Finding Shakespeare in ‘Serial’

In November, I read a blog post by Mike Godsey, a California teacher who became so frustrated by teaching Shakespeare to his students that he decided to ditch the world’s most prolific playwright, structuring his English class instead around Serial, the recent hit podcast spinoff of NPR’s This American Life.

Serial is a 12-part podcast in which listeners hear part of a single story told week by week – in a serial format. The first season featured a journalistic investigation of a 1999 Baltimore murder case. Hae Min Lee, a popular student at Woodlawn High School, disappeared after school one day. Police found her body in a park several weeks later. The cause of her death was manual strangulation. A jury found her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, guilty of her murder. As the podcast reveals, however, the evidence against Adnan was scant. Along with the podcast, the Serial website provides digital copies of various pieces of evidence, timelines, maps, and call logs.

I came across Mr. Godsey’s post while I and the rest of our ASC Education team were attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Washington, DC. We were surrounded by thousands of English teachers, hundreds of whom were clambering for resources and professional training in how to revitalize their love of teaching Shakespeare, while also finding methods for reaching their students on a different level – a level that would engage them as much as Serial intrigued millions of attentive weekly listeners.

My reaction to the post was one of both delight and disappointment. My husband and I dedicated our Thursday evenings to Serial, turning our living room into a classic radio-listening den à la the days of FDR’s fireside chats. I was delighted that another teacher had found in Serial the same qualities that I admired in the podcast and had taken steps to introduce his students to the riveting journalism of Sarah Koenig and her producers. I didn’t go one day without wondering whether Adnan was innocent, if we would hear more about Jay’s testimony during the next episode, or if an entirely new twist would surface from the legal team’s research at the University of Virginia, just 40 minutes from our own Blackfriars Playhouse.

What disappointed me, however, was that this teacher did not seem to make the connection that we love Serial because we also love Shakespeare. Shakespeare may not have been a journalist trying to solve a twisted murder case, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention through the swelling drama of his tragedies and the laugh-‘til-you-burst scenarios of his comedies, and the true-to-life circumstances when tragedy and comedy collide. Ira Glass might not be a fan, but we certainly owe all due credit to the playwright from Stratford for the drama craze that is so ingrained in our culture and modern media.

Mr. Godsey outlined 8 reasons behind his syllabus overhaul:

  1. The teacher (me) doesn’t know how the story ends
    Whenever I teach a novel for the first time, the students believe they might be answering my questions and solving problems in original ways. No matter how much I fake it, however, they can tell when I’m teaching Hamletfor the eighth straight year. TeachingSerial is even better than teaching a book for the first time – the story is literally not finished yet, so they know I don’t know the answers.
  2. The non-fiction “murder mystery” genre makes it more conducive to problem-solving
    We want our students to be critically thinking problem solvers, and Reading Standard 7 of the Common Core State Standards specifically asks students to combine multiple sources to solve a problem or question. “How much should we believe Jay’s story?” is an interesting, real-life question that could literally be solved; student engagement with this question is much higher than, say, “Should Hamlet listen to his father’s ghost?”

Any well-prepared teacher will know the ending of the story they are teaching, but knowing the end of the story is not the same as knowing the answers to questions about the story. Students may respond positively to questions about Serial that they can explore on their own by listening to the podcast: “How does Serial expose the flaws of our justice system?” or “What possible motives does Sarah propose to explain the inconsistencies of Jay’s testimonies?” Teaching students to mine the text for clues, like actively listening to the podcast, will empower them with the tools they need to decipher questions about the play without the teacher having all the answers.

When students encounter Shakespeare for the first time, they have just as many opportunities to make new discoveries and to propose original solutions to the play’s problems as their teacher does. Teaching Shakespeare using his original Staging Conditions allows students and teachers to examine the text in ways that demand innovative solutions and problem-solving strategies. Your students will surprise you every time they start to reevaluate characters based on subtle shifts in Shakespeare’s verse, or when they propose five different ways to stage the first scene of Hamlet after they learn to recognize embedded stage directions. Our co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen has been teaching Shakespeare using these methods for over 40 years and still makes new discoveries about the plays he teaches.

  1. Serial is hip and fresh
    My students really, really don’t care about what a dead critic thinks about Hamlet’s sexual feelings for his own mother, but they definitely take notice when women are tweeting about how they’re looking for men who have an opinion on Adnan.
  2. My students’ opinions might actually matter on social networking sites. Or in my class. Or in real life
    Nobody on the internet really cares about their thoughts on Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies, and after eight years, I frankly don’t either (I’ve pretty much heard them all). But in this case, there’s a good chance they can blow my mind by uncovering a clue, and even a (very small) chance that their research could help bring justice to an imprisoned man.

If you think Shakespeare isn’t hip and fresh, think again. The teens that come to the ASC Theatre Camp would certainly convince you otherwise. “The Hollow Crown” BBC series is still drawing attention even three years later, with over 11.3k followers on Twitter. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are two heartthrobs getting international acclaim for their Shakespeare performances, and even Johnny Depp is developing a new TV series based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Students’ opinions about Shakespeare absolutely matter, and encouraging students to share their opinions with others is key to developing their critical discussion skills and self-confidence. Pair up with a class at another school that is covering the same play and use Tumblr or Google Communities to inspire student discussion and interaction; have your students send Shakespearean actors and scholars questions about their work through Twitter; create a Pinterest board for your next production and let your students post and share their design inspirations and dramaturgical research. Your students will be delighted to see when others start reposting their Tweets or sharing their Pins.

  1. The multimedia aspect encourages (requires) the students to synthesise information from a variety of sources
    Yes, I know we can watch Shakespeare on YouTube and make models of the Globe Theatre, but this does not compare to Serial‘s collection of documents and photos. Not only does this multimedia aspect really help with the state standards and 21st-century skills, it’s just a good time. Maps, call logs, Google Maps, handwritten letters…it’s fantastically fun and totally engaging. Today we put the Google Maps street view on the big screen and “drove” the exact route that Adnan allegedly took from his school to Best Buy. Creepy, but engaging. Speaking of which…
  2. They actually listen to the story
    Sorry, but the kids these days are not doing the homework like we imagine we did when we were in high school. Their SparkNotes (on their phones) are in their pockets at all times. Even at university, my friend (an English professor) says that students are watching the movie on their iPads while he lectures on Much Ado About NothingIn this case, the students say “Wait, Mr Godsey. Can you play back that last 10 seconds?” about every 10 minutes.

Shakespeare’s plays are inherently multimedia-based. Shakespeare’s actors used cue scripts, containing only their character’s lines and the few words before them. This technology required that actors had to synthesize information about their own characters and the action of the play by listening to other actors. When your students have to listen to their fellow classmates for plot information, character development, and staging clues, suddenly, class is much better than a movie or podcast. Show your students that Shakespeare’s plays were meant for performance, and you have a cacophony of sources from which they can create the story themselves – cue scripts, doubling charts, props, costumes, and musical instruments; Each element is a piece of the puzzle that your students must decipher together, and they must listen to each other during the process.

  1. It’s easier to teach the state standards with Serial
    Not only can I justify the use of Serial as a primary text, but the podcast actually helps the students learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels.
  1. The state doesn’t really care if the students read Shakespeare
    I don’t know if this is hyperbole or understatement, but it’s how I feel right now. Serial does not teach anything about iambic pentameter, English history or the Renaissance, but none of these things are tested on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam, the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), the SAT or any other test they might take outside my class. Generally speaking, we’re being asked to teach the skills rather than the content (said to be easily accessible in 2014). More specifically, there is no school-wide, district-wide or state-mandated test that has a single question about a particular piece of literature. “To be or not to be?” is not a multiple-choice question that has any place on a state-mandated test, and nobody seems to care; I’m not even sure I do. As long as I teach students to read well and think critically, they can read Shakespeare on their own time.

I agree that Serial can provide a fresh approach to teaching the critical analysis and close reading skills required by some standardized tests; however, Shakespeare stands the test of time, and his inclusion in the Common Core Standards is a testament to the influence of his works across all areas of modern literature and drama. Even Sarah Koenig recognizes the significance of her podcast’s parallels to Shakespeare:

I read a few newspaper clips about the case, looked up a few trial records. And on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mashup — young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge. And the main stage? A regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven.

-Sarah Koenig, Serial, Episode 1 Transcript

If you are inspired by Serial and want a way to tie it to your class, I propose a hybrid unit that integrates Serial with Shakespeare. The story of Hae Min Lee’s tragic death invokes the story of Othello more than any other. Hae Min, like Desdemona, was a well-liked young woman who found herself in a controversial relationship with a man whom society deemed to be an outsider. Adnan and Othello are the exotic “other,” accomplished and admired by their communities, yet doomed to suffer through their own tragic endings.

Questions for your class to consider as they listen to Serial and read Othello might include:

  • How do characters in Othello refer to Othello’s otherness? What sets Othello apart from the Venetians? Do the same descriptions apply to Adnan? In what ways are Othello and Adnan similar to and different from one another?
  • If you were a juror on a case in which Othello was being tried for Desdemona’s death, what sentence would you give him? What would Iago’s charge be? Would you be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Iago was involved in Desdemona’s murder? Who would be your witnesses?
  • Review the Timeline and People Map on the Serial website. Make a timeline for the events in Othello and a People Map to show the characters’ relationships. Compose a brief explanation for your group’s choices based on information available in the play. Insert quotes from the text in your timeline and People Map.
  • Read Shakespeare’s source for Othello, Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro.” What evidence surrounding Desdemona’s death changes in Shakespeare’s play from this story? How would the difference between these endings change your verdicts for Othello or Iago? Discuss these changes in relation to the evidence presented in Adnan’s case.

–Kim Newton
Director of College Prep Programs

Study Guide Snippet: The Taming of the Shrew Textual Variants

The Taming of the Shrew is, admittedly, a controversial play. I don’t mind that. I like controversy. It gets people talking. Personally, I have a sort of winding history with the play. As a young teenager, I loved it because I loved Kate. Like my all-time favorite heroine, Beatrice, Kate is witty and sharp and sarcastic. She has an edge to her, too, though, something either dark or sad that I didn’t fully appreciate until later in life. A little later on, I went through a period of stridently disliking the play, partially for feminist reasons, and partially because I wasn’t seeing very good productions. But I was willing to be convinced, and by the time I hit grad school, I was coming around on it. And then, my first year with the ASC, we explored a scene in a Teacher Seminar that blew the doors open for me.

For me, this entire play now hinges on a single stage direction. It’s a tiny change that can seal the difference between Petruchio-as-bully and Petruchio-as-actor/teacher, and that’s the focus of the Textual Variants activity in our brand-new Study Guide. Here’s a sneak peek — and if you want to see it in action, register now to join us for the Winter Teacher Seminar, January 30-31.

Continue reading

“Forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it”: The Life of Aphra Behn

England’s first professional female playwright was a member of the royal court, a spy for England, a personal friend of some of the greatest actors and courtiers of the Restoration, and an inspiration to future generations of literary women. She was also a commoner, from humble origins, who wrote not as a hobby but for an income. Her historical record begins for certain in 1666, when she served King Charles II as a spy in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch Warm recruited as Agent 160, code-named Astrea. Behn incurred great debt while working abroad – a financial difficulty made more dire by the King’s neglect in paying her for her services. Charles was notoriously slow in such matters, and Behn may have served time in debtor’s prison while waiting for him to come through for her.Aphra_Behn

In 1670, with Charles’s still neglecting his accounts payable, Aphra turned to writing to keep herself fed and out of prison. Working with the Duke’s Company, managed by William Davenant, her plays were immediately popular and financial successes. Behn produced roughly one play a year until 1682, when the merging of the Duke’s Company with the King’s Company reduced the profit available to her from playwrighting. Thereafter, Behn took to writing poetry and narrative fiction, including one of the English language’s first epistolary novels.

Behn’s most famous and most enduring play was The Rover, or, The Banish’d Cavaliers. The “Mrs. Gwin” who played Angellica Bianca at the first performance is likely a special appearance by the famous Nell Gwyn, by then retired from the stage and living full-time as a royal mistress. Elizabeth Barry, who played Hellena, was the lover of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester — one of the king’s closest friends and the likely inspiration for the character of Willmore, the “rover” of the title. Set in Naples, the play features a group of gallants wooing and carousing their way through the subversive festivities of Carnival. Captain Willmore becomes entangled in a love triangle between the famous courtesan Angellica Bianca and Hellena, a young woman determined to find love before her brother ships her off to a convent. Willmore’s friend Belvile falls in love with Hellena’s sister, Florinda, who is promised in marriage to a friend of her brother’s, while the foolish Blunt becomes convinced that the thieving prostitute Lucetta is madly in love with him. As Carnival was a masking holiday in Italy (Behn seems to have conflated the more popularly known traditions of Venice into her setting of Naples), many confusions of identity and intentional deceptions drive the action of the play. Such misadventures of love and money were common in the Restoration, as they popular then as they had been in the earlier theatres of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

While in many ways, the play is a light-hearted, frothy romp, it also hints at the darker side of the Restoration’s libertine atmosphere. Though the women in the play are witty and active characters, Behn presents them as still dominated by their economic circumstances. Their primary value is in their bodies, whether for prostitution or for marriage, and The Rover blurs the distinction between the two types of exchange. While the high-born Florinda and Hellena are eager to experience sexual freedom, typically denied to ladies of their class, the courtesan Angellica Biance aspires to exclusivity. When Willmore chastises Angellica Bianca for the high price she charges for her favors, she retorts that men are just as bad in assigning monetary value to sex and love:

Pray, tell me, Sir, are not you guilty of the same mercenary Crime? When a Lady is proposed to you for a Wife, you never ask, how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is; but what’s her Fortune — which if but small, you cry — She will not do my business — and basely leave her, tho she languish for you. — Say, is not this as poor? (The Rover, 2.2)

The Rover’s juxtaposition of different female archetypes may be a commentary on some of the Restoration-era courtesans and courtiers who attempted to break out of the virgin/wife/whore mold in some way or another, with mixed success. Common-born women like Moll Davis and Nell Gwynne, famous mistresses of aristocrats and King Charles, may have appeared to enjoy sexual freedom, but in fact spent a lot of energy converting that sexual power into something more tangible and protective – money, houses, or titles, for themselves or for their children. Sexual expression for its own sake was more likely to lead to a downfall. The nobly-born Barbara Villiers, created Countess of Castlemaine and later Duchess of Cleveland, was a mistress of Charles II who enjoyed great favor from the king, but who also had to marry a lesser man for the sake of appearances. Frances Stuart, on the other hand, famously refused to become the king’s mistress, and subsequently had to elope in order to be able to marry at all. Anita Pacheco remarks on The Rover‘s reflection of the women’s social circumstances and sexual worth during the Restoration:

Critics have often remarked that in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, ladies act like whores and whores like ladies. On this level, the play presents a dramatic world dominated by the two principal patriarchal definitions of women, but in which the boundary separating one category from the other has become blurred. In the case of both Florinda, the play’s quintessential “maid of quality,” and the prostitute Angellica Bianca, the role reversals arise out of contrasting bids to move from subjection into subjectivity. … Before the obligatory happy ending, Florinda faces three attempted rapes that are not called rape, but seduction, retaliation, or ‘ruffling a harlot’: in presuming to make her own sexual choices, she enters a world where the word ‘rape’ has no meaning. Angellica Bianca’s subject position is shown to involve a complex complicity in the same cultural legitimation of male sexual aggression.

As Behn herself knew well, being a woman in Restoration England was often a no-win situation, for all the supposed liberty brought by the King’s return, and The Rover may well have been intended to call attention to that dichotomy.

Though there had certainly been other female writers in England, Aphra Behn was the first to earn a living by the public production and publishing of her works. As she stated in the preface to her 1678 play Sir Patient Fancy, she was “forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.” Though mocked by contemporaries and later critics for the bawdiness of her works and her supposedly masculine style, Behn had the support of writers like John Dryden and Nahum Tate, and her influence encouraged other female dramatists, including Susanna Centlivre, an early favorite at Drury Lane (and author of upcoming Staged Reading A Bold Stroke for a Wife). When Behn died in 1689, she was buried in Westminster Abbey, with a marking stone in Poets’ Corner, near the graves of Chaucer, Spenser, and Davenant – an unusual honor for a woman at the time. Her memorial reads “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.” Perhaps not – but as her enduring legacy ensures, mortality itself is not enough to kill a wit as sparkling as Aphra Behn’s.

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

This blog post was adapted out of an article for the upcoming Winter/Spring 2015 issue of the Playhouse Insider. Get your copy in the Box Office or online starting in February, and see The Rover starting today at the Blackfriars Playhouse!

Blackfriars Conference 2015: Call for Papers and Registration

Dear Friends,

1479469_10151906077508347_1988637814_nOn odd numbered years since the first October the Blackfriars Playhouse opened, scholars from around the world have gathered in Staunton, during the height of the Shenandoah Valley’s Fall colors, to hear lectures, see plays, and explore early modern theatre. In 2015, the American Shakespeare Center’s Education and Research Department will once again host Shakespeareans, scholars and practitioners, to share ideas about Shakespeare in the study and Shakespeare on the stage and to find ways that these two worlds – sometime in collision – can collaborate.

The majority of events – papers, plays, workshops – take place in the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, the Blackfriars Playhouse. This conference distinguishes itself from saner conferences in a variety of other ways. First, to model the kind of collaboration we think possible we encourage presenters to feature actors as partners in the demonstration of their theses. For instance, in 2009, Gary Taylor’s keynote presentation “Lyrical Middleton” featured ASC actors singing and dancing to the songs in Middleton’s plays. Second, we limit each paper session to six short papers (10 minutes for solo presentations, 13 minutes for presentations with actors). Third, we enforce this rule by ursine fiat – a bear chases from the stage those speakers who go over their allotted time.

Delegates also attend all of the plays in the ASC 2015 Fall Season – Antony & Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry VI, Part I – and, for the past several conferences, bonus plays written by Shakespearean colleagues and performed by actors in the Mary Baldwin College MFA in Shakespeare in Performance program. The spirit of fun that imbues the conference manifests itself in the annual Truancy Award, for the sensible conferee who – visiting the Shenandoah Valley at the height of Fall – has the good sense to miss the most sessions.

1468685_10151906081453347_1341082796_nThe 2015 gathering will honor Barbara Mowat and will include keynote addresses from Lena Orlin, Ayanna Thompson, Tim Carroll, and Gina Bloom.

ASC Education and Research extends this call for papers on any matters to do with the performance of early modern drama (historical, architectural, political, dramatical, sartorial, medical, linguistical, comical, pastoral) to all interested parties for our biennial conference to be held at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, 28 October – 1 November 2015.

As in past years, participants may submit an abstract for consideration in one of 11 plenary sessions, each of which features only 6-7 papers. The deadline to submit an abstract for consideration in the plenary sessions is 10 April 2015 (notification and announcement by 4 May). Our colloquies will be different in 2015 than at past conferences, as we are soliciting proposals to lead these sessions (deadline 10 April). We will post the 11 selected topics by May 4th, and those who wish to register to participate in a session will be able to do so after notifications regarding plenary selections go out. Registration for participation in colloquies and workshops will end 1 June. Participation in a colloquy session will be mutually exclusive from presenting in a plenary session.

What is a colloquy? Colloquy, from the Latin Colloquium, is “A talking together; a conversation, dialogue. Also, a written dialogue, as Erasmus’s Colloquies.” Using the broad definition from the OED as our guide, this gathering can be as formal or informal as the leader and participants choose. In the past, some colloquies have encouraged participants to submit papers to one another on a topic. In these situations, participants have read one another’s papers in advance of the meeting, and discussed them during the convening. Other colloquies have functioned more like panels, or round-tables, with 5-6 interested parties presenting short papers on a topic, and the floor opening for discussion following the presentations. Other Colloquies have included sharing best practices (in pedagogy, or theatre practice for instance), both through discussion and demonstration.

Submit an Abstract or a Colloquy Proposal for consideration; Deadline: 10 April 2015. Conference registration is also now open.

For more information, please email Sarah Enloe, Director of Education, at sarahe@americanshakespearecenter.com.