‘Alas, what danger will it be to us’

Shakespeare is arguably the most dangerous writer in the English language. Approaching his work brings about such a level of danger that anything Shakespearean should come with a warning such as, ‘ Beware’ or Approach at your own peril.’ Something on these lines…

Shakespeare is dangerous for a number of reasons. If you are a literary critic – and we all are, to a greater or lesser extent – whatever you say about him or his works triggers one, or more, of the following reactions:

1. Someone who thinks they know more than you – and there is always someone out there who is a self-entitled Shakespeare scholar – will dismiss your comments without further critical analysis or even paying attention to your argument, because they have already rehearsed theirs .

2. Someone who actually knows more than you – and there are always people out there who are serious and learned – will probably pity you for the thinness of your arguments and ordinariness of your quotes. Luckily, people who are really knowledgeable are also kind for they do not need to show off as the ones in the category above.

3. Someone who knows less than you – yes, there may be some – will look at you in awe and consider you an expert. Which will make you feel terribly guilty because you know that you should have read King John but you haven’t done it yet. Worse still, you don’t really know the first lines of Sonnets 111 or 134.

Playing a Shakespeare’s role, even if you are just one of the spear-carriers, can also make or break your acting career. There have been so many productions of the plays and so many performances done by the likes of Ian McKellen and Judi Dench that comparisons are inevitable. I am not an actor, but if I had to perform Shakespeare, I would probably go around in a frenzy for weeks about to bow or not to bow in Act II scene iv after line 21.

If you are a teacher, and here comes my point, the great challenge is to find the balance between:

  • teaching and eliciting: you should share with your students some of the knowledge you have acquired through your years of familiarity with the plays and the criticism; but you cannot overwhelm them with your knowledge. You should give your students space enough to get to know the plays themselves and form their own judgement and analysis of the texts. The danger is that if you do not ‘lecture’ them enough, they will think you are just making it up as you go.
  • literature and language: if you are teaching in an English language course, you should not forget that students are expecting to learn not only the texts and about the texts, but also to come out with some improved command of English as a result of having worked with the language in the texts. Some will argue that this is not possible because of Shakespeare’s language. I will not get into this now. Suffice to say  I think this argument does not stand and I recommend some reading on this before going around parroting old mantras about Shakespeare’s ‘Old English’.
  • text and performance: even if you are not an acting tutor, I think you should still create some opportunities for your students to have a go with the plays. Even if they are short dialogues and little bits of a scene. It is amazing how students seem to enjoy it and the texts seem to ‘open up’ for them. Besides that, you should not limit yourself to the written text – remember these are plays. Always bring some videos of different stage or film productions – it facilitates understanding and opens new lines of interpretation to your students.

Fail to find the balance and you run the risk of either alienating your students from Shakespeare for the rest of their lives, or making their experience of Shakespeare really limited. Or both!

2012 was a very Shakespearean year for me. It started in April when, to celebrate Will’s birthday, I organised a fielded discussion on Shakespeare for the Literature SIG discussion list. I was very fortunate that Ben Crystal accepted to field it. It was an amazing experience. I have learnt a lot with him and his book Shakespeare on Toast has become essential reading for my students.

The students I am referring to are the one in the Erasmus/Study Abroad  programme at the University of Leicester. I have taken over the modules on Shakespeare’s plays previously taught by my colleague Stella Smyth, who is now working overseas. Whenever someone steps in, it is necessary to adapt and adjust the syllabus and content to suit, first your students’ needs, but also your own vision of what the course should be. I consider myself very fortunate for I had marvelous students this term – really committed, serious and bright people – and I think the course went on really well. However, you can never rest on your laurels and ignore the perils of teaching Shakespeare: there is always something you cannot cover; there is always a more suitable play to be chosen; there is always a bit of language which your overlooked and could have been better explored. The traps abound.

It is time now to start thinking of creating the materials for the Spring Term and of my presentation at IATEFL, whose title is ‘ Will & The Web.’  Don’t ask me why I’ve decided to do that not being a Shakespeare scholar. I think it was the dare-devil in me.

Some basic Shakespeare bibliography:

  • Crystal, Ben, Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard (London: Icon Books Ltd, 2009)
  • Crystal, David, and Ben Crystal, Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion (London: Penguin, 2004)
  • Crystal, David, Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  • Grazia, Margreta de, and Stanley Wells, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  • Wells, Stanley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1986)