Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.—"Twelfth Night"
Whenever I teach Shakespeare as a general university requirement course, I encounter a pronounced anxiety emanating from the students. Almost every one of them accepts that he was one of the greatest writers who ever put ink to paper, but at the same time they are often convinced that his language is impenetrable. There is a sense that Shakespeare is saying something very important in his plays, but only teachers or scholars have access to that meaning. Not unlike Hamlet, whose first impulse is to delay action, students frequently are content to wait for the explication of Shakespeare's language to be unfolded in class lectures.
As a teacher, I have come to understand that it is very important for me to resist taking on the role of translator. Again and again, I have found that students who could repeat my interpretations of Shakespeare on examinations could not effectively develop their own. In traditional teaching, English professors have tried to empower students by focusing on Shakespeare's rhetorical, poetic, and dramatic techniques. Indeed, these efforts are invaluable, and in class I pay close attention to things like figures of speech, iambic pentameter, enjambment, rhyming, puns, soliloquies, asides, and comic/tragic forms. More recently, teachers of Shakespeare have devoted renewed energy to explicating the cultural contexts that made the writing of the plays possible. This too is indispensable, and I spend significant time in class helping the students see how cultural history can shed light on Shakespeare's art, and on how Shakespeare's work contributed to the culture of his day.
However, the magic of Shakespeare's works is not reducible to a list of techniques for analyzing language, no matter how well they are presented. Nor is cultural history by itself going to turn students into great readers. Something essential is missing. That something is the creative and imaginative effort that each individual reader must make in order to bring Shakespeare's language to life. My goal in my introductory and advanced classes is to entice the students with the diverse interpretive possibilities inherent in Shakespeare's plays. By introducing them to film clips taken from contrasting productions, I want the students to become active readers and writers who understand that it is up to them to unleash their own creativity and imagination while experiencing a Shakespeare play. They need to learn to explore their own cultural contexts and gauge their personal investment in producing Shakespeare. Film clips help them see that to read Shakespeare is to produce Shakespeare. Perhaps Shakespeare's own words provide the best advice to his readers: "This above all: to thine own self be true."
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action. —"Hamlet"
My main message is that a good reader is more like a film director looking at a potential script than a passive recipient of information and universal truths. Like a director, an accomplished reader must learn to visualize what is happening as one reads the language.
Recent scholarship has emphasized that Shakespeare's plays are really scripts designed to be performed in varied settings, such as the public Globe theater, the private Blackfriars theater, and at court ceremonies celebrating important persons. We have ample evidence that the same play was performed very differently in these diverse contexts. That may be one reason why the stage directions given in the quarto and folio publications are so sparse. It is up to the reader to put the play into action, to perform the play in his or her head by providing many details that even Shakespeare's very rich language does not provide. (See Teaching Shakespeare in Performance, ed. Cozart Riggio, 1999.)
Of course, Shakespeare is not exactly silent on these matters. Shakespeare's stages were relatively sparse, especially in comparison to today's productions in theaters and on the big screen. Thus, Shakespeare used his language to help create a visual atmosphere. When students see film clips that bring his language to life in vastly different ways, it helps them to become more sensitive to the rich suggestiveness of Shakespeare's language, and to the fact that they must finally create their own vision based on a combination of Shakespeare's hints and their own imagination. I encourage them to take an active role in producing Shakespeare, and I want them to become self-reflexive about issues that matter to them personally. Contemporary film directors like Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh consciously try to bring Shakespeare's plays alive by highlighting elements in them that connect with contemporary cultural issues. This is why I introduce them to contemporary film adaptations, and this is why I ask them to produce a short scene set in a 20th century cultural context.
There's magic in the web of it. —"Othello"
The reader as film director is also a collaborator. A director must work with a director of photography, set designers, editors, actors, and writers. A film is an inherently collaborative effort. Much of the inspiration that drives a director's creativity and imagination comes out of her interaction with others working on the performance. Within the context of collaborative assignments that create small working groups, it is more likely that each student will learn to offer, appreciate, debate, and respect alternative points of view. Working together students learn to take interpretative risks and trust their imaginations, and they bring those skills back into classroom discussions. I also provide support for each group by meeting with them in my office. I have the students work on two projects: a dramatic presentation portfolio, and a film clip analysis portfolio.
Of course, as a teacher one must always humbly acknowledge that it is finally up to the students themselves to make the most of the opportunities for critical and imaginative thinking provided by the class.Student comments made in their evaluations of a recent Shakespeare class demonstrate, I think, that they have met and even enjoyed the challenge.