Saturday, August 30, 2008

Courseblogging: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Our classes on this play turned out to be very Bottom-centered (I keep feeling that there's a groaningly awful pun to be made here, but I'm not sure what it is). I think this has something to do with my own research interests and pet topics, and a lot to do with the Michael Hoffman film with Kevin Kline as Bottom. I didn't really care for this film when I first saw it in the theater, but it's grown on me. It's not the best film of a Shakespearean comedy out there (that would be Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night), or my personal favorite (Branagh's Much Ado, of course), but it is competently done, and the bits with the artisans are better than competent.

Anyway, we watched a couple of clips on the second day of class discussion and read an article about the film. Most of the students seemed to like Hoffman's take on the play, and, more interestingly, thought there was enough in the text to support a reading where Bottom is a bit of a visionary, clumsily groping his way toward something the aristocratic characters can't see at all, rather than a buffoon.

I agree. "Reason and love keep little company together nowadays" is probably the most sensible thing anybody says in the whole play, and the "eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste" speech strikes me as ... not just mangled, but ... synaesthetic, maybe? Of course he's misquoting 1 Corinthians 2, which is all about grace, and the ineffability of grace -- the whole idea is that the senses and the intellect are not enough to understand certain things. Theseus, among other people, doesn't get this.

I tried not to tip my hand too much. That is, I did talk about these ideas, but I didn't tell the class how they intersect with my research, and I restrained myself from ranting about one of my pet peeves: critics who refer to Quince, Bottom, and co. as "the mechanicals," sometimes "Rude Mechanicals," capitalized, as if this were the name of their theater company. (Would anyone dream of referring to Othello as "the thick-lips" or Shylock as "the infidel"? Surely not; and yet a class-marked pejorative that Puck uses once in the play gets casually tossed around as if it were a neutral descriptor. What's wrong with "the artisans" or "the amateur actors" or their names, for God's sake?)

Ahem. Got on my soapbox there, for a minute. I suspect that I do tip my hand too often, even without soapboxing. At the beginning of Wednesday's class, I asked the students to write for five minutes about whether they think the audience should be bothered by the fact that Demetrius is still under the influence of the love-spell when the play ends (and needs to stay that way for the happy ending to work at all). After they'd finished writing, but at the very beginning of the discussion period, I told them point blank that it bothered me, and took a quick straw poll. About half a dozen students raised their hands to indicate that yes, they thought this ought to bother us. A lively discussion of the issue followed. I walked out of the room thinking hey, what a great class, isn't it nice that the students are so comfortable expressing differences of opinion?

I read through the written responses that evening. Every last one said no, this shouldn't bother the audience. Hmm. Either they were playing guess-what-the-prof-wants on the written responses (and guessed wrong), or give-the-prof-what-she-wants during class discussion, or they genuinely revisited the question and changed their minds in the course of my fifteen-second statement that yes, this element in the play unnerves me and I don't know what to do with it. Somehow I'm not banking on the latter. Oh dear.

I think that will be one of my biggest struggles this semester -- to what extent do I want to tell my students what I think, and is there a way to express an opinion that isn't coercive? For the last third of the semester, we'll be solidly in Fret's Dissertation Territory, so I hope I can get it right by then.


Susan said...

Well, this is something I struggle with too. My approach is to make it clear that this is what I think, and this is why; so it becomes part of helping htem see how an argument is put together. . .

But it's not perfect. On the other hand, we are paid because we have knowledge. Part of what we teach is how to think, but what we think and why is also part of it.

R said...

The "reason and love" line is such a perfect tag for this play--sort of like Sir Toby's "I'm sure care's an enemy to life" in Twelfth Night.

Anyway, I just want to thank you for posting this; I have this problem all the time in my sections--how much to tell my students about my opinions? It's particularly difficult, I think, because my students often seem so concerned not to make a mistake and think the "wrong" thing.

As for the Hoffman film, all I remember are the bicycles. Dear god, the bicycles. Well, that and Flute's Thisbe, which I remember as unexpectedly touching. I love both the Nunn and the Branagh, though.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Susan -- Ooh, I like that strategy. I'll have to try it.

r -- Welcome! Yeah, I think the not-wanting-to-say-the-wrong-thing mindset really gets drilled into people during high school, and I wish I knew exactly what to do about it.

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