I have sparse notes (fewer than 200 words) about every Shakespeare play I teach neatly filed in Word Docs within my “Shax” folder. Last night, thinking about how to approach “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with this particular group of students, I opened my trusty “MSND” doc (188 words), re-read the ideas and citations, and began giving form to those basics.
We’ve had our first class meeting and I’ve read students’ first assignments, so I have a sense of what they’re interested in, what they’re prepared for, what they’re afraid of, and what they’re excited about. So, I started sketching out some notes and ideas about how the material can resonate with this particular bunch of interesting people.
At the end of my sparse notes on the first three acts, I had written “Relationship between nature, government (court) and families explored in this play.” Last night this thread caught my eye in a way it hadn’t before. I mused on how love between lovers is different than/similar to the love between family members, and how that love might be similar to or different from the love a leader feels for his country or his people. I started to play with the idea that MSND itself toys with the typical “love/duty” conflict as worked out in, say, medieval Arthurian romances.
And that brought me to my favorite topic: enchantment.
I started teaching a course on Arthurian Legends in 2004. Some of you may remember the gritty realism of the 2004 King Arthur movie directed by Antoine Fuqua. Students at that time, and for a bit after that, really loved the movie. They appreciated that it didn’t have any magic; they liked that it was “more real.” (We had been, culturally, you’ll remember, obsessed with “the real.“) They found it refreshing that we were finally away from the humbug of medieval sorcerers and prophecies.
But at some point quite soon after that, tastes shifted. There’s no doubt that contemporary books, movies, and my current students are all about what I’d call “a return to magic” or “a renewed desire for enchantment.” Werewolves, vampires, fairies, dragons, and magic are everywhere. Thanks in no small part to Harry Potter, my students not only have tolerance for magic, they downright crave it.
I, personally, delight in the fact that fairies and magic are part of our contemporary popular media once again. It makes teaching medieval and Renaissance texts so much easier! No longer is a literary fairy or dragon evidence that we are dealing with a backwards, superstitious, unreasonable past. No! It’s evidence that they liked this stuff just as much as we do! And it opens avenues for us to explore our own desires for enchantment.
In previous semesters, I had asked Shakespeare students to think about MSND in terms of contemporary romantic comedies. MSND can, after all, highlight a literary shift towards portraying domestic, everyday conflicts of love and duty (not just those of the elite), and literary/structural elements of Shakespeare’s plays still underpin today’s romcoms.
But this semester, I’m interested in how the play is like medieval romance (and unlike contemporary romcoms) in that MSND features the supernatural. The fairies are a HUGE part of the fun! (Which leads me to ask: Why are so many of our enchanted contemporary productions so serious? Why no magic combined with levity? Point me to those shows and books if I’ve missed them!)
Now, I probably wouldn’t have gone down this love/duty/magic rabbit-hole had I not known that several of these Shakespeare students have taken Arthurian Legends. Or that some of them really like the TV show “Once.” Or that they remember liking the Harry Potter books when they were very little.
Where does this land me? In a place of gratitude. Too often, working within a university system, I’m aware of the structural barriers that prevent me from doing what I want to do. Rarely do I see how my work is supported by the confines within which I teach. I’m fortunate that the structures I work within currently support a deeply personal, flexible pedagogy.
So, here I am feeling thankful that I teach in a small program with small class sizes (~20 students) so that I can be curious about my students, curious about a text I’ve lived with for decades, and curious about what’s next on the horizon.