The Problem with Shakespeare

by John Bloner, Jr.

The problem with Shakespeare is William Shakespeare. The name provides PTSD to those who first encountered his work in high school.

“The West seems to be wary of great men,” writes Jan Swafford in his Vintage Guide to Classical Music. “Many of us would rather worship athletes or actors than world-shaking heroes; the latter tend to scare us a little and bore us a lot.

Racine, WI author Emily Vakos feels a lot of the blood in Shakespeare’s plays is drained away by our educational system. “Shakespeare is sexy and sensational,” she says.

And often he’s downright crude.

“The plays are absolutely packed with filth,” David Smith quotes academic Heloise-Senechal in a story for The Guardian. “I’ve found more than a hundred terms for vagina alone.” You can channel your inner Beavis or Butthead when unpacking the Bard’s innuendos.

If Shakespeare fails to engage young minds, the problem may not be with the author, but because his plays are taught text-first. Shakespeare’s works are meant to be seen, says retired educator LuAnn Underwood. Unfortunately during her tenure, her employer held a strict, no films policy (except for excerpts) in the classrooms. Undaunted, she persevered with covert screenings for her students, who were eager accomplices, willing to lie to authorities, if necessary, if only to see Iago whisper in Othello’s ear or for Juliet to stand on a balcony and ponder her love for her dear Romeo.

While his first exposure to the playwright yielded an expression of “yuck!,” Ed Heinzelman became a Shakespearan convert when he witnessed Hamlet on PBS, followed by viewings of the BBC series, An Age of Kings. The British broadcaster has called this series “the most ambitious Shakespeare cycle yet attempted on stage or screen, presenting eight of the playwright’s history plays in fifteen parts, covering the period 1377 to 1485.”‘

In addition to LuAnn Underwood, several other educators have shared their methods for engaging young minds. Carol Larsen taught a Hip-Hop version of the Bard. In a forensics competition, a group of her students scored strong as they melded Elizabethan verse with beat-boxing and breakin’.

Bradford High School instructor Jen Michele shares a video from MOBO award-winning hip hop artist Akala with her students to reveal the connections between Shakespeare and Hip-Hop.

Jen Michele is currently teaching The Tempest with her sophomores and Romeo and Juliet with her freshmen. They read aloud parts from these plays, watch stage productions after going through each act, and follow up with discussion. They study competing theories on why Shakespeare should or should not be taught in high school before penning their own essays to argue for or against the playwright’s inclusion in their curriculum.

She keeps it fun with Shakespearean phrases, salty or sweet (admirations or insults) and occasionally a Yo, Mama! joke.

Linea Anthony found her English teacher made Shakespeare “a living , breathing force to be reckoned with.” She comments, “We had the opportunity to informally stage the plays with everyone getting a chance to read parts, break down the language, and go to performances in Chicago.”

Terrece Crawford also thanks her high school teacher. “We studied Cliff Notes, played the recordings, and would follow along in our books.”

Jason Love runs video production workshops through the Racine Unified School District, but his classes are open to all youth in Racine County, often partnering with Case High Theater to provide hands-on experience to students. They put together this video trailer for a production of Macbeth.

Jill Fredrickson urges everyone to check out the Optimist Theatre . This endeavor by Ron and Susan Scot Fry began in 1992 in a cheap pizza joint in Kenosha, WI. Eighteen years later, they launched Milwaukee’s first free Shakespeare In The Park performances. They visit schools and libraries with a one-man show which exposes audiences to many of the author’s works, includes audience participation, and pokes humor at 16th century England. They offer these top tips for communing with the Bard.

Not everyone recalls their high school encounters with Shakespeare in the same way. Peg Rousar-Thompson shared this memory. “First time I ever had magic (cannabis) brownies? Yep, Shakespeare class! I remember nothing except I built a 1/12th scale model of The Globe theater out of cardboard and masking tape.” If you follow Peg’s Miniature Mind page on Facebook, you’ll recognize her gift in constructing painstakingly accurate small worlds of buildings and interiors and be able to surmise that her theater was a work of art. She never saw it again after bringing it into her classroom. My guess is her teacher still has it on display somewhere, along with a brownie recipe.

The Globe Shakespeare theater in Southwark, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque 1870. Peg’s model was better.
Olivia Hussey

Some people spend their formative years with no exposure to Shakespeare. “My childhood was Bardless,” says Jeffrey Johannes. He only came around to the author in 1968 when a film version of Romeo and Juliet arrived in theaters. He bought its soundtrack and went to the movie, where he fell for actress Olivia Hussey. He later married an English teacher and put more Shakespeare in his life, attending a ballet version of The Taming of the Shrew in Budapest, and watching programs inspired by the Bard on TV. “If you haven’t seen Slings and Arrows, a three-season, Canadian series set at a fictional Shakespearean festival, you’re in for a treat,” he says.

As for his copy of the plays, he quips, “I’m pretty sure there is a yellowing copy of the complete works of Shakespeare somewhere in the basement, probably in that box near the sump pump.”

Shakespeare is more than a source of entertainment. For some, his work is a lifeline. Margaret Heller shared Dameion Brown’s story with me. Damieion survived 23 years in California State Prison and serves today as an Artist-In-Residence for the Marin Shakespeare Company. His TEDx Talk tells of men, many brutal enemies, coming together while incarcerated to perform the play Macbeth, and in the process, learn to be able to speak and be understood, to engage in critical thinking, and to be vulnerable.

Kenosha Poet Laureate (2016-17) Brent Mitchell exposed his children to Shakespeare when they were young. He put together a film library of Shakespearean works, which his family has viewed over and over again. “Seeing Shakespeare first is far easier than reading the often archaic English,” he says. “It provides visual context and helps one to keep up with the characters. Also, seeing many presentations of the plays is profoundly instructive because the ways in which even a phrase can be interpreted is surprisingly diverse. I have been surprised upon seeing the same part of a play, depending on its director, interpreted as comedy [in one] and as deadly serious [in another].”

Brent recommends Romeo + Juliet (1996) with Leonardo DiCaprio; The Merchant of Venice (2004) with Al Pacino; Othello (1995) with Laurence Fishburne; Hamlet (1996) with Kenneth Branagh; and The Tempest (2010) with Helen Mirren. “Scotland PA is a fun version of Macbeth – believe it or not,” he adds.

I cannot attest if there’s any Shakespearean theaters in the village of Stratford, Wisconsin, but the Bard is the biggest draw in both Stratford, Ontario and Stratford-Upon-Avon in England.

Jennifer Marx says her high school English teacher changed her life through the teaching of Shakespeare’s plays. Jennifer once lived in Michigan, where she would cross the border into Canada to attend the Stratford Festival, founded in 1952, in Stratford, Ontario. This quaint town with a river running through it features four stages with Shakespearean dramas and comedies, along with performances of modern acts, such as Little Shop of Horrors and Billy Elliot.

Bob Mondello, reporting in 2012 for WABE 90.1 FM in Atlanta, says of this city, “What began as two plays in a tent is now a seven month-season, employing more than 1,000 people and attracting half a million ticket-buyers. But for kids, Shakespeare can be a hard sell. Happily, Stratford’s found a fresh youth angle: It’s hometown to a superstar named Justin.”

At age 12, Justin Bieber busked for coins on the steps of the Avon Theater. In 2012, he returned, greeting theater-goers and passersby with song. T-shirts sold in the town share a twisted soliloquy, “To Bieber or not to Bieber?”

My wife, Roberta, and I visited Stratford-Upon-Avon on our honeymoon over 40 years ago. After witnessing a performance of Antony and Cleopatra, we emerged from the Royal Shakespeare Theater eager for dinner at one of Stratford’s night spots, only to learn there were none. It was a long night for our stomachs, awaiting tea and crumpets.

Dale Mellor was exposed to Shakespeare through her education in the English school system. She recalls when she and other students took a class trip to Shakespeare’s hometown to see a production of the play, The Merchant of Venice, they’d been studying in their classroom.

The problem with Shakespeare is he’s everywhere. Mark Bayer, associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) asserts, “Shakespeare has been manufactured into what he is today through popular culture. Outside of the classroom, there are movies, ballets, live theater and Shakespearean festivals. Even popular music and television commercials have been built around notable Shakespearean characters like Romeo and Juliet. A certain amount of Shakespeare’s notoriety is predicated on hype.” Bayer doesn’t damn the Bard, however. He revels in the writer’s relevance in the 16th and 21st centuries. “The language is so dense, so rich, the first couple plays they read are difficult,” he tells Cindy Tumiel of UTSA. “Not because the language is archaic, but because it is semantically dense. You have to read the lines over and over.”

Dara Lind, writing for Vox, comments, “His works wouldn’t have survived to our day if he hadn’t been popular when he was alive, and he wouldn’t have been popular when he was alive if he hadn’t been able to please the crowd.”

Like Johann Sebastian Bach, Shakespeare is indestructible. Just as Bach sounds swell whether his music is performed on a harpsichord or a Moog synthesizer, Shakespeare stands up in a teen ron-coms (10 Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man), a musical (West Side Story), Japanese samurai films (Ran and Throne of Blood), and a Mumbai crime drama (Maqbool). Andrew Dickson, writing for The Guardian, ranks the top 20 film adaptations of the Bard’s work and proclaims Throne of Blood, directed by Akira Kurosawa, based on the play, Macbeth, as his number one selection.

That picture’s led by a dynamic performance from Toshiro Mifune and features, in my opinion, one of the most memorable scenes in cinema: Actress Isuzu Yamada, portraying a version of Lady Macbeth, cannot get blood off her hands, no matter how furiously she scrubs. Film critic David Parkinson writes, “This is a serious contender for the finest celluloid Shakespeare of them all.”

Thank you for joining me on this exploration. If you have a favorite Shakespeare play, adaptation, or would like to share your Shakespearean experiences, you are invited to do so in the comments section. My art-making and creative-writing group, the Krazines, are helping me to put together a Shakespeare-themed issue this month of our regular publication, Moss Piglet. If you’re reading this before April 7, 2021, you are invited to submit visual art, prose or poetry to this issue by sending it to info@krazines. (Submission guidelines available there or through our website at www.krazines.com). Otherwise, a digital copy will be published on our website in early May 2021 and a limited amount of print copies will also be available.

Until next week, I wish you all the joy you can wish, and heaven give you many merry days. Know who said that?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. edheinzelman says:

    John, thanks for the shout out and a very complete and enjoyable article about the place of Shakespeare in art, literature, and culture (pop and otherwise). As for my favorite play, it has been Macbeth for years but I am now trending toward The Tempest.

    Like

    1. Writer-In-Residence says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I hope theaters will re-open in a post-pandemic world so The Tempest and other plays may be presented to packed houses.

      Like

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