Monday, August 25, 2008

Teaching Shakespeare as Literature

Shakespeare originally wrote his plays to be performed before a mostly uneducated and illiterate audience. Writing plays was Shakespeare’s “job”---he earned a modest living from writing and producing plays. He was not writing for “art’s sake” but for “food’s sake”. The old adage, “necessity is the father of invention” is particularly true in Shakespeare’s case. The point here is that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed on stage. Most of his plays did not appear in print until well after his death. For this reason, many gurus of education are arguing for a performance-based approach to teaching Shakespeare. If the plays were written for the stage, then they should be taught on a “stage”.

Peggy O’Brien from the Folger Library (one of the largest and most significant Shakespeare research centre in the world) writes, “Performing a Shakespearean scene or scenes is the single most important part of a student’s Shakespeare education. Period.” She may be right, but there is too much pressure on educators to use Shakespeare primarily as a drama unit rather than literature unit. The dramatic aspect of Shakespeare lends itself well to a performance-based approach. However, his plays run deep, much deeper than the average audience-goer would understand. This is the reason why Shakespeare can be, and should be, taught as literature. A student’s exposure to Shakespeare needs to be more than simply “working towards performance”.

Had Shakespeare been writing three hundred years later than his own time in history, he may have chosen to write novels as opposed to plays. His characters have a psychological complexity and depth that surpass most theatrical characters in Elizabethan drama; some of his characters are unsurpassed by present-day drama. Essentially, Shakespeare wrote his plays “deeper” than required for successful stage performance. In fact, I argue that some of Shakespeare’s plays “read” better than they are “performed”. So much of the “drama” in the play Macbeth, for example, is so internal and psychological that I have rarely watched a great on-stage performance of it (no fault to the performers or directors). It is a play, I believe, that is better read than watched. In some ways, Shakespeare is like a novelist trapped in a playwright’s body.

That being said, Shakespeare still works well on stage. The plays were as popular in Elizabethan England (for the most part) as they are now (if not more so). However, I find that my enjoyment of “Shakespeare performed” is different from “Shakespeare read”. Sometimes, my enjoyment of Shakespeare performed is, in part, due to the fact that I have read the play beforehand. As educators, it is important that we expose our students to both performance enjoyment and the enjoyment of a close reading. Why did Shakespeare include so much symbolism and metaphor in his plays, when so much of it would be lost on his audiences? Perhaps there is a bit of “art for art’s sake” in Shakespeare after all.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Three Days with the Bard

This week I was in Stratford (Ontario) attending a teacher conference at the Shakespeare Festival. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is considered by theatre aficionados as North America’s premiere classical theatre. But, as they say, familiarity breeds contempt. While I was a student at the University of Western Ontario in London (ON), I took full advantage of the student rate ($20 at the time), and I saw numerous plays at the Festival. Now as a teacher, I catch a play or two every year with my students. I began to take the theatre for granted. I live and work next door to Stratford. This attitude of ingratitude, however, has changed this week for two reasons.

The first reason was the opportunity I had to work with teachers who came from places as far as Rochester NY, North Bay and New Brunswick! These teachers were thrilled to be in Stratford. I saw Stratford through their eyes. Would I drive six or eight hours to catch a Stratford play? Would I fly from New Brunswick? A different perspective on what you “have” makes all the difference.

The second reason was the fact that I really enjoyed the shows I watched this week. Part of the Teachers’ Conference included complimentary tickets to three Shakespearean plays. I also had the opportunity to workshop with some of the actors from the plays, most notably, Adrienne Gould, who plays Ophelia in Hamlet. The plays I saw were Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Taming of the Shrew. The best of the plays was Hamlet.

I have watched Hamlet on stage a few times, once previously at Stratford (starring Paul Gross in 2000). This particular stage production of Hamlet was great. Award winning Canadian actor Ben Carlson shines as Hamlet. Gould’s Ophelia is also the best I have seen on stage. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. I was more than awake; I was engaged. Admittedly, there are odd bits in the production. One strange set piece is a gigantic pool table that miraculously appears after a blackout on stage. It is humongous. What made this especially odd is the fact that this huge table had little purpose. In the Kenneth Branagh film version of Hamlet (1996), there is also a pool table (I think?) in the identical scene. Claudius is---symbolically---a “pool shark”. He manipulates the situation, lures Laertes into his schemes and creates the ultimate set up. The symbol works well in the movie. On stage, the table is simply a colossal distraction---albeit a dazzlingly magnificent piece of furniture. The point is, the actors and the scene are lost behind the gorgeous oak pool table. Another reason making the table odd on-stage was the fact that Laertes, who just tragically lost both his father and his sister, and who almost raised a revolution in Denmark and nearly committed regicide, is in the next scene, playing snooker… In Branagh’s film it seems to work. Claudius is manipulating Laertes, distracting him from his rage. On stage, I couldn’t help but wonder how much that table cost, how did they get it on stage so fast and what are they going to do with it after the show is over?

There was also a piano on stage during the whole production. Although used cleverly throughout the performance, I found it a distraction as well. However, not enough of a distraction to cause me to miss Carlson’s Hamlet. He truly embodied Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragic hero. It was a risky manoeuvre, but Carlson’s and Gould’s performances redeem the show of all its flaws.
So, I appreciate Stratford a little more these days. I am looking forward to bringing my 90 Grade 12 English students to Stratford in order to see Hamlet. I feel confident this performance will not turn my students off the bard. It may do just the opposite. If you are in the neighbourhood, take advantage of Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Annotated Hobbit

Even though I have dedicated my reading time to C.S. Lewis over the course of this year, I have indulged in the occasional, “non-Lewis” reading material this summer. One of the books is The Annotated Hobbit. It is a beautifully annotated edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I have looked at this book on numerous occasions while perusing Chapters bookstore, but I have not purchased the book (…it costs $60!). I recently found the book at our local library.

I am a big fan of reading annotation, particularly on a book I have re-read. There is much controversy among hard-line readers as to whether one should read annotations. I feel that they are useful to provide context or background information which I do not possess. Reading annotations provides a rich experience. This is especially true when reading ancient or historic literature. In addition, I always read with a pen, and the margins of my books are littered with my own comments, questions and reactions… my own informal annotations. I would feel like a hypocrite if I complained about annotations while writing my own!

This particular edition of The Hobbit provides rich commentary and cross references on all aspects of the story. It is very interesting and illuminating reading. For example, the annotator (Douglas Anderson) cites a hypothesis that Tolkien invented the name Baggins from the Lancashire English word “bagging”, a term that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as eating food “between regular meals”. In use, the word would be pronounced “baggin”, dropping the terminal “–g”. Tolkien was a philologist, and his interest and knowledge in language is crucial to his development of his Middle Earth mythology. The hypothesis about the origins of Baggins is given further weight by the citation Anderson provides from Walter E. Haigh’s A New Glossary of the Dialect of the Huddersfield (1928), which Tolkien himself “wrote an appreciative forward”. Haigh deifnes baggin as “a meal, now usually ‘tea,’ but formerly any meal; a bagging. Probably so called because workers generally carried their meals to work in a bag of some kind”.
Such is the nature of the annotations provided on Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The book also includes illustrations from various editions over the years, as well as references to the publishing history of the book. In short, it is a delightful book. If you can afford it, then buy it. If it is in your library, then borrow it.

The opening inscription in the book cites Horace: “What we read with pleasure, we read again with pleasure.” Reading The Annotated Hobbit is very pleasurable indeed!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Narnia Illustrator Pauline Baynes (1922-2008)

Pauline Baynes passed away earlier this month. She is best known for her illustrations of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. She had previously worked with J.R. R. Tolkien on Farmer Giles of Ham, and it was through Tolkien that Baynes was introduced to C.S. Lewis. Amazingly, Baynes only met Lewis twice over the course of illustrating the seven novels. Without a doubt, her artwork is a memorable part of the Narnia world. Lewis, however, was not totally satisfied with Baynes work; he noted in a letter to a friend that Baynes was unable to draw lions properly. Aslan, the principal character in the Narnia series, is, of course, a lion! I must admit that Baynes's illustration of the Lion is odd looking... Nevertheless, Lewis never made his concern public and the Baynes's lion will "forever" be part of Narnia folklore.

For an obituary on Pauline Baynes, click here.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Esther 4: "For such a time as this..."

Last Sunday (July 27th), I had the opportunity to preach on Esther 4 at West London Alliance Church in London, ON. The sermon title was, “For such a time as this”. The central question that framed the message was, “How do we live as Christians in a world that is opposed to us?”

This is not an easy question to answer. What I hoped to do was draw three main truths from the text to help us answer this question on a personal level. There is no “play-by-play” handbook on how to deal with specific situations we encounter in our lives. All we know, is that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

Like us, Esther was an outsider—an alien—who sought to live out her faith in a culture that was hostile to her faith and her God. The people of God, the Israelites, were a displaced nation, dispersed throughout the Persian Empire. In our own “post-Christian” culture, it often feels like we are a displaced people group. By looking at Esther’s example, we can glean three central truths to help us live lives worthy of the cross of Jesus Christ.

The first point is that God made Esther “for such a time as this.” She was unique in physical appearance and in character (Esther 2:7,9). She was “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-16) for a purpose; the Lord designed her to be what he wanted her to be for his purpose and plan. Like her, we are also made for this time and place. We have been given gifts “for such a time as this.” God has a plan for each of us. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” God doesn’t call you to be who you are not, but who you are—who He made you to be, for the plan He intends for you. This is a great truth. It is easy to lose hope and despair when we feel inadequate for the challenges of living out our faith in this world. We need to remind ourselves that God has made each of us and He has placed each of us in our current situation (time and place).

The second point is that God prepared Esther and her circumstances for such a time as this. Esther was made Queen not only because of who she was and how she was made, but because God had engineered the circumstances and orchestrated details of her life. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin tells her, “who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” The “such a time as this” Mordecai was referring to was a royal edict that called for the death of all the Jews living in Persia. Esther had been placed in a perfect position to help save her people. Likewise, God has placed us—our job, school, neighbourhood, family, church—for such a time as this; we are where we are to serve the kingdom of God.

Thirdly, with these truths square in our minds, what should we do? Esther asks Mordecai and all the Jews to “fast for me”. She goes on to say, “I and my maidens also will fast in the same way” (Esther 4:16). Esther is “waiting on the Lord” and “seeking His guidance and strength”. We ought to do the same when faced with persecution and trouble: pray and ask others to pray for us. God will guide and empower us for such a time as this (Psalm 31:3; 2 Timothy 1:7; Isaiah 58:11).

What has God gifted you to do? Are you doing it?
Where has God placed you? Are you serving Him there?
What has God called you to do? Are you seeking His guidance and power?

An mp3 audio version of the sermon is available by clicking here or by browsing the West London Alliance online sermons (scroll down for Sunday, July 27, 2008).