Stephen Greenblatt '64 on teaching Shakespeare
Teaching a Different Shakespeare From the One I Love
Stephen Greenblatt '64
The New York Times Magazine
Sept. 11, 2015
My first encounter with Shakespeare — “As You Like It,” in Miss Gillespie’s eighth-grade English class — left me cold. I still remember the words “I pray thee, Rosalind, sweet my coz, be merry,” which I must have been compelled to recite out loud, with a shudder. But not long afterward, I fell in love with him, not through the charm of performance but through the hallucinatory power of his language.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, /
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, /
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, /
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you /
From seasons such as these?
It seemed — it still seems — incredible to me that this power and the moral intelligence that it conveyed could come into my possession. If I desired it, it was mine as if by birthright, for the simple reason that English was my native tongue. All that I needed to do was to immerse myself in it passionately. And, equally incredible, as a teacher, I could spend my life sharing this passion with my students.
It is easy enough at the moment to bewail the fate of the humanities. Enrollments in traditional majors like English, history, philosophy, and art history are all down from their historic highs and, despite ample evidence to the contrary, students drawn to these fields often fear that they are risking their chances for gainful employment. Left to their own devices, many students avoid serious engagement with the literature, art, and thought of the past; “the past” sometimes seeming to them anything earlier than late last night. Anxious to shore up declining enrollments, professors foolishly reinforce this avoidance by jettisoning the requirements that used to compel students to venture into unfamiliar or difficult territory. On those occasions when they do finally enter such territory, they often feel at a loss.
Even the highly gifted students in my Shakespeare classes at Harvard are less likely to be touched by the subtle magic of his words than I was so many years ago or than my students were in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif. What has happened? It is not that my students now lack verbal facility. In fact, they write with ease, particularly if the format is casual and resembles the texting and blogging that they do so constantly. The problem is that their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid. It is as if the sense of linguistic birthright that I experienced with such wonder had faded and with it an interest in exploiting its infinite resources.
There are many well-rehearsed reasons for the change: the rise of television followed by the triumph of digital technology, the sending of instant messages instead of letters, the “visual turn” in our culture, the pervasive use of social media. In their wake, the whole notion of a linguistic birthright could be called quaint, the artifact of particular circumstances that have now vanished. And in my case at least, the charge is difficult to gainsay. My intoxication with Shakespeare’s language was unquestionably conditioned by my family history: All four of my grandparents were impoverished immigrants from Lithuania (or Russia, as they called it). For my parents, born in Boston, the English language was a treasured sign of arrival and rootedness; for me, a mastery of Shakespeare, the supreme master of that language, was like a purchased coat of arms, a title of gentility tracing me back to Stratford-upon-Avon.
The imaginary pleasure of that line of descent survived even when I discovered, in my years of studying and living in England, that the English themselves could not or would not acknowledge the claim made by someone of my name, background, or religion. It did not matter: I had only to open the book and read in order to enter the kingdom.
All of this has, like an insubstantial pageant, faded, dissolved, and left not a trace behind. It is not that the English language has ceased to be a precious possession; on the contrary, it is far more important now than it ever was in my childhood. But its importance has little or nothing to do any longer with the dream of rootedness. English is the premier international language, the global medium of communication and exchange. In the cafes of Cambridge, Mass., on the Tube in London, and at scientific colloquia in São Paulo, Berlin or Kyoto, speakers from worlds apart drop their native tongues and make their way, as best they can, in whatever English they can muster.
Shakespeare has not lost his place in this new world, just as, despite the grim jeremiads of the cultural pessimists, he has not lost his place in colleges and universities. On the contrary, his works (and even his image) turn up everywhere, and students continue to flock to courses that teach him, even when those courses are not required.
But as I have discovered in my teaching, it is a different Shakespeare from the one with whom I first fell in love. Many of my students may have less verbal acuity than in years past, but they often possess highly developed visual, musical, and performative skills. They intuitively grasp, in a way I came to understand only slowly, the pervasiveness of songs in Shakespeare’s plays, the strange ways that his scenes flow one into another, or the cunning alternation of close-ups and long views. When I ask them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, exploring a complex theme, or amassing evidence to support an argument, the results are often wooden; when I ask them to analyze a film clip, perform a scene, or make a video, I stand a better chance of receiving something extraordinary. A student with a beautiful voice performed Brahms’s Ophelia songs, with a piano accompaniment by another gifted musician. Students with a knack for creative writing have composed monologues in the voice of the villainous Iago, short stories depicting an awkward reunion of Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, or even additional scenes in Shakespearean verse.
This does not mean that I should abandon the paper assignment; it is an important form of training for a range of very different challenges that lie in their future. But I see that their deep imaginative engagement with Shakespeare, their intoxication, lies elsewhere. And I should add that no one, as far as I can tell, any longer dreams of establishing symbolic descent from Stratford-upon-Avon to substitute for or displace actual descent from Vilnius or Seoul or Johannesburg. Contrary to my expectations, my students at Harvard are far more diverse, in geographical origin, culture and class, than my students ever were at U.C. Berkeley. They embrace this diversity and confidently expect to make their way through a global environment linked by complex digital networks.
Shakespeare has already mastered this environment, as he once mastered the comparatively tiny world of the Elizabethan theater. At Internet Shakespeare Editions, a website that originated at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, readers can access old-spelling editions of all the plays and poems, along with a vast, ongoing “Performance Chronicle” and other resources. The M.I.T. Global Shakespeare Project features an electronic archive that includes images of every page of the First Folio of 1623. In the Norton Shakespeare, which I edit, the texts of his plays are now available not only in the massive printed book with which I was initiated but also on a digital platform. One click and you can hear each song as it might have sounded on the Elizabethan stage; another click and you listen to key scenes read by a troupe of professional actors. It is a kind of magic unimagined even a few years ago or rather imaginable only as the book of a wizard like Prospero in “The Tempest.”
But it is not the new technology alone that attracts students to Shakespeare; it is still more his presence throughout the world as the common currency of humanity. In Taiwan, Tokyo, and Nanjing, in a verdant corner of the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome and in an ancient garden in Kabul, in Berlin and Bangkok and Bangalore, his plays continue to find new and unexpected ways to enchant.
The old desire that was awakened in me has renewed itself, for different reasons but with equal or greater force. In Tehran last November, I spoke for hours with ardent, well-informed, and eloquent students eager to grapple with “Richard III” and “Macbeth.” In Abu Dhabi I watched a highly inventive — deliberately fragmented and deconstructed — student adaptation of “Hamlet,” and I learned of comparably imaginative performances in Oman and Mysore, Karachi and Sana. If Shakespeare himself would not have understood the languages or even fully recognized what had happened to his stories, he would, I think, have nonetheless embraced with delight the whole astonishing diffusion of his influence. After all, he called his theater The Globe.
Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. His book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.