Since no one asked me to write the traditional, back-to-school essay about my wonderful summer, I decided to undertake the task without the prompt. Not that I enjoyed June, July or August in some adventurous way, but I did renew my love affair with the Cedar City Shakespearean Festival by spending four pleasant days traveling back in time to distant places.
During that time, I laughed and cried over the romantic tragedy Cyrano de Bergerac; wept and fumed over Othello; laughed and sang along with the cast of Fiddler on the Roof; chortled and chuckled at the antics of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (plus a mangy but cute mongrel), giggled and blushed during Schools for Wives; and fell in love with the setting, costumes and performances in Taming of a Shrew.
While it is tempting to review each of these four wonderful productions, I will resist and focus upon 2 points: The relevance of Shakespeare's works and how that relevance can be enhanced through experimentation with the setting.
Contained in the preface of Stephen Greenblatt's book, Will in the World, are reflections that may enlighten us as to why the Bard's works remain popular some 400 years after they were written. In speaking of influences upon Shakespeare's writing, Greenblatt notes the following:
At least as much as the books he read, the central problems he grappled with as a young man - What should I do with my life? In what can I have faith? Whom do I love? - served throughout his career to shape his art.
One of the prime characteristics of Shakespeare's art is the touch of the real. As with any other writer whose voice has long ago fallen silent and whose body has moldered away, all that is left are words on a page, but even before a gifted actor makes Shakespeare's words come alive, those words contain the vivid presence of actual, lived experience.
I suggest that those "central problems grappled as a young man" and "the vivid presence of actual, lived experience" keep William's works breathing. This year's production of Taming of the Shrew also demonstrated that unique and imaginative variations of time and place can also pump life into the plays as well. Changing the setting is not a new idea, but it is an intriguing because of the impact of time and place upon the action and the characters. For example, Taming of the Shrew was still set in Padua, a village in northern Italy, but the time was post-World War II; hence Petruchio was an Italian/American G.I. and a member of the occupying Allied forces stationed in the former Axis power.
The change in setting meant the women dressed in 1940s fare, complete with shoulder pads, sweetheart necklines and fanciful hats. Italian men represented shop keepers and fashionable members of the mafia, while the hero and his sidekick, Grumio, wooed women - except Kate - as only men in uniform can.
The time change also affected Petruchio's "taming" tactics. For example, rather than donning a fool's garb for his wedding day, the GI showed up dressed in drag - the remnants of the previous night's bachelor party. (These outlandish costumes reminded playgoers of the coconut bikini top from South Pacific, and that was the director's intent!)
The honeymoon sequence took place in pup tents, and the results were also hilarious as Petruchio acquainted Kate to both military and marital life. Some patrons were frustrated at the humiliation handed Kate, feeling that it seemed more harsh than traditional productions, but Jane Page, the play's director referred to the theme as the “'the big lesson': when a person’s life and heart are full of anger, selfishness, or greed, there is no room for love, joy or playfulness." I thought the camp scene supported that premise entirely.
While Page's production brought the story to the 20th century, it was still decades away from our own day. Nevertheless, it struck a chord with this baby-boomer and many others that filled the seats. Additionally, this playful version literally reinforced the adage that "all is fair in love and war," thus uniquely sustaining the timelessness of Shakespeare's universal themes.
One last note: While watching William's writings played out on a summer day in Southern Utah, I noticed my euphoria. Furthermore, I realized I want everyone to share in the experience and my affection for Shakespeare. Therein lies the challenge. So many shy away from his works for a plethora of reasons - either real or imagined - that they refuse to reconsider their prejudices. One trip to the festival often cures the malady, but such a solution isn't possible for everyone. That's why positive classroom exposure to Will's works is so helpful.
Recently, a grandmother and volunteer at the festival called me to ask what Jordan District schools were doing to acquaint students with Shakespeare. After explaining that certain plays are part of the high school curriculum (grades 9-12), she regretted that we weren't introducing his works to younger students. She added that during the post-play seminars, also a part of the Festival, she often listened to youthful play-goers profoundly remark upon their experiences. Such reflections convinced her that young people can and do develop an appreciation for Shakespeare.
I know many of our middle school teachers agree, and they are disappointed that they have been unsuccessful in receiving approval to place some plays upon the Middle School Approved Reading List. Until that happens, can anything be done to whet the appetite of younger students? Here are some of my ideas:
- Create lesson plans around excerpts from plays that fit the theme of a unit. Most, if not all, of the Bard's works are online, and relevant scenes can be copied, pasted and printed for students to enjoy. (There are no copyright restrictions.)
- Scope Magazines and READ Magazines often feature readers theater versions of Shakespeare's plays. Those issues provide a great scaffold for meeting the characters and understanding the plot, thus preparing them to comprehend the "real thing."
- Go to the Utah Shakespearean Festival website (http://www.bard.org/index.html) to find a wealth of support, including study guides AND film clips of last summer's productions! Also, check into USU's traveling programs that bring the Bard right to the school.
- Attend the Festival and encourage students to do the same. There are even half-price school discounts for 12 or more students.
Hopefully, you're convinced and excited to put a little Shakespeare into your teaching - more than merely quoting some of his more popular lines! With that, I leave you, for "tis better to be brief than tedious" (Richard III, I:4).