The Setup

What to Give First (if anything)

Shakespeare is for everyone, and we are all valid interpreters. Those are the two things, if anything, I wish for the students of my Shakespeare unit in English 102 to take away. In a previous post, I wrote about the place of literary devices in the literary discourse of a classroom and the question as to whether or not students should be made aware of certain literary devices being used in a text before they are assigned to read the text. In planning my unit on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, this question played a big role in how I ultimately decided to frame the unit. For the most part, I believe I was loyal to what I anticipated with my previous post. In order to avoid the risk of corrupting the students’ initial reading of Twelfth Night, I decided just to have them read the first two acts of the play without any introduction to Shakespeare or reading plays in general, knowing that I would later supplement their individual reading with the larger class discussion and with modes one may use to gain insight into drama.

The Challenge

Introduce Shakespeare and Instill Confidence

The idea here isn’t to make anyone an expert on Shakespeare: The idea is to allow the students a way to prove to themselves that they can both read and enjoy Shakespeare. Of course the circumstances behind teaching this unit must come in to play; English 102 is not a Shakespeare class nor is it a class for English majors. It is an upper-division general education class, which means there are students from different majors of different colleges of the university. The great advantage to this is the extremely diverse educational background that these junior and senior level students bring to the table. The challenge is that the terrain of discourse in a classroom of literature is, at times, unfamiliar territory. Additionally, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about, so not only is the terrain unfamiliar, but it’s unfamiliar grounds in a country (and time) that isn’t even their own. In the beginning, the modern-day English scholar has a level of familiarity that is once-removed: they have an idea of the discourse, but the terrain of time between the language of Shakespeare and their own is challenging if not intimidating. These students face a level of familiarity that is removed two-fold. But that doesn’t matter. They are just as valid interpreters as any English major. I know this. Professors know this. The challenge is getting them to believe in it. And I only had three 1-hour class sessions to cover the text of the play.

Day One | The Introduction and Act 1

Shakespeare’s plays are applicable to all cultures and languages throughout time, and they are thus because they respond to issues that concern the human condition. This is what makes Shakespeare great and worthy of study over four hundred years after his plays were performed for the first time. In order to convey this idea to the students, I could not help but to try and do justice to some of my favorite Shakespearean moments from plays outside of Twelfth Night. That’s why, before I said anything to the class on Day 1, I chose to read the “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It.

This method of delivery served our purpose in three ways: It caught the students’ attention, it gave the students an opportunity to hear Shakespeare instead of just read the words on the page, and it gave us an easy way to hook in to the human-condition aspect of Shakespeare. After I read Jaques’ speech, I asked the class what they thought about it, and we briefly discussed what we all thought it meant (even outside of the context of the play). It was especially helpful that several of the students had interpretations that were both insightful and “accurate,” or perhaps “on the page” or even “on the mark” are better phrases. Next, I read the climax from Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice’s great speech where she says that she “cannot be a man with wishing” and therefore “will die a woman with grieving.” A similar class discussion followed; this time, we concluded that Shakespeare seems to express concern about issues surrounding women and what power they have (or lack) in their culture. Finally, I read briefly from The Tempest where Prospero decides to give up his “art,” concluding that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” With these speeches, we found concern for life and death, one’s place and power in culture, and virtue. The surface of Shakespeare had been scratched, and students were already actively engaged.

On to Act 1 of Twelfth Night itself, I knew that digging through the language of Shakespeare would be our biggest challenge, and I had to be diligent in reminding myself that my task was not to make anyone an expert on the play. I wanted to stay lower on Bloom’s Taxonomy for most of the unit, and when we only had the first act to deal with, going scene by scene and outlining the plot in a question-answer mode worked well. In fact, it worked so well that I thought I would be able to get away with the same mode for Acts II and III, which I later discovered was a mistake. “Okay, so Act 1 Scene 1: what happens here? Okay, now Act 1 Scene 2: what happens here?” All I was looking for here was to see if the students were getting the language and discovering the fundamental plot elements, introduction of characters, their motivations, etc. As time ran short, we weren’t able to finish the first act, making the next day even more difficult.

Day Two | Way Too Much

In accordance with my idea on providing a rhetorical framework after the students had been initially exposed to the material, I knew that I wanted to talk about dramatic structure on the second day. This would give us a mode to discuss what happened in Act 1 from the previous day, what is happening in Acts 2 and 3 on the current day, and what to expect from Acts 4 and 5. The trouble is that I had to finish going through Act 1, discuss Freytag’s Pyramid as it pertains to the five-act play, and somehow plow through the plot of Acts 2 and 3. Needless to say, the question-answer mode of “What happens in Act 2 Scene 2” etc. didn’t quite work as well. I was later made aware that the students may have been reticent to respond to those questions because they felt I was asking for a yes/no type of answer as opposed to an interpretative answer; therefore, they did not want to speak for fear of not giving the “right” answer. Surprisingly enough, however, we were able to trace a sort of circumference around the plot of the first three acts as well as see how they plugged into Freytag’s Pyramid. Of course, all of this discussion was underscored by looking at specific characters, their motivations and choices, and the consequences thereof (which, naturally, both reveal and drive the plot, which drives the drama in question). Under ideal circumstances, I would have preferred to spend an hour class session each for Acts 2 and 3, given that they are the most complex acts of the play, but given the constraints of the course, it was time well-spent, even if we tried to cover too much in one day.

Day Three | Bringing it Together

I have to thank Professor Jenkins for this one: in her response to my concern regarding the class’ hesitancy in responding to my plot-driven questions, she suggested that I try splitting the class into groups and asking them to identify what they felt were “key moments” in the closing acts. At some point, I had neglected to include one of the basic tenants of our craft in a classroom environment, that we were not yes/no communities but interpretative communities. This mode of group-work allowed the class to get back to the interpretative mode, and–ideally–they would be able to use the rhetorical tools with which I had provided (like Freytag’s Pyramid), to fuel their interpretations.

I was not surprised yet pleased when, as we brought things back to the class at large, the students as groups all highlighted great key moments which gave us a way to chart the plot on the whiteboard. Once the course was charted, we were able to navigate the play as a whole and discuss the broader themes relating to the human condition aspect from my introduction–life and death and the place and power of certain people in their culture (namely women here). We missed virtue as a class, but my hope is that they saw that theme illustrated in the play’s play-within-a-play between Sir Toby/Sir Andrew/Maria/Feste vs. Malvolio.

Moving Up the Taxonomy

Beyond Plot and “Saying it Back”

In order to give students the confidence in the knowledge that they could definitely pick up Shakespeare and read him on their own, I felt it was important to move beyond knowledge and comprehension. Those levels were my goals from the reading of the text. The format of the class provided me with a great opportunity to take our reading of Twelfth Night to another level though. In watching Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996) and with the classes built-in journal entry requirements, I had the students watch for and write about film-making choices they felt stood out or found interesting when held against their own ideas of the text. This gave them a way to analyze and interpret someone else’s adaptation of the play, which I felt marched beyond knowledge and comprehension and into application and analysis.

Further, Professor Jenkins showed the class She’s the Man (Fickman, 2006), which is not an adaptation of Twelfth Night but an interpretation. Here, the students were responding to someone’s interpretation of the play, which moves even closer to synthesis and evaluation in that they’re discussing someone else’s synthesis of Twelfth Night.

The Response

The goal of the course is to expose students to pieces of literature that they would likely otherwise not see and–perhaps–show them how Masterpieces of British Literature can be relevant in their lives. Several students came to me individually and said they liked the play and enjoyed watching the films, and the general consensus of the class is that they “got it” especially after having viewed the new interpretation of Twelfth Night in the form of She’s the Man. Admittedly, I was surprised that She’s the Man forced me to look at Twelfth Night in new ways myself. Given the general responses of the class, I believe the strategy of letting hermeneutics unfold organically was, for the most part, a success.