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Shakespeare in the Changing Curriculum.

The title of this uneven collection of essays refers specifically to government-mandated changes in the British secondary school curriculum, which, while broadening the range of English studies to include greater emphasis on film, video, and contemporary literature, nonetheless writes student exposure to "some of the works of Shakespeare" (33) into crown statute. More broadly, the editors also intend the book to address and report the results of other kinds of changes -- in scholarship, in teaching, in acceptance of the variety of subject positions of both teachers and student populations -- taking place in the teaching of Shakespeare.

Following in the footsteps of British materialist Shakespeareans like Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, Terence Hawkes, and Graham Holderness, American scholars have come to recognize the highly ideologically charged place that the institution of "Shakespeare" has come to hold in the production of Western cultures. What has been less widely remarked upon, perhaps, is that the corresponding generation of American scholars experience that cultural presence differently from British ones. Not obligated to teach a national curriculum at the secondary level, not exposed to the Bard as a national poet or a poet of nationhood, not having grown up in the shadow of a theatrical apparatus dedicated to disseminating Shakespeare to a worldwide audience, and not raised within systems of social class quite as rigidly politicized in quite the same ways, American Shakespeareans educated in the United States simply have not been conditioned identically to our British cousins. Maybe one day, we will be able to point to a rich body of contemporary accounts of Shakespearean iconicity that are sensitive to particularly American contexts and histories. Until that day comes, to expect that British pedagogical and political experiences can speak equally persuasively for an American audience, as Aers and Wheale (or at least their publisher, Routledge) seem to do, is naive at best, arrogant at worst.

Along with the collection's first two essays on Shakespeare in British schools, I found Fred Inglis' paper, "Recovering Shakespeare: Innocence and Materialism," the least useful or interesting. Inglis' essay bewails what he sees as the current state of Shakespeare studies, in which ruthless, ambitious scholars, fluent in "the unspeakable jargon of theoreticism" (59), ignore the beauties of Shakespeare and their students' hunger for this beauty as they scramble for success in the academic marketplace. I certainly don't deny that the "conversive moments" (69) Inglis champions as an alternative model can exist -- they did for me and, I suspect, did even for those hungry, ambitious materialists whose prominence in the field Inglis finds so regrettable -- or that bringing them about is one of the felicities of teaching. But, speaking again as an American Shakespearean, as a member of that barbaric younger generation, and as a black woman, I am possibly insensitive to nostalgia for the golden world whose passing Inglis mourns. Aers and Wheale may have wanted, for balance's sake, to include a paper that challenged the collection's overwhelmingly materialist and historicist bias, but we've read versions of Inglis' essay before, and while performing the exercise may make us feel virtuous, I doubt it succeeds in changing anyone's mind.

The collection's real strengths lie among its essays, based in classroom experience with dramatic work, that discuss specific contemporary ways of professing Shakespeare within "developing political and educational contexts" (2). Noteworthy within this contextualist assumption is Ann Thompson's essay on Shakespeare editions, which is concerned with how editorial readings (and also teachers' often unexamined choices of particular editions for classroom use) assume important places in contemporary "political/theoretical/critical" (77) environments. In Thompson's view, textual work is ultimately critical work, and she notes the odd lack of consideration of textual scholarship -- so interested in means of production and transmission of playtexts -- in materialist criticism. John Salway's paper on his uses of dramatic classroom exercises in teaching Othello continues the collection's interests in arguing the interconnections between pedagogy and the social existence of texts. His in-class performance of a Cockney Iago elicited amused and approving recognition from some of his male students; he notes that he'd earlier heard them agreeing between themselves "that Othello ought to return to the rainforest" (111-12). Othello, Salway argues, taps into audience energies and participates in languages of racial, sexual, and class distinction to a far greater degree than has always been acknowledged by many scholars, producers, and theatrical reviewers. His essay concludes that one of the reasons that Othello's concerns with race and power have remained so submerged in discussion and production is that overwhelmingly white theatrical and scholarly establishments remain, perhaps willfully, deaf to them. Despite their different topics, Thompson and Salway are equally conscious of the implications of changing the ways in which Shakespeare is disseminated for a curriculum itself undergoing change.

As does Salway's, Simon Shepherd's paper also insists that what he calls "drama-work" (90) is uniquely useful in communicating the vitality of Shakespeare as the institution continues its contemporary transformations. For American academics, Shepherd's paper has the advantage of being written out of his experiences as a professor of drama at a large urban university (Nottingham). His vision of the role performance can play in unpacking multiple meanings and cultural distances in Shakespeare is, he admits, at least partially "utopian" (89), but in several specific examples he does suggest the power of playing to reveal the contours of social and theatrical roles as reproduced in Shakespearean texts and theatrical practice. Not all English or theater teachers will share Shepherd's interest in reclaiming Shakespeare for the left from his prominently advertised appropriation by English Conservatives (although I do appreciate his cheerful admission of such interest and the institutional privileges and limitations attending it), but there are things to be learned from his discussion. I was less amused by his insistence on rewriting Shakespeare's name every time he uses it -- "Shapesneer," "Sheepscare," "Sheikspure," and so on. Surely his point that the (English) National Author is really a culturally produced artifact is valid enough to be spared this compulsive playfulness.

Peter Reynolds' discussion of Shakespeare on film, concentrating on Kozintsev's 1964 Hamlet, and Nigel Wheale's paper on the Cambridge AV Group's current experiments in "scratching" Shakespeare (think of American rap artists' wholesale incorporation of bass lines, refrains, and bits of lyrics from older songs in other musical genres into their "new" works) complement Shepherd and Salway by offering technological perspectives on decentering Shakespearean meanings. Many American teachers report unproductive or even disastrous experiences with video and acting experiments in their Shakespeare classes. Shakespeare in the Changing Curriculum, produced in a pedagogical culture that has not tended to draw the sharp distinction between text and performance that is still frequently the practice in the United States, offers valuable and interesting suggestions on incorporating classroom play more fully and consistently into teaching styles.

Less consistently demonstrative of change are the essays predominantly scholarly rather than pedagogical in nature, to invoke categories of value that the editors would suggest ought properly to be seen as mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. At first glance, Elaine Hobby's essay on gender and homosexuality in her teaching of As You Like It might appear to exemplify Aers' and Wheale's interest in Shakespearean changes. Her paper succeeds in contextualizing the play both within developing British political contexts -- in this case, the passage of a 1988 Local Government Act statute which criminalized the "promotion" of homosexuality and the teaching in school of the acceptability of homosexual unions as "pretended" family relationships -- and within her position as a lesbian reader of Shakespeare. (The world is indeed a rather more complex place than can be wished back into quiescent order by Inglis.) However, as she elides the centrality of family in Tory discourses of social value and in As You Like It into a discussion of the social construction and internal contradictions of gender, Hobby's discussion of Rosalind's disguise as "Ganymede" -- a name whose Renaissance associations included boy actors as well as male homosexuals -- seems to me primarily to supplement rather than supersede existing work on transvestitism, homosexuality, and familial bonds in the play.

The initial assertion of a more radical break with critical tradition than is actually the case also governs Sarah Beckwith's essay on witchcraft in Macbeth. Beckwith seeks to read the play as one production -- among many others -- of an early-modern language of female demonism. Her refusal to privilege explicitly literary discourse over other kinds of texts has, of course, been taken as a guiding principle of the historicist project, and it no longer seems entirely necessary at this point -- twelve years after Renaissance Self-Fashioning -- to preface essays with declarations of interest in accounting for the ways in which "history and fiction inhere in each other" (146). Beckwith concludes her essay with suggestive remarks about the implications of the theatrical performance of witchcraft for social performances of female gender. Val Richards' psychoanalytic account of individuation and absent mothers in King Lear achieves greater distinction. Her theoretical grounding in Lacanian studies of language development and in work on infant orality is still an underrepresented methodology in Shakespeare studies and is especially rarely encountered in undergraduate classrooms, so her paper fits sensibly into a collection about change in the ways in which Shakespearian meanings are recovered. Unfortunately, Richards' comments on Lear proper are rather brief; more detailed psychological work exists elsewhere.

Shakespeare in the Changing Curriculum is well aware of the differences between current students, professors, and institutions of higher education and those of the past. Further, I can endorse the editors' perception of a need for scholars in disagreement with the ongoing appropriation of culture for the purposes of the right and concomitant denigration of scholarly work to make themselves heard in debates of "questions of value in terms that non-specialists can understand" (7). But the over-generous claims the book makes about the quality of its scholarly work and its heavy reliance on experiences with secondary school students diffuse the cumulative effect it might have for a non-English audience. Apart from the essays most consciously engaged with means of textual production of new Shakespeare, the collection is only sporadically apt and useful as a record of Shakespeare in progress.
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Author:MacDonald, Joyce Green
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1685
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