By Mrs. Kristen Spangler
At the orientation session for my first year as a TA in a large, Irish university, I was handed a teaching schedule and a list of set texts. A so-called ‘modern’ tutor, I was about to be responsible for designing lessons and activities in support of literature composed between 1500 and 2000 AD. My colleagues, all graduates of the same university, knew well both the curriculum and the professors responsible for teaching it; they’d all been through that same course themselves. As I glanced over the teaching schedule, I heard them chattering about the fact that Ger and Pat—fabled professors in the English department—had changed the order of the texts they were teaching. For a moment, I was distracted, but I soon regained my focus, enough to be alarmed by one of those texts I was going to have to learn, and learn quickly: William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
I cringed. And, sure that no one was watching me, engaged as they were, I gritted my teeth and mumbled a quiet curse under my breath. Shakespeare! Why couldn’t ‘modern’ mean modern in the American sense, as in post-Civil War? Further, Caesar? If there were two things I heartily despised, they were ancient civilisations and the Bard. As the Irish say, this would be the death of me.
I slinked out of the postgraduate office and picked my way through the department’s snake-like corridor, certain I was going to rue the day I’d been selected to teach. My relationship with Shakespeare was virtually non-existent, stemming from my senior year in high school when our English teacher, Mrs Rhone, foisted six plays in nine weeks upon us and set half of the point value of our final exam as an oral recitation of several Shakespeare soliloquies. I tried to think of ways I could get around specifically teaching it: could I, instead, focus on the elements of drama or how actors convey meaning? Could I bypass Bill himself and make it less painful on me?
I picked up my copy of the course packet at the bookstore and headed home. After a few cups of tea, I sat down at my desk and opened up to page one of the play. Better to get cracking on it early, I thought, rather than prolong the misery. As famed Scottish poet Robbie Burns once wrote, though, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft agley.” I fell asleep halfway through page two.
By the time my students were to have their first class on the play, I had attempted—and failed—to read it several times. I couldn’t get beyond my paralysing dislike of Shakespeare, no matter how hard I tried. With barely forty-eight hours left in my preparation, I barricaded myself in my room, made yet another pot of tea and sat down to read, sure that this time, too, I’d also fail. My track record was nearly guaranteeing it.
I remember two things about that day very clearly: the first was having to switch the light on without realising it had grown that dark outside, and the second was that, by the time I’d realised I’d made a pot of tea, it was stone cold. I was nearly finished with act four, I believe, before either of these things happened, and I loved it.
I sent an exclamatory text to my best friend, a Shakespeare adherent, which read something along the lines of ‘I’ve drunk the Kool Aid.’ I wasn’t getting ahead of myself: one Shakespeare play loved does not an aficionado make. Something was different, though, about this one. As I was planning the first lecture on it, it hit me that neither Rome nor the Elizabethan-era language had mattered. What I had enjoyed—what I had understood—were the complementary themes of friendship and betrayal. I’d been through that as a young girl (admittedly without the literal backstabbing), so despite his despotism, I was sympathetic towards Caesar.
It’s this exercise—the humanising of the characters—I introduce in my classroom, and which I used recently, when the Honors English students and I began our foray into the Bard’s work via Richard III. A close examination of one of Richard’s most famous speeches uncovered a world of pain and hurt—but not for the students. Instead, they saw in him what I saw in Caesar: A vulnerability, a yearning, so powerful, so oppressive, that the man turned his back on society rather than face it. Recognising Richard’s tragic flaw afforded a pathway into the play that might not have been immediately visible.
How did I find that path myself, you ask? The short answer is practice, as it would take many more years before I would find the answer to the question I’d had, but not asked, that first year in Cork: Why Shakespeare? It would take seeing, and not reading, the plays; engaging in close reading of the soliloquies I’d once memorised; and remembering that the language is always going to be a stumbling block to some degree. But most of all, it would take listening to what I’d been told by Shakespearean actors and actresses at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read, because he wrote about human nature, not about two specific families in Verona or a mediaeval Scottish king. It’s only when one can share in the roller coaster-like emotions of two love-struck teenagers or feel Macbeth’s despondency that one understands why we English teachers still—and will always—teach Shakespeare. It’s also then that one begins to love him.