3.1. The Classroom
Although the educational revolution of the past thirty-five years or so has often sought to replace dead European white male authors in the traditional curriculum of high school, college, and university with writers arguably closer to the concerns of today’s students and readers, Shakespeare has generally survived this trend and seems even to have profited from it. Why? Shakespeare is indisputably dead, European, white, and male. So are Milton and Spenser and Pope, who are in decline as authors to be read and studied, while Maya Angelou and Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez thrive. Bucking this trend, Shakespeare enrollments are generally doing well across the board. This is true not just in terms of student numbers, but in the world of criticism as well: New Historicists, feminists, and deconstructionists alike are less and less inclined to illustrate and test their theoretical claims by reading Shelley and Tennyson, whereas those same contemporary critics find Shakespeare simply irresistible. Think of Terry Eagleton, for example, or Stanley Cavell, or Germaine Greer. Shakespeare has a way of throwing new questions back at us, adding a rich complexity to the process of reading texts closely. Books on Shakespeare pour forth, at the rate of more than one a day, many of them quite fascinating. Shakespeare seems to provide what Matthew Arnold once called a “touchstone” of literary criticism, a way of answering why some texts survive over the centuries and become immortal. Arnold preferred Homer as his example; today’s touchstone tends to be Shakespeare. He survives and prospers not because of being traditionally the subject of teaching in schools and colleges, but really in spite of that: students and teachers and critics alike find that no other writer can go beyond his ability to challenge, to interrogate, to illuminate, and to insist that we rethink ourselves and our cultural heritage.
How can teaching help to foster this constructive way in which Shakespeare appears to be God’s gift to the humanities classroom? Let me start with what is sometimes called the New Liberal Arts Curriculum, a program designed primarily for the teaching of advanced placement classes in high school and of core humanities classes at the college level. A seminar entitled “Shakespeare and the Liberal Arts Curriculum” at the 2014 Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Saint Louis, chaired by Jeff Rufo and Elizabeth Hutcheon, addressed this very subject. One participant, Mary Janell Metzger of Western Washington University, adroitly suggested in her paper that Shakespeare addresses perfectly the need for coherence in the New Liberal Arts. As that curriculum changes and experiments with new materials at a host of widely differing institutions, how is the potential reward of ever-greater diversity to be balanced by some pattern of coherent literary form? Her answer is that Shakespeare provides exactly this needed value. His work offers various models of poetic form and genre: lyric poetry, genial satire, colloquial prose, blank verse description, peppy dialogue, tragic soliloquy, and much more. In the process of close reading in class, a teacher can explore the potentials of prose and verse, of comic rhymes, of introspective meditation, and of sharply engaged debate.
A chief aim of teaching literary texts is to improve skills in close reading. Many students in our classes have had little practice in this, at least at the level of intellectual sophistication that will enable them to become better at interpreting, reasoning, and arguing—skills that apply to whatever profession they may ultimately enter. What better text for this than Shakespeare? He is, admittedly, hard to read. But that is a positive challenge, not a reason to shift over to teaching To Kill a Mockingbird instead. Shakespeare is hard, to begin with, at the expository level. I remember a student who came in during office hours to ask if we could talk about the opening scene of Henry IV, Part 1. Good, I replied, are you puzzled about why King Henry is so anxious about civil strife in his country? Should we discuss what his relationship is like with the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester, and how his former partnership with the Percy clan in Richard II seems now to have deteriorated? No, she said, I just don’t understand a word of what is being said. What does this mean, “the thirsty entrance of this soil / Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood” (1.1.5–6)? What are these “meteors of a troubled heaven” that somehow resemble “the intestine shock / And furious close of civil butchery” (1.1.10; 12–13)? Clearly it was time to slow down and read closely, image by image. And, once these first difficulties of clarifying plot situation are at least partly resolved, we can go on to the dense complexities of interpretation that we all struggle with in this remarkable writer. Shakespeare is for all seasons. In courses from entry-level humanities core up to PhD seminars, we can hope to assist students in moving on from improving reading skills to becoming sophisticated critics.
One huge benefit of choosing Shakespeare as a text to be read with astute care is that he is a dramatist. He is a poet too, of course, but for the most part that great achievement takes dramatic form. Drama is a challenging genre to teach, and especially so in Shakespeare. Students need to get used to speech prefixes, lines of verse, lines of dialogue often divided between two or more speakers, stage directions both original to the early printed text and added by editors, indications of scene breaks and of scenic location, and shifts between verse and prose, as well as glosses and footnotes added in modern editions. Here again the difficulty is a positive challenge. A teacher needs to encourage students to stage in their minds the scene being presented on the page. They should learn to play the role of director. Prose fiction customarily tells the reader what he or she needs to know about location, time of the day and of the year, costuming of the characters, and what they are thinking. A dramatic text throws a beneficial burden on the reader to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (Prologue 23), as the opening Chorus of Henry V puts it, speaking on behalf of his acting company and of the dramatist. “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’th’ receiving earth” (Prologue 26–7). Spoken dialogue and printed text alike challenge the reader in ways that even a film cannot hope to do, since film, like prose fiction, tells where we are and whom we are beholding. Drama is the genre of imaginative re-creation.
Shakespeare is of course a powerful thinker. That, however, should not encourage us to teach him as if he were presenting a philosophical treatise. Good philosophers can certainly do splendid things with Shakespeare, but in my view we should never lose track of the fact that he was a professional dramatist, taking parts onstage with his acting company for at least some of his career and writing plays that he knew would suit the capacities of his fellow actors and the tastes of their socioeconomically diverse audience in a theatre like the Globe. Some twelve years ago I was asked by Steven Nadler, editor of Blackwell Great Minds, if I would like to contribute a study of Shakespeare to that series of books about great thinkers: Kant, Augustine, Descartes, Sartre, Schopenhauer, and the like. I said I’d be delighted so long as the publisher wouldn’t object if I came to the conclusion that Shakespeare isn’t a philosopher in the usual sense of that term. This was agreed to and I set to work. When I submitted my text and it was sent off for peer review, the answer quickly came back: who is this Bevington guy and why is he arguing, in our series, that Shakespeare is not a philosopher? We straightened out this disagreement, and Shakespeare’s Ideas duly appeared, arguing that Shakespeare is what he might himself have called a “natural philosopher,” like Corin in As You Like It, who, when asked by Touchstone, “Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?” (3.2.21) replies that he knows “that the property of rain is to wet and fire to burn,” that “a great cause of the night is lack of the sun,” and so on (3.2.24–5, 26–7). Touchstone concludes this delightful colloquy with the observation that “Such a one is a natural philosopher.” My point was, and is, that Shakespeare wears his learning lightly. He seldom alludes to philosophers by name, and tends to do so on those rare occasions in a wryly jesting way, as when he mentions Socrates as the henpecked husband of Xanthippe in The Taming of the Shrew (1.2.70). Shakespeare was a dramatist.
In the classroom, I like to encourage students to minimize the presumed distinction between “literary” and “theatrical” approaches to dramatic texts. English departments and theatre departments are too often hostile toward one another in American higher education. I contend that one should expect to find no important difference between the careful reading of a scene in class and a first reading of a playtext by an acting company gathering for the first time with the director to explore the work they are about to enact. In both cases, the questions are basically theatrical and at the same time analytical. Why, in the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra, are two essentially anonymous soldiers given the opening and closing speeches of an action that focuses mainly on the play’s famous lovers? Who are these soldiers? The Folio text identifies them as Demetrius and Philo, but on stage their names are never mentioned. Why? Where are they to be located on stage? Downstage as a kind of framing device, or elsewhere so as not to obstruct the audience’s view of Antony and Cleopatra? How, in the Elizabethan theatre with its general absence of sets, do we know we are in Egypt? How are Cleopatra and Antony costumed? What about costuming for the ladies, eunuchs, servants, soldiers, and others in attendance? What theatrical signals are embodied in the dialogue or stage directions? Why is Enobarbus seemingly absent, or is he? Does the Messenger who enters with news from Rome wear Roman garb? What are Cleopatra and Antony quarreling amorously about? Why is Cleopatra teasing him? What does Antony mean when he boasts that “The nobleness of life / Is to do thus” (1.1.37–8)? Does he embrace Cleopatra as he speaks? Is he appealing to an inspiring idea of putting personal relationships above the petty claims of politics, or is he drunkenly flattering Cleopatra and fooling himself into thinking that his life in Egypt is somehow ennobling? To begin to answer such questions, students need to learn how to stage the scene in their minds and imagine how, as director, they would offer ideas to the actors taking the various parts in this scene.
This kind of exercise can be energizing in class. Sometimes I begin with a reading out loud by members of the class. Shakespeare often provides a generous number of parts. This way of beginning can require that students open their mouths and say something. They can be encouraged to put some expression into what they are saying. In the ensuing discussion, they can be asked to explain individually why their characters have said what they have said. In what way is a particular utterance a response to what preceded it? Which character or characters take leads in directing the conversation? The advantage of a dramatic text is that it can put readers into the picture directly. If course assistants are available to conduct discussion sections, one can encourage them to try this method; a fifty-minute hour is often just about right for one juicy scene, explored in this kind of theatrical detail. And beginning with a specific text can, if adroitly managed, then open out into larger questions about the play and its characters. What do students think of Cleopatra? As a woman who has known more than one man, is she prepared to be loyal to Antony, or would she, as Antony fears, pack cards with Caesar? Has Antony’s infatuation with Cleopatra subdued his judgment?
Let me suggest another teaching venue to test the proposition of how one can teach a difficult text like Shakespeare to students unfamiliar with Elizabethan English and with the complexity of Shakespeare’s thought. Increasingly, teachers interested in our burgeoning prison population are discovering that Shakespeare’s texts can be both illuminating and therapeutic. My own experiences in this venture have been with Laura Bates, a Comparative Literature PhD from the University of Chicago now teaching at Indiana State University in Terre Haute and actively involved in teaching Shakespeare at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility just south of Terre Haute. While she was still in Chicago I attended some sessions that she conducted in a closed, securely locked room with perhaps nine African American inmates, mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, all of them incarcerated for murder. Among the plays of Shakespeare that can work well in such an environment, like Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, Laura chose what might be called the “rumble” scene in Romeo and Juliet, in which a street brawl ends with Tybalt slaying Mercutio and then Romeo taking revenge on Tybalt. The inmates were asked to stand and read aloud, going for expression in their individual parts as much as they could. They stumbled over proper names and other difficult words, but without embarrassment. Then followed a discussion, line by line, of what the characters on stage were saying to one another. Finally, the members of the group were asked to restage the scene in their own words. The dialogue began with Benvolio saying “Hey, man, it’s hot, man, those Capel dudes are all over the place. There’s going to be a fight, man.” The focus of attention was inevitably and properly on the way the men dared each other, jockeying for position to see who would go first, and then most importantly on Romeo’s decision to challenge Tybalt even though Romeo has just vowed to Juliet to love her and honor her family. The intense peer pressure goading Romeo on to show his friends his macho resolution made perfect sense to these inmates, and provoked a really interesting conversation on how they individually had experienced the way in which gang mentality had all too easily led them into a fatal wrong choice. I was deeply moved by their readiness to admit their own criminal guilt and to seek to understand how they had let this happen to themselves.
The use of film is inevitably attractive in the teaching of Shakespeare since, along with Jane Austen, he is among the most extensively filmed writers of all time. Caveats are in order. Many Shakespeare films are so flawed that great care is required in choosing illustrations for classes. Too many of the BBC/Time-Life Shakespeare series filmed in the 1980s commit the unpardonable sin of making Shakespeare seem dull. I think of The Winter’s Tale, for example, or All’s Well That Ends Well. The series’ As You Like It employs Masterpiece Theatre scenic realism to such an extent that all the magic is drained out of the Forest of Arden; it is a place where Duke Senior and his foresters sit under real trees, dismally swatting at midges, instead of being a place of imagination. Plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest show how easy it is to play visual tricks with the camera that explain away and trivialize all that is mysterious. But there are several fine versions of Hamlet, including Michael Almereyda’s 2000 production set in modern-day Manhatten, Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 Russian production, David Tennant’s RSC production of 2008–9, and, less well known, Kevin Kline’s Great Performances production for television in 1990. (I leave out here, as useful but partly disappointing, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 production and the four-hour complete Hamlet by Kenneth Branagh in 1996.) Multiple screen versions enable one to compare different versions of a given scene, a method well employed using Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing of 1993 in tandem with Joss Whedon’s marvelous black-and-white, modern dress version of 2012 with Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice. The list could go on. I avoid showing long stretches or complete showings during class time, which is too precious for that, but film clips in class can generate fine discussion, and it’s a very good idea to schedule complete showings out of class time. Shakespeare films in other languages, not simply translated but rewritten in other languages, can demonstrate the limitless range of Shakespearean production across different cultures; here, Grigori Kozintsev’s versions of King Lear, Korol Lir (1971), and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957) are especially effective.
Watching a good film version is often a way to show students that Shakespeare is not so difficult after all, at least not in performance. Students will discover that a play makes perfectly good sense when skilled actors provide a theatrically lively presentation, whether in the theatre or film. The voice and gestures offer interpretation that can get students started in reading more closely. I remember a fine production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 2002, in which Scott Jaeck as Armado and Ross Lehman as Costard were not merely hilarious; they grimaced and gesticulated as though the often contrived and artful wordplay assigned to their parts were as clear and meaningful as is the summer’s day.
But we mustn’t forget that the play’s the thing (someone must have said that), and that film versions must not displace repeated and detailed encounters with the text. At a certain point, films make interpretation all too easy. We want students to recreate the play in stage settings of their own imagination. This is the sense in which Shakespeare becomes a man of the theatre even when, or especially when, we read and visualize his words.
3.2. Money for Jam
“Teaching Shakespeare,” said R. W. B. Lewis to me, in or around 1970, “is taking money for jam.” I was a beginning assistant professor at Yale, where I had done my graduate work. Lewis, one of the founders of the field of American Studies, was already celebrated as the author of The American Adam (1955). He would shortly gain wider international fame as the prize-winning author of biographies of Edith Wharton and the James family. “Taking money for jam.” I had no idea what this idiom meant but the implication was clear (and later substantiated by the OED): “a profitable return for little or no trouble; a very easy job.” Chatting casually over tea with a young colleague, Dick Lewis meant to be kind, or at least kindly. He wasn’t disparaging my chosen field, or my course assignments. He was merely reassuring me that—not to worry—teaching Shakespeare was easy.
As compared to what, he didn’t say. Maybe American Studies, maybe the kind of Renaissance scholarship then being done at Yale by scholars like Thomas M. Greene and Richard Sylvester, many of whose courses were for graduate students. Undergraduate Shakespeare at Yale at the time was being taught, very successfully, by two distinguished professors whose major work, up to that time, had been in the eighteenth century: Maynard Mack and Alvin Kernan. Both would go on to publish influential essays based on their undergraduate Shakespeare lectures. But both were in the most admirable sense initially gifted generalists, teaching Shakespeare as part of the heritage of literary and cultural literacy that was, at the time, pretty much unquestioned.
The noun “Shakespearean,” often used these days to describe a scholar who specializes in Shakespeare, has also encompassed, in its variegated history since the early nineteenth century, Shakespeare enthusiasm or fandom on the one hand and, on the other, the belief that William Shakespeare, rather than Bacon or Oxford or anyone else, wrote the plays. Sir Walter Scott’s biographer observed in 1837 that Scott’s aunt was “about as devout a Shakespearian as her nephew”; a writer in the New York Herald in 1874 opined that “considerable blank ammunition has been wasted in this ridiculous war between the Baconians and the Shakespearians.” In 1971 the Daily Telegraph was still using “Shakespearean” to mean “buff” or “fan” (“One of those devoted Shakespeareans who knows his author backwards”) but by 1979—I’m tracking the word through the OED—Frank Kermode, definitely a “Shakespearean” in the academic sense, could write “Shakespearians may find explanations of the mysteriousness … of Hamlet, by considering instead the ur-Hamlet” (Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy, 1979). The context is a discussion of narrative, biblical scholarship, and literary analysis; the “Shakespearians” here are assumed to be professional scholars.
“Shakespearean” now of course functions routinely as a back-formation, used to describe Shakespeare adepts and Shakespeare critics from the eighteenth century to the present day. A series called “Great Shakespeareans,” published now by Bloomsbury, includes Dryden and Pope, Garrick and Siddons, Marx and Freud, Empson and Wilson Knight, Brecht and Joyce, and many more. But this is a twenty-first-century series and perspective, from which vantage point “Shakespearean” is not only a legible category but also an all-encompassing one. For at a certain point in the mid-to-late twentieth century, just around the time that Dick Lewis was telling me that teaching Shakespeare was taking money for jam, the designation “Shakespearean” was shifting (as the modulation in OED usage implies) to describe a class of academic scholars whose research, publications, and teaching were centrally focused on Shakespeare. Positions for scholar-teachers who specialize in Shakespeare are advertised regularly, as such. The members of the Shakespeare Association of America, whether they are graduate students or tenured professors, are “Shakespeareans.” Shakespeare today is not only an author but a field. And not only a field but a profession.
Here are a few indicative dates: The Shakespeare Association of America was founded in 1972. The International Shakespeare Association was founded in 1971. The first World Shakespeare Congress was held in 1976. The Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association was founded in 1990. The British Shakespeare Association was founded in 2002. The Shakespeare Association of India was founded in 2008. The Asian Shakespeare Association was founded in 2012. These are organizations for professional Shakespeareans, dedicated to scholarship, teaching, and the study of performance. Like analogous professional organizations for medieval, eighteenth century, Victorian, or modernist studies, most have dues-paying members, are linked to journals, and hold conferences that provide networking opportunities as well as intellectual exchange.
What does all this mean for the teaching of Shakespeare?
For one thing, it means that “the Shakespeare course,” the one all undergraduates were urged to take (by advisers, by their parents, by their peers, by the English department, by their own inclination) has now often diversified, or multiplied, into a range of courses with more specific or specialized themes and aims. Small colleges and large research universities alike now regularly offer undergraduate courses in Shakespeare and Gender, Shakespeare and Performance, Shakespeare and Race, Shakespeare and Politics, Shakespeare and Colonialism, Shakespeare and Religion, Shakespeare and Film, Shakespeare and the Archive, Shakespeare and Adaptation, and Queer Shakespeare, as well as courses organized by genre, period, or author (Shakespeare and Marlowe, Shakespeare and Stoppard). Further options in media (film clips, YouTube, digital texts, etc.) have likewise changed the way “Shakespeare” is taught.
The expansion of Shakespeare into Shakespeare studies is a good thing, without doubt. It’s great for students and faculty, and a fabulous opportunity for teaching at all levels (happily remunerated, in most cases, with a little more than “jam”). But with every gain there is a certain loss, and what is sometimes at risk is what might be described as either “Big Shakespeare” or “Town Meeting Shakespeare”: students (from many fields and in many majors) and auditors (from the community and sometimes from the faculty and staff), gathering in a large lecture hall to experience, together, a lecture-as-performance, an exhilarating and provocative collective hour of Shakespeare, twice or three times a week. Such Shakespeare lectures (by Kittredge, by Auden, and by numerous modern and recent practitioners) often became legendary. They brought together diverse segments of the college or university population; they spurred discussion outside the lecture hall; they provided memories and “glue,” as well as inspiration, for students many years after graduation. When I spoke to the sixtieth reunion class at Harvard commencement several years ago, virtually all those present had stories to tell about, and sharp memories of, the Shakespeare course they took in the 1940s. This is one specific and historic role for the teaching of Shakespeare that it’s useful to remember as we move forward. The present-day public humanities event, meant to bring together what used to be called town and gown, is a version of “the Shakespeare course” as it functioned, for many years, both within colleges and universities and adjacent to them.
The way Shakespeare is taught in schools today owes not a little to various approaches to the novel, and to lyric poetry, that emphasize the agency, identity, and “intention” of the author, rather than the collaborative mode of the early modern theatre. The celebrity of Shakespeare exacerbates this tendency, leading to questions about the writer’s personal history and internal thought processes, as if literary craftsmanship and the creative imagination could be traced to, and explained by, an origin. Like the “tragic flaw,” this obtrusive concept, asserted as a matter of both faith and fact, often gets in the way of teaching. Let me close, therefore, with a classroom practice based upon my own particular resistance to intentionalism, a habit of mind that Shakespeare seems particularly to provoke.
I’m often asked by students why Shakespeare does X or Y or Z, to which of course there is no answer, since even if teachers were psychics or time-travelers or investigative journalists, we could not know what was in an author’s mind. Moreover, even if Shakespeare had left us a signed document explaining an “intention,” that intention might be at considerable variance with the achievement or perceived effect. What I try to do in class is to get students to think in terms of the effect rather than the intention, and of the play rather than the author: “what is the effect of X or Y or Z on the play?” I’ve found that getting students to replace “why [does the author]’’ with “how [does the play]” makes for clearer thinking, as well as for responses that are more satisfying to the student and more creative and illuminating about the play.
When I did this with a group of freshmen studying “Shakespeare and Magic” they learned incredibly fast. On one occasion when a student began to ask “Why did Shakespeare …” she paused and then reframed the inquiry in terms of the play rather than the playwright. Her question was pertinent and interesting. The responses from the class were imaginative and thoughtful. A new generation of Shakespeareans had begun their work.
3.3. Extension Work
Recalling a moment before our field became professionalized, and our classes so specialized, Marjorie Garber reminds us that, historically, the typical university or college Shakespeare course appealed to a much wider audience beyond the English majors who these days congregate in our classrooms. Garber’s lament for the passing of what she wittily terms “Big Shakespeare” immediately resonated with me, and I found myself thinking of Adrienne McNeil Herndon. A remarkable woman of color, Herndon more than a century ago galvanized the study of Shakespeare at Atlanta University (the historically black college founded in 1865 and now consolidated as Clark Atlanta University). Equally impressively, she employed Shakespeare to accomplish what her contemporaries characterized as the university’s “extension work,” finding in Shakespeare what Garber would describe as a kind of “glue”: a means to bond some of the diverse members of Atlanta’s African American community.
Born in 1869 to an unmarried former slave, Herndon graduated from Atlanta University’s Normal School and briefly worked as a public school teacher until 1893, when she began teaching elocution (and, under the guise of that subject, Shakespeare) at her alma mater. Supported by her husband Alonzo—a former slave and sharecropper whom she married in 1893 and who amassed a fortune through business enterprises, becoming one of the country’s first African American millionaires before his death in 1927—Herndon tirelessly pursued a career on the stage until her early death in 1910. Spending her summers studying “general culture” and “public reading” at the Boston School of Expression, she made her professional debut in that city in 1904 in a one-woman show based on Antony and Cleopatra, which she performed under the stage name Anne Du Bignon, daughter of an old South Carolina family of French and Creole origins. She received rave reviews and later went on to win prizes while studying at New York City’s School of Dramatic Arts. Nevertheless, she failed to secure any more acting work, most likely because the entrenched racism of the professional theatre world proved impossible to navigate.
One of the first people to teach Shakespearean drama at a historically black college, Herndon clearly set her sights on Big Shakespeare. She thus instituted what turned out to be the extremely popular tradition of an annual class-day dramatic performance. Open to all, these productions were celebrated not only for the quality of both her direction and the student acting but also for their opulent costumes and properties, likely made possible by her New York theatre connections. For her first foray in spring 1905 she directed The Merchant of Venice to a packed house. A year later she followed up with an even more popular production of The Taming of the Shrew. Remarkably, despite Atlanta’s bloody race riot of September 1906—after which she remarked in a 1907 letter to Booker T. Washington that she sometimes “doubt[s] if there is any spot in this country where one with Negro blood can plant a home free from prejudice, scorn and molestation”—she subsequently directed As You Like It (1907) and Twelfth Night (1908). Moreover, Herndon was in the midst of directing The Tempest when she succumbed to Addison’s disease at the age of forty. Shakespeare, as Herndon made clear, deserved the deepest devotion (according to her husband, she had loved him since infancy). Occasionally, however, she found inspiration for her extension work elsewhere in English literary history. Most notably, in 1909 she directed and starred in Everyman, a role that, tragically, proved to be her last. Acting alongside her students as well as her dear friend and university colleague W. E. B. Du Bois, she enthralled spectators in the 1000-seat auditorium of Atlanta’s social-minded First Congregational Church, a fund-raising event later lauded in the University Bulletin for “bring[ing] to the people without the walls of the University the educational advantage of witnessing a good dramatic performance.”
Herndon’s work outside Atlanta University classrooms suggests a complex alchemy of practical pedagogy and visionary politics. Writing in the national literary journal The Voice of the Negro in July 1906, she makes it clear that her pioneering Shakespeare productions were not intended as a diversion from the violence and injustice of the Jim Crow South. On the contrary, she frankly acknowledges the exclusionary policies of white theatres and calls for the construction of new performance venues, a popular theatre “circuit” to serve the South’s burgeoning African American population. Moreover, in what strikes me as a radical move, she boldly claims Shakespeare for African American culture. She notes that African Americans were “unmarred by the conventional training of the highly cultured races” and thus had the potential to become truly superior dramatic artists, capable of the vernacular expression demanded by Shakespeare’s language. More audaciously, she avows that African Americans, precisely by dint of the afflictions they have suffered, are far better positioned than whites to grasp Shakespeare’s genius. “To interpret the depth of the human heart and to bring it into another’s consciousness,” she wrote, “one must have lived and suffered, and striven—and who among the Negro race has not received this sympathetic touch and insight as a birth-right? A more dramatic life than the one given the American Negro can hardly be imagined.” In short, while Herndon affirmed Shakespeare’s universal appeal, her pedagogy was profoundly mindful of the historical particulars of African American disenfranchisements.
As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death approaches, I find myself increasingly pondering the Atlanta tercentenary celebrations in spring 1916 when, not surprisingly, Big Shakespeare was the order of the day. One imagines that Herndon was sorely missed at Atlanta University, where, one day in April, as its Bulletin records, “the rhetorical exercises took the form of a Shakespeare anniversary celebration, different students giving essays and orations on the life and works of Shakespeare and presenting scenes from some of the best known plays.” A month later, on a Saturday afternoon, thousands crowded into an Atlanta park to see an enormous Shakespeare pageant including dances, an orchestra, a chorus, and a procession of thousands of costumed schoolchildren. While the newspapers highlighted the diversity of these events, which were organized mostly by socially elite women but included “twenty-eight little school children whose mothers were at work in cotton mills,” we can be sure that Atlanta’s racial exclusions were writ large. As the Atlanta Constitution noted, a highlight of the pageant was the appearance of one of the stars of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, Henry B. Walthall, who was hailed as “a man who has rendered the south a distinguished service in portraying her sufferings in the days of reconstruction.” Linked with the sufferings of white folks and a film that inspired the refounding of the Klan in Georgia in 1915, this Big Shakespeare turned Herndon’s radical dream upside down.
Moving away from that segregated context of Herndon’s Big Shakespeare, I’d like to conclude by way of my own experience as a white woman teaching Shakespeare to students from Atlanta’s Emory University. After more than a decade in the classroom, I decided last year to venture beyond the university’s walls and try out a little “extension work” in the form of a pedagogical project I now think of as Small Shakespeare. Specifically, inspired by the work of Joe Winston and Miles Tandy, British teaching artists who advocate a play-based Shakespeare pedagogy for young people, I’m forging a collaboration between my predominately white and middle-class students and the mostly African American children who attend an underresourced elementary school in Southeast Atlanta, just a few miles away from where Herndon taught Shakespeare and elocution. With the assistance of a teaching artist in the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, I aim to foreground the theatricality that David Bevington eloquently urges us to place at the center of Shakespeare pedagogy. But I also want to revisit, however modestly, the link that Adrienne Herndon forged between Shakespeare and Atlanta’s African American communities. Thus last spring, my fifteen students and I introduced some forty-five second-graders to a dozen scenes from The Tempest, a play chosen in honor of Herndon, via a semester-long series of acting workshops. This spring, with a new group of Emory students, those same children, now third-graders, are engaging scenes from Much Ado About Nothing. As an educator in this extended classroom, I increasingly see Shakespeare through the eyes of school children whose material histories differ markedly from those of my Emory students. Moreover, these encounters across all our differences are, I think, at the heart of the best experiences with both teaching and drama. We’re finding that as these schoolchildren connect with Shakespearean language through their voices and bodies, they gain a profound ownership of Shakespeare. That is, we’re hoping that Shakespeare will be the vehicle for what—following Herndon—I would call a more dramatic life.