for a third run, where Roderigo was really trying to leave the scene, and we saw how that changed the dynamics at play. Iago could no longer devote quite so much attention to the audience, as he had to focus on Roderigo. All of these runs stressed the choices an actor (or a student) can make in performance — what opportunities open up each time you make a different choice?

After the mid-morning break, we had the participants use an activity out of the guides, marking whether given lines were for normal delivery to the other character, audience contact, or an aside, and then we got two volunteers up to work through the scene according to those determinations. We asked them to determine the goal of the scene for each character, then decide if and how the audience could help the character reach that goal. It was so great to get people offering different opinions on how a line should be delivered; I love it when people argue about Shakespeare, and it’s always my goal to get students arguing — because if they argue, it means they care. It means they’ve officially put a dog in the fight, often without even realizing that they’ve been absorbed into the process.

Sunday morning we worked through some activities from the Taming study guide. We kept with our theme of making choices in performance, this time using 1.1 of Taming, when Lucentio first sees Bianca. The goal was to run the scene two ways, first with a Bianca who was sweetness and light, and the second with Bianca as a total brat. Sarah and I were both delighted when we found a spot — “sit and gaze your fill” — where scanning the iambic pentameter line provided direction for the action. What was really wonderful, though, was how much the participants wanted to make suggestions and redirect each other. I had such a rush of energy just watching them make decisions on their own, finding the ways to have fun with the scene. It’s exactly the sort of interaction we hope (and believe) will happen in classrooms.

After Sunday’s mid-morning break, Ralph came in and helped us work two more key moments. He began by talking about “fighting two centuries of editorial misogyny” in regard to a stage direction often added into the play, which indicates that Petruchio strikes a servant on the line “Take that.” Using two volunteers, Ralph explored different ways to realize that embedded direction, running the spectrum from threateningly violent to remarkably generous and gentle. He then moved on to the final exit of the play, which involved every participant in the workshop, to demonstrate the difference in mood created by leaving everyone on the stage at the end of the play (as the Folio does not include an exeunt), rather than having all your actors file off.

All of these activities demonstrated how you can teach so much about the play just by going deep and narrow into a very few lines. We never worked an entire scene from Taming — often we would only work 2-5 lines — but it didn’t matter that we weren’t getting all the way to the end of a section. What mattered were the conversations happening as we worked, the excitement and energy of discovering hidden clues in the scene. I was so excited to see the activities out of our guides working so well on their feet (and I’ll be talking some more, probably later this week, about what’s gone into the reconstruction of our guides this year) — it really makes me feel confident that teachers will find these useful tools for their classrooms.

I’m so grateful for all the teachers who came out for the weekend. I know we on the education team had a blast, and I feel confident that all of our participants enjoyed themselves as well. See the ASC website for more information on future seminars — in the winter we’ll be working with The Comedy of Errors, and Macbeth and As You Like It will be on the docket for April.

"On hill, in dale, forest or mead" : Shakespeare and an Eco-Conscious Life

An interesting article fell into my inbox this morning: Teaching My Child About Mother Earth. The article discusses a mother rediscovering her own love of the natural world through her daughter, whose natural biophilia has not yet been stifled, who loves grassy fields, ocean waves, and bumblebees. The article makes suggestions on how to foster a child’s interest in nature, creating life-long habits of conservation — and the author chooses to frame these modern concerns with a quote from Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” from Troilus and Cressida. Though Ulysses means it, in context, more cynically than does the author of this article, it still made me think about the implications of pairing Shakespeare’s words to ecological concepts.

The idea of getting back to nature runs through a lot of Shakespeare’s plays. From Midsummer to Cymbeline, wild forests provide a place for the snarls and tangles of life to work themselves out to healthy resolution. There may be dangers (or meddling fairies), but if you’re a good-hearted soul on an honest quest, you can get through the darkness, reunite with long-lost relatives, win back ancestral titles, successfully woo your lady-or-lord-love, and return to your previously scheduled life in peace and merriment. The ASC’s production of As You Like It, currently touring, highlights the peace and comforts of the country life, drawing the audience into an idyllic world far removed from the conniving politics and superficial concerns of the urbanized court. The shepherd Colin declares, “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” Would that we could all be so contented.

The (perhaps nostalgic) affinity for country life presented in Shakespeare’s plays probably shouldn’t be surprising to us. He was, after all, more a country boy than a Londoner like Ben Jonson. Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 16th-century was a town of about 2000 people, close to expansive forests and to the picturesque Cotswold hill ranges. Beyond seeing the biographical connections, however, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s yearning for the green world more personally, based on the experiences of late-20th- and early-21st-century living. Shakespeare’s world was pre-Industrial, but only just. Like us, Shakespeare lived in a world that was rapidly urbanizing, where pollution was becoming a major concern, where the health of those in the inner-cities was in decline. Then, as now, changes in climate and weather patterns disrupted food production and threatened the livelihoods of those dependent on the soil or the sea. We may worry about offshore oil platforms and the ethics of farming corn for ethanol, while people in 1600 worried about sheep enclosures and fishing rights, but the basis of concern is the same — How do we use our land? How do we weigh profitability versus responsibility? How can we make the best decisions, not just for ourselves, but for future generations?

I wonder if there’s a way to enrich this connection. How can we integrate Shakespeare into the green movement? Perhaps this connection can provide another in-road for students, another way to demonstrate Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to them, as the millennial generation is more likely to be concerned with conservation, renewable energy, and responsible stewardship of the land than previous generations have been. If we can show them that Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate care about the green world, too, it might be another opportunity to catch their interest (and I always like finding those).

Just for fun, what’s your favorite quote from Shakespeare about the natural world?

Titling the History Plays

The Staunton Newsleader’s review of 2 Henry IV opens by criticizing the play’s title.

For a man who had more than his share of creative chops, William Shakespeare could come up with some pretty dull titles. The “Henry Whichever, Part Whatever” plays are chief examples, as their titles absolutely fail to reflect, or even hint at, the theatrical glory lurking behind them.

This statement caught my eye because the same idea came up here on the blog a couple of weeks ago, when I talked about 1 Henry VI. Are the titles of the history plays really that great a barrier? It strikes me as a slightly odd criticism — it’s not like Hamlet or Othello give you any more to go on as titles. Is it the numbers that people find intimidating? How might a different title alter perception of the play?

I’ll refrain from giving too pedantic a lecture about playhouse traditions and the early modern publishing industry, and simply say that there’s really no way to pin this exclusively on Shakespeare, as he may well not have been responsible for titling his own plays during his lifetime, and he certainly hasn’t controlled what we call them in the centuries since his death. Many of the history plays appear under alternate titles in Henslowe’s Diary or with variations in the titles between different printings. Additionally, many of the histories did have fuller, more descriptive titles in their printed forms. I submit, for your consideration:

  • Richard II, alternately (in the 1615 quarto) The Tragedy of King Richard II, with new additions of the Parliament Scene, and the Deposing of King Richard
  • 1 Henry IV, alternately (in the 1598 quarto) The History of King Henry the Fourth, with the battle at Shrewsbury, between the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the North, with the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff
  • 2 Henry IV, in full in the Folio The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Containing his Death and the Coronation of King Henry the Fifth
  • Henry V, alternately (in the 1600 quarto) The chronicle history of Henry the Fifth, with his battle fought at Agincourt in France, Together with Ancient Pistol
  • 2 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1594 quarto) The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the Tragical end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke’s first claim unto the crown
  • 3 Henry VI, alternately (in the 1595 octavo) The The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixth, with the Whole Contention between the two Houses, Lancaster and York
  • Richard III, alternately (in the 1597 quarto) The tragedy of King Richard the third Containing his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the whole course of the detested life, and most deserved death, or, in the Folio, The Tragedy of Richard the Third, with the Landing of Earl Richmond, and the Battle at Bosworth Field.

More descriptive, certainly, but also perhaps a bit too cumbersome for easy marketing purposes. There’s a lesson in here about what publishers thought would sell a book, what audiences had made popular (is Ancient Pistol really the highlight of Henry V?), and it might be something teachers of the history plays would find worth exploring with students. It’s also worth noting how many of those titles “give away” major plot points and character deaths — the very things we consider “spoilers” today. (I will, I’m sure, be encouraging profitable discussion on these matters in next year’s Henry V study guide).

So, just for fun, I propose a game. Retitle the histories! Keep it to, oh, seven words or less — something more like how the comedies or romances are conventionally titled — so we can aim for the happy medium between the short character-based titles and the lengthy expository titles (glorious though those are). What do you want to emphasize out of the play? Who do you think is the central figure, or what’s the main event? Play with me in the comments here or on Twitter.

My suggestions so far:

For Henry V: simply, Agincourt
For Richard II: The Deposition of the King
For 1 Henry VI: A War Won by Witchcraft

As far as 2 Henry IV is concerned, our own Dr. Ralph Cohen, who directed the play, suggests these alternatives in the season program: Fat Jack and the Two Harrys or The Flim Flammer Knight’s Dream.

I’ll compile everyone’s suggestions into a later post, and we can talk about what everyone finds most interesting, most pertinent, or most marketable for these plays, judging by the proposed titles.