Shakespeare, relevance, and “the Canon”

I wanted to share a little breakthrough I had with integrating contemplative pedagogy into one of the “majors” courses I teach, an introductory course on Shakespeare.  Typically we use the plays and sonnets to hone our close-reading skills, consider performance issues, learn about social and historical contexts for plays, etc.

Students frequently come to the class prepared to talk about how Shakespeare is so “relevant” to today because everyone falls in love and dies and that’s what all the plays are about. And for some reason, both that concept of “relevance” as well as that perspective of the plays has always bothered me. But unlike other classes where I’ve learned how to use students’ preconceived notions as part of course content and exploration, in this course I’ve often either indulged or dismissed these reactions/responses to the texts depending on the current of the class discussion at that moment.

So, for a number of reasons tangential to this post, Hamlet (which I never teach in this course since students often encounter it in high school) recently came into my mind. What interests me most about that play (at least right now) are the notions of “seeming” and “appearances.”

Typically, I would present this text (and my beloved themes) with some historicization. We’d hone close-reading skills, engage in analysis, synthesis, and the development of “significance.” So, we’d learn about what was going on socially, historically, culturally, politically, etc. during the Renaissance that might have helped the author shape or articulate these ideas about “performing truth.” We’d explore where and how we see this theme in the text and what kind of language is used to explore the theme. Then we’d determine what the play is saying about “seeming” and “appearances” and consider why that matters (i.e. “significance”).  Usually, the development of that “significance” is rooted in close reading, New Historicism, or other contemporary critical lenses.

But now I want to consider “appearances” and “seeming” in light of students’ contemporary experiences by asking: When have you had trouble determining how things seem from what they really are? When have you engaged in activities of “dissembling” and why? What is the individual or societal threat “dissembling” poses? What accounts for the fear people have of it? What is useful or even necessary about deception? Where do we see it elsewhere in our society—tv show plotlines, magazine advice columns, music—and how is it treated? How are our individual ideas about this theme expressed by pop culture and when do our ideas conflict with current the ideology? (Look—I can also teach them real-world examples of ideology!)

We could also engage in this line of inquiry with “what it is to be a man or woman?” with Macbeth, “what is it to be “human,” or “civilized,”” or perceptions of the supernatural with The Tempest. I could perhaps could use The Learning Record as an assessment tool.

From this place, I could still do my historicization, but it would be enlivened because we would have a body of contemporary material to read the past against. The finals could involve students  developing their own archive of contemporary treatments of the issue (including their own experiences), to compare/contrast with the historical stuff they’ve learned. I would hope such an experience would demonstrate how the humanities can tap emotions and imaginations to provoke ethical consideration of what it means to be human.

I’m also interested in exploring what makes a literary text different from other texts, and both imagination and ways of knowing seem key here. Other kinds of texts may be subject to such imaginative interactions that literary texts (one would hope) can provoke, but that is not their intent. But perhaps that line of thinking is beside the point. If I can demonstrate the efficacy of using something like Hamlet to explore questions of meaning, action, and existence in ways that are more difficult or more fun than another “text” does, that’s great, right? I mean, I think fun and pleasure need to be part of learning, both for the learning to “stick” and to provoke action. But I have more thinking to do on this topic.

If students don’t find reading Shakespeare pleasurable, that’s okay. They can find other texts and authors that are pleasurable to them in other parts of the curriculum. In fact, in a course as I’ve described we can interrogate reasonably why Shakespeare has endured, (in part because of the “openness” of the text, which invites people to it again and again over a lifetime or over centuries). I understand that by teaching Shakespeare in such a way I might be reinforcing the canon. Does being aware of and being open to criticism about that make it “okay” for me to do it?

Shakespeare response and criticism is itself a historical record, a record of the ethics of a time and space and person. Perhaps by acknowledging that the course itself in some way contributes to this trend, and exploring how that’s both problematic (we’re reinforcing the canon) and exciting (we’re participating in an international and temporally diverse conversation about a meaningful topic), we can critically consider the impact of having  provocative, imaginative experiences of a shared text.