Tuesday, March 18, 2008

on teaching the history plays, and teaching uncertainty

So, I've finally got an opportunity to indulge my Great Scholarly Passion in the classroom and teach a whole tetralogy. (Pentalogy, really, since in my world The Merry Wives of Windsor is an inseparable counterpoint to the others.) It probably goes without saying that my students do not completely share the said Great Scholarly Passion, although some of them are at least willing to play along.

In an attempt to find out why the others were so silent, I asked them all to write down a question (or questions) that they wanted to talk about. Most of the ones that I got from more than one person were the ones I expected: how is everyone related to each other, how historically accurate are the history plays, why is Hotspur such a jerk? One trend kind of threw me. With varying degrees of critical sophistication, students asked: "How do you know who is the bad guy?" "Essentially: Who are the good and who are the bad guys in this play? I really don't like any of them." "Who are we, the audience supposed to sympathize with? At times it appears that Henry IV is the 'bad guy' because he deserted those who helped him to power. At other times, though, it seems like Hotspur is the 'bad guy' merely using the present situation as an excuse to rebel. Who is supposed to be the 'bad guy' here, or are we even meant to draw distinct lines between the 'good' and the 'bad' guys?"

To which my first instinct, of course, was to say "Dudes, this is Shakespeare! Mr. Negative Capability himself! The whole point is that there isn't a bad guy!" I think I ended up saying something less abrasive, to the effect that Shakespeare isn't going to tell you: this is a group of plays that grabs you by the throat and asks you what your values are.

And that happens to be why I love the histories; though I can, of course, see why students who were raised on high-stakes testing and trained to look for certainties find this sort of thing frustrating. Another student claimed not to have any questions, but asked for "a more lecture based class, maybe with powerpoints ... I think that would show more what is expected of us to be known." And yeah, I wanted to say, "Dude, this is Shakespeare!" to that, too, but I think I do owe it to her to take her frustration seriously, even if all I can do is explain why I don't think it is appropriate to teach literature via PowerPoint, and why I'm expecting them to learn skills rather than a specific body of facts. And one of those skills -- one that comes hard, I think, for most undergraduates -- is learning to embrace ambiguity and nuance.

I'm not sure how one teaches this, save by modeling, and I wish I knew how to be the sort of model my grad advisor was. I found my way to Advisor in my second year of grad school, not because I was particularly interested in his sub-sub-field (I'm not) or because his name had cachet (I didn't realize that it did until quite late in the game, when we were at a conference together and I suddenly discovered that he had groupies), but because he taught a terrific seminar on the history plays. I realized halfway through a class that I'd only taken because it filled a gap in my Shakespeare knowledge that I loved this stuff -- it was twisty and complicated and subtle, and Advisor is the sort of person who knows instinctively when not to push an interpretation, when to stand back and let his students tease out the subtleties for themselves. But at the same time, he was damned good at asking the right questions at just the right moment, pointing out the nuances the students might not have noticed. I don't have those instincts yet. Maybe I never will; one has to be, I think, a great listener as well as a great scholar. But I think I want to try.


Anonymous said...

Show them excerpts from My Own Private Idaho! Keanu Reeves as a quasi-Prince Hal really got my students interested!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Ooh, looks like the whole thing is up on YouTube. I may have to do just that...

Anonymous said...

You wouldn't I suppose be related in any way to Porpentine the British spy who one day in 1898 sits on the terrace of an inn on the edge of the Libyan desert, with his superior Moldweorp and fellow spy Goodfellow as they await the arrival of Hugh Bongo-Shaftesbury with news of V?