What if Shakespeare…were a TEACHER?

What would Shakespeare’s classroom have been like? Your biggest disappointment might have been that most of this master of all English’s lessons would not have been in English at all. However much Shakespeare’s characters might beg to hear or speak “no Latin[, as] a strange tongue makes [a] cause more strange, suspicious” to the hearer (1), in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan reality the Church, State, and Universities judged your education and intellectual worth by your ability to read, write, and quote from Latin. Rome was, after all, the “most high and palmy state” (2) on which English society based its ideals of honor and virtue; English monarchs including the Tudors (and thus Elizabeth) traced their ancestors – by way of King Arthur – to Brutus, a direct descendant of Aeneas, “one of the flowers of Troy” (3), who founded Rome after that city’s fall.

Whatever the language, however, Shakespeare would have been able to teach most any subject – as the times demanded. Elizabethan schools had an intense curriculum, “the sweets of sweet philosophy” (4) at the time including studies of Scripture and religion, rhetoric, mathematics, music, composition, elocution, and the histories of Britain, Europe and the ancient world.  As if that wasn’t enough, school was taught six and a half days a week, with less than two months off each year, going from six or seven in the morning until right before dusk – no wonder that, in Shakespeare’s description of when “a school breaks up,” each student “hurries toward his home and sporting-place” (5) for the only free time he has in his day. I say ‘he’ because almost all such students were boys, of course – women were, at the time, preferably kept as a “poor unlearned virgin […] embowell’d of [schools’] doctrine” (6) or “an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised” in the ways of the world but “not bred so dull but she can learn” (7) what she needs to entertain and please a husband.

To teach, Shakespeare would have had to constantly read and study, to become, “neglecting all worldly ends, all dedicated to closeness and the bettering of [his] mind” (8). To effectively guide his pupils, his learning and love of knowledge would have, together, to “beget a generation of still-breeding thoughts, and these same thoughts people this little world” within the schoolhouse (9). Shakespeare was well aware that a conscientious “schoolmaster made [students] more profit than other princesses can that have more time for vainer hours and tutors not so careful” (10). No wasting time for him, but activity and energy towards the learning that had elevated him from glovemaker’s son to renowned playwright – or, in this thought experiment, teacher. Shakespeare would hate when “poor fools believe false teachers” (11) and love to observe that a “gentleman is learn’d, and a most rare speaker[:] his training such, that he may furnish and instruct great teachers, and never seek for aid out of himself” (12). All Shakespeare’s plays reward self-reliance and the personal pursuit of excellence, and his students would have benefited from that attention.

Still, if the little people in his classroom misbehaved, they would have to watch out, as Shakespeare thought that “to teach a teacher ill beseemeth” (13). Problem students would have learned that they were dealing with no “rare parrot-teacher” (14) trying only to have them squawk out passages after him. William would never have been one to spare the rod, even if a pupil “had rather see the swords, and hear a drum, than look upon his school-master” (15). Shakespeare, in his plays, staunchly supported just punishment, and  thought that keeping discipline required one to “show great mercy […] after the
taste of much correction” (16).

Perhaps some foolhardy students would have tried to declare themselves “no breeching scholar in the schools,” that they’d “not be tied to hours nor ‘pointed times, but learn [their] lessons as [they] please [themselves]” (17). Shakespeare would merely reflect on the price paid in his day by he without education: “he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book; he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink: his intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts” (18). He would raise his pupils as best he could towards “Study[, which] is like the heaven’s glorious
sun that will not be deep-searched with saucy looks” (19) and so improve their lot in life by giving them real goals to strive for without easy shortcuts.

This hard work would not, however, have made Shakespeare arrogant or proud; he would acknowledge that in the general estimation, teachers were “so poor a pinion off [power’s] wing” (20) as to be non-entities outside the classroom. Furthermore, despite his own encyclopedic knowledge, Shakespeare was never entirely comfortable with purely intellectual academics; you can sense that for him, they “jes[t] at scars that never felt a wound” (21). Never one to go against the will of the natural order, he would have acknowledged that “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends” (22) without any teacher’s help. He would have further realized that reading and writing without any practical purpose was “but an adjunct to oneself” (23), needing direction or motivation from some other part of one’s life that had more to do with the broader world outside – politics, say, or employment. Or perhaps even (as in many of his plays featuring young scholars) love.

Shakespeare would have acknowledged that education could in some cases even harm students by boring or overindulging them – any student could become “a blunt fellow”, even one that was “quick mettle when he went to school” (24) before being bored stiff by unsuitable lessons. Furthermore, in almost all of Shakespeare’s works, inherent, instinctive knowledge is both valuable and beyond teaching. His plays revolve around the idea that speech and consideration must, at times, give way to activity and daring, and that for “wilful men the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters” (25) in facing life’s challenges. He believed that the youths of his time, in particular, often held “a heart unfortified, a mind impatient, an understanding simple and unschooled” (26) and a personality “never school’d and yet learned” (27). In Shakespeare’s view, these qualities – which existed before one had “corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school” (28) – allowed the aggressive and, admittedly, often foolhardy juveniles to use their energy and impetuosity to overcome older adversaries’ advantages of age and experience and power. There would have been no fears that Shakespeare would refuse to countenance the beautiful world outside; his pupils would have needed to stay grounded, which he would have known, aware that the broader human context made up “the glass, the school, the book, where subjects’ eyes do learn, do read, do look” (29) for the answers no textbook can entirely provide.

Ultimately, Shakespeare the teacher might have summed up his project as does the benevolent Archbishop Cranmer in Shakespeare the playwright’s Henry VI, Part II:
My good lords, hitherto, in all the progress
Both of my life and office, I have labour’d,
And with no little study, that my teaching
And the strong course of my authority
Might go one way, and safely; and the end
Was ever, to do well. (30)

No teacher, in Shakespeare’s day or afterwards, through all the advances that bring us to appreciating his work from so far after his death, could reasonably ask for more.

(1) Queen Katherine, Henry VIII
(2) Horatio, Hamlet
(3) Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida
(4) Tranio, The Taming Of The Shrew
(5) Lord Hastings, Henry IV, Part II
(6) Countess, All’s Well That Ends Well
(7) Portia, The Merchant of Venice
(8) Prospero, The Tempest
(9) Richard II, Richard II
(10)  Prospero, The Tempest
(11)  Imogen, Cymbeline
(12)  Henry VIII, Henry VIII
(13)  Princess of France, Love’s Labour’s Lost
(14)  Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing
(15)  Volumnia, Coriolanus
(16)  Sir Thomas Grey, Henry V
(17)  Bianca, The Taming of the Shrew
(18)  Sir Nathaniel, Love’s Labour’s Lost
(19)  Biron, Love’s Labour’s Lost
(20)  Dolabella, Antony and Cleopatra
(21)  Romeo, Romeo and Juliet
(22)  Sicinius Velutus, Coriolanus
(23)  Biron, Love’s Labour’s Lost
(24)  Brutus, Julius Caesar
(25)  Regan, King Lear
(26)  Claudius, Hamlet
(27)  Oliver, As You Like It
(28)  Dick Cade, Henry VI, Part I
(29)  Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece
(30)  Archbishop Cranmer, Henry VI, Part II

Featured Intern – David Windrim

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome! My name is David Windrim, and I am a recent addition to the Shakespeare In Action family. Like any situation where a long-absent relative turns up out of nowhere, I’m therefore expected (and happy!) to tell enough about myself that it becomes clear I’m not a charlatan here to steal the family inheritance. (Which I imagine is the performance rights to the collected works of Shakespeare, also known as A Gigantic Tree Of Money. Seriously, everything here is made of gold-plated diamonds. Or at least, based on the work these people do, it really ought to be – somebody extravagantly wealthy who’s still reading this entry, you know what to do. Have your butler(s) contact me.)

Right – this here on the left is me, looking essentially as I do now except for a) less hair, b) somewhat shorter and c) far less happy – for what did I know of Shakespeare then? If all the world’s a stage, and each person’s acts thereupon comprise seven ages, here I was merely a literary caterpillar, somewhere in between

the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms […]
[and] the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

                   (As You Like It, II.vii.142-46)

I started reading quickly thereafter, acting after that, and in my time have played parts ranging from Snoopy (complete with Sopwith camel) to Macbeth (complete with violent executions) in a variety of settings. I’ve even had the prior opportunity to do some work interning and training at the Tarragon Theater and Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Ultimately, however, the written word and the lonely scholar’s desk called to me more than the stage. I’ve worked for my Bachelor’s Degree in English, Theatre and a Neuroscience minor at McGill – no, the combination makes no sense to me either – and my Bachelor’s Degree in Education and Master’s Degree in Literature at the University of Toronto, where I’m taking more classes this fall while trying to help the SIA Team save civilization, education and every student in Ontario, one sonnet at a time. I’m a jack of all trades that don’t require me to pick up anything heavy – “Heaven forfend! I would not kill [my] soul” with that kind of thing. I’ve tutored, taught, workshopped, proofed, prepped, served, edited and facilitated across many an office floor and classroom, and have the tiny paper-cut scars to prove it.

All the way through, Shakespeare has been one of my foundational influences. His “Sonnet 116” was the first poem I ever memorized – just ask me in person, I’ll prove it! – and his plays are renowned among people who study them for casually, brilliantly, beautifully breaking rules of narrative and language that would make other playwrights seem like dreadful hacks even for trying.

“A play can’t really support that many mixed metaphors, and if there are far too many characters the audience will barely care about any of them,” someone will quite reasonably say.

“Well, Shakespeare does it in <Play X>.”

“Yes, but he’s Shakespeare.” In the game of literary technique, he turned on God Mode long ago and gave himself infinite ammo. The ammo is brilliance. This metaphor could use more ammo.

More importantly, the world could use more Shakespeare. In any one of his plays, his words and stories are variously compassionate without being condescending and critical without being cruel; he writes out verbal fireworks on top of a rigorously exacting structure, capturing all the complex, exciting passionate action of history and myth without ever portraying his characters as more or less than wonderfully, often frustratingly human. All this has made the plays survive where many, many other authors’ work died with them, challenging and thrilling theater professionals and audiences for centuries – if nothing else, while watching a Shakespeare play you can always be aware that you’re sharing in an experience that people of your age, whatever that might be, have been enjoying since before we knew the Earth revolved around the Sun.

If anything I do here can at all assist the hard-working, exceptional people behind this organization in expanding and continuing their efforts to give everyone the chance to truly benefit from exposure to Shakespeare, then I’ll have done something worthwhile. Albeit that “to climb steep hills / Require slow pace at first”, I’ll be here learning what I can and applying what I know for the next while. See you next Tuesday, where I’ll be writing the next “What If Shakespeare Were A…” post. Until then, may your week be full of neatly resolved marriage plots and crews of dimwitted peasants making elaborate jokes about animal husbandry. Just like the Bard intended.

National Shakespeare Youth Festival – Acting

Congratulations to all Festival participants entered in the Acting category – we were all so impressed by the quality of your performances!

The Country Day School performs “Hamlet” (4.5) – winners in the 2012 Festival Acting division.  Peter Smith, adjudicator, commended the performance for being cohesive, having rising action, and being well-acted.  L-R: Alex Gruspier, Lukas Weese, Kelsey Houston, and Ilana Khani. Photo: Shakespeare in Action

The Country Day School performs “Hamlet” (4.5). L-R: Alex Gruspier, Lukas Weese, Kelsey Houston, Ilana Khani, and Jai Singh. Photo: Shakespeare in Action

The Country Day School performs “Hamlet” (4.5). L-R: Alex Gruspier, Jai Singh, Lukas Weese, Ilana Khani, and Kelsey Houston. Photo: Shakespeare in Action

Erin District High School performs “Macbeth” (1.3). Peter Smith, adjudicator, commended these three witches for their eerie performance and shrill – yet startlingly clear – voices. L-R: Katrina Kastelic, Keary Rodgers, and Jordyn Bell. Photo: Shakespeare in Action

Erin District High School performs “Macbeth” (1.3). L-R: Claire Leblanc, Kieran Klassen, Andres Caravantes, and Keiran Papp. Keiran Papp earned a Shakespeare Young Company for Teens scholarship for his stellar Macbeth. Photo: Shakespeare in Action

Monarch Park Collegiate performs “Much Ado About Nothing” (2.3). L-R: Naomi Brown, Alex Kilian, and Mythili Nair. Photo: Shakespeare in Action

Monarch Park Collegiate performs “Much Ado About Nothing” (2.3). Elena Wood earned a Shakespeare Young Company for Teens scholarship for her charming and nuanced Benedick. Photo: Shakespeare in Action