Tuesday, May 7, 2024

How Not To Teach Shakespeare to Kids

A friend of mind recently shared with me a children's Shakespeare book, a kind of modern Lambs' "Tales from Shakespeare" which condenses the plots of fifteen Shakespeare plays into easily digestible 5-6-page segments. Entitled "Shakespeare's Stories," the book is beautifully illustrated by an artist named Koa Lhe, and the tales, "retold" by a British reviser, are engagingly written. The problem, my friend and I agreed, is that the plots aren't exactly Shakespeare's. And why are they not? Well. It turns out that "sweet William" is actually kind of a scary William, and young children must be protected from contact with certain types of Elizabethan stage villainy.

This is gently explained in the prologue, which instructs children that those involved in the adaptation project have "skipped over some parts of the tales, but have left all the key story elements in place. If something in one of the stories worries you," they advise, "show that story to a trusted grownup and have a chat about it." Also, "if you find any of them too scary, you can just turn the page and choose a different one." When I reflect back on my childhood, during which my siblings and friends and I exulted in macabre tales of horrifying violence, I wonder whom exactly this adapter is worrying about. "They wrap you up in a bloody sheet, and dig you down about six feet deep! The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they crawl in your belly and out your snout!" We used to sing that a lot. One of our favorite stories was Poe's "The Telltale Heart," in which, of course, the protagonist goes crazy and kills an old man for no reason, and buries him under the floorboards, but then can't escape the imagined sound of his heartbeat: boom Boom! boom BOOM! I haven't noticed any major recoil from fictive violence in subsequent generations, though much attention has been transferred from books and movies to video games. I don't think it's easy to shock or scare kids with stories. But it is pretty easy to scare parents who think delight in tales of violence, or in the macabre, is not innate, but imposed by some imperfect culture from without. So I think it's the parents for whom these revised tales -- and their introduction -- are written.

These are parents who may think a summary of "Hamlet" that omits Ophelia's suicide is one which still leaves "all the key story elements in place." (Laertes is gone, too, which makes it Claudius' job to duel Hamlet at the end -- an unusual move for a king, especially one several decades older than his adversary.) The courtesan is missing from The Comedy of Errors, a decision our New Victorian (or Puritan) editor made in accordance with that of the Actually Victorian Lambs. The book's "King Lear" omits the Gloucester plot, presumably because it includes the tearing out of eyeballs, though this part would have interested ten-year-olds. "The Merchant of Venice" was included, but, apart from illustrations which have Shylock in strangely Eastern-looking garb in contrast to the other European characters, there's no suggestion of religious prejudice, or of a Jewish daughter who steals money from her father to elope with a Christian. Shylock simply tries to cash in (or flesh in) on Antonio's "pound of flesh" because he inexplicably doesn't like him: not because Antonio spits on him in the marketplace, calls him misbeliever and cutthroat dog, and foots him as he'd spurn a stranger cur over the threshold, and certainly not because Antonio and his friends have helped Shylock's daughter flee with a Christian after robbing him. Some moneylenders are just like that, I guess. Neither my friend nor I could see the gain in hiding from youthful readers the fact that ethnic and religious prejudice leads to serious social conflict -- in effect, in obscuring the major theme of this play.

But the summary that most provoked our amusement was this collection's version of "Othello." Nowhere is Othello's blackness mentioned as a factor in Desdemona's father's abhorrence of his and Desdemona's union, or of Othello's susceptibility to Iago's predatory behavior. (In the play Iago is able to provoke Othello's unwarranted suspicion of Desdemona by convincing him that as an outsider to European culture, he can't really understand what white women are up to.) "As if my daughter could love someone like you," Brabantio says to Othello, but doesn't explain what he means by "like you." As in the "Merchant of Venice" chapter, it's left to the pictures to tell that story. Le's illustrations -- which, again, are lovely -- show a very black Othello standing next to a white-skinned, red-haired Desdemona. What's potentially confusing about this is not just that the text feared to mention what the pictures did show, but that illustrations for all the other plays indiscriminately feature characters of color among white characters, all getting along just fine. "Much Ado about Nothing"'s old Leonato, who is black, is very happy to marry off his very white daughter to a black Claudio. "As You Like It"'s Celia is black, and her cousin Rosalind is white. "Twelfth Night"'s Viola is black, Olivia is white, and Orsino is white; no marriage problems here, just some gender confusion, which is quickly sorted out -- as it isn't, exactly, in the play, where in the fifth act Orsino is still fantasizing that Viola is male, though perhaps it's understandable that the revisers didn't want to get into that subtlety. What's more difficult to comprehend is how child readers are suposed to intuit, from pictures, that color differences don't matter in Shakespeare (they do), but also intuit, from "Othello"'s illustrations, that racial bigotry can tear families apart. What Shakespeare is on offer here?

Yet I partly digress. The most amazing part of this book's adaptation of the Othello story comes at the end of the six-page summary. In the play, the jealous Iago ends up killing his wife Emilia in revenge for her revealing his treachery. Two husbands kill two wives, acts of violence facilitated by the tendency of both women simply to obey their men, even when the husbands are dictatorial and crazy. Iago, master-perpetrator of the deaths of women, is dragged off in act five to be tortured, showing no hint of remorse. But here's how our adaptation ends:

"You beastly man!" Emilia cried. "You would have broken up my best friend's marriage to advance your career? See what you have done. Your wretched plots have killed my friend. All for a promotion! I no longer want to be your wife. I'm leaving." .... Iago was ashamed of himself for having set such tragic events in motion. He resigned from the army, and he never made the mistake of not respecting a woman again.

Wow. That play was simpler than I thought.

I suppose we should be grateful that the current penchant for revising older works to make them more culturally sensitive will probably not succeed in destroying the originals. My understanding is that "classic" versions of Roald Dahl books are still being published, along with the new versions that mitigate greedy Augustus Gloop and the Oompa Loompas. Hopefully Shakespeare will also survive his improvements by enlightened adapters like the one behind "Shakespeare's Stories." But any kids who grow up reading this book are in for a shock when they get to a college literature class -- if they still want to take one!

Monday, May 23, 2022

REALLY Minor Characters in Shakespeare


Let's talk about the minor characters in Shakespeare. I mean the really minor characters, those whose parts are so small, some of them don't even have names. Not that namelessness is necessarily equivalent to minor character status. Hamlet''s Gravedigger has one scene, but he's not a small character. Henry V's "Boy" is not a minor character, nor is the Porter in Macbeth. And then we have the named characters whom we rarely think of when we refer to the plays, but who nevertheless are crucial to the action. As You Like It’s Silvius, Henry IV's Bardolph, and A Midsummer Night's Dream's Peter Quince are major characters. Macbeth's Ross is a secondary character, but one so significant that in Joel Coen's recent adaptation of the play, he takes over the whole script (being outplayed only by Banquo's eyebrows).

So, what characters am I talking about? Ones most people don't even know exist, so microscopic is their presence in the play. Yet, like many trace elements, these characters are catalysts for the action, or for the illumination of some larger character or theme.

Adrian (The Tempest): Okay, Adrian is an exception to all that. He's been called, and is, the most boring character in Shakespeare. This servant of King Alonso exists only to be made fun of by snide Antonio (the hero Prospero's villainous

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

More on Othello and Blackface

ast month I wrote on the unfortunate choice of a University of Michigan professor to show his class a film version of Othello in which the protagonist was played by a white man (Laurence Olivier) in blackface. The professor fell afoul of students, and subsequently of administrators, not so much for showing the film as for failing (as his critics saw it) to contextualize the production: to say something about the tradition of white men using blackface to play this famed Shakespearean character. Even had the professor done so, he might not have realized that the part of Othello was actually created -- that is, it was scripted -- for a man in blackface.

This is not just to acknowledge that in 1604, all Shakespeare's characters, and those of his rivals, were played by male whites, except for the characters in elaborate masques written and staged in private palaces for the aristocracy, in which women sometimes took part. (The women were also white, of course. Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness is an interesting example of a play written to be performed by women in blackface.) It's a given that the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical world was not a racially diverse milieux, although it's not impossible that of the hundred or so black Londoners of the early seventeenth century, one or

Saturday, January 1, 2022

"Speak of me as I am": Shakespeare and the New Orthodoxy


In the fall of 2021, distinguished Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng committed what should have been regarded as a simple academic faux pas. In an introductory music class at the University of Michigan, where he teaches, he showed the famous 1965 film of Othello starring Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role. Sheng's purpose was to introduce his students to the play as groundwork for discussion of Verdi's operatic adaptation of the tragedy. However, they never got to Verdi. His freshmen may not have recognized Othello or Olivier, but they knew a white man in blackface when they saw one. Sheng hadn't provided any contextual discussion of this facet of the film (or none the students noticed). After class, a group of them expressed their shock, horror, and pain, not to Sheng, but to the higher authorities of the music department. The "safety" they had expected to find in their college classrooms had been compromised by their instructor's gross display of racial insensitivity. The end result was an official apology to the students on the part of the school of performing arts and the removal of Sheng -- by "voluntary" agreement between him and the dean -- from his role as instructor of the class.

Well . . . maybe that wasn't the "end" result. Since this incident was first reported in a university newspaper article entirely sympathetic with the aggrieved students' viewpoint, over 700 Michigan faculty and students have written in protest against

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Duping Facebook with Shakespeare

Last week, when I asked my students why, during a discussion of Macbeth, they were using the awkward non-verb “to un-alive” to describe the action of regicide, they informed me that Facebook had trained them to it, with its flagging of the word “to kill.” “People,” I said. “This is Shakespeare seminar. We can do better than that.” Shakespeare offers us myriad terms to describe deading a person. Here are just a few: to “murther,” to cause to “dwell in solemn shades of endless night,” to send to the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” to “unseam,” to render a “tongue . . . a stringless instrument,” to make one’s antagonist “food for worms.” The list goes on.

Later I went to Google to inquire about other Facebook-flagged words. A post from last year on HVMA Social Media warns advertisers that Facebook seeks “generally uplifting, growth-oriented content!,” and cautions that “using ad copy which directly speaks on weight, health, beauty, anxiety, loss, failure, underachieving, or other such negative self-implicating topics are almost always negated from the platform.” This type of thing poses communicative challenges which Shakespeare can help overcome.

References to weight: Here the Henry IV plays are useful. Shakespeare does not

Monday, November 1, 2021

Huck's Shakespearean Soliloquy

 As is well known, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn chronicles the peripatetic journey of the boy Huck and his friend, the runaway slave Jim, as they make their way mostly by raft down the Mississippi River. At one point in the tale, Huck, brought up according to a white supremacist ideology that sanctions slavery as part of the natural order, must decide whether to betray Jim to his former owner, as his conscience bids him, or to continue assisting Jim's pursuit of freedom, as some deeper, contrary instinct tells him to do. Corrupted by church and Southern culture's belief that to assist a slave's escape is thievery, and that anyone who does so "goes to everlasting fire," Huck tries to pray "to quit being the kind of boy that I was" -- that low-down type who would help a slave escape -- "and be better."

      "So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't

Friday, October 1, 2021



It's October again. In Michigan it still feels like August, but even global warming can't change the earth's tilt and orbit, so the days are shortening and October light is falling on leaves that still start their change, from green to yellow and red, though it's 80 degrees. So, Halloween is on its way, and, of course, Macbeth is showing up on the Shakespeare prof's syllabus.

There is really only one appropriate season to teach Macbeth. Ideally, discussions and, if possible, expeditions to see this play should fall between mid-October and the end of the first week in November, because, of course, not only Halloween but All Souls' Day (November 2) and Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) are at stake. All these holidays -- as we find in Mexico's Dia de Muertos -- share Macbeth's grisly but humorous tone and atmosphere. Borges thought the play cast an unrelievedly nightmarish pall over the playgoer's senses, but, with due respect to that great Argentine author and Shakespearean, Macbeth's nightmare is not totally dark. The play is in fact punctuated by the humor of the gallows. The phrase is apt. Macbeth contains references to the Gunpowder