Sunday, March 30, 2008

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"

So I decided to assign Shakespeare to my Freshman Comp II students, despite my never having read Shakespeare in a college course. Why should their education be deficient just because my own was?

I wouldn't have picked A Midsummer Night's Dream. I'd read it once before, seven years ago when I was working night shift at a seedy and yellowed motel in Lavonia, Georgia. I struggled through an unannotated edition of it at 1 and 2 in the morning for about a week, getting only some of the plot and none of the jokes, and then I rented the terrible Calista Flockhart version and watched it on the 13" television behind the counter.

But the UGA Theater Department is doing Midsummer in a few weeks, and I decided that the extra credit I could offer students for seeing a production of it outweighed my own incompetence when it came to the play. But I was nervous teaching it. I suspect that all teachers are occasionally afraid they will be exposed for the frauds they are convinced they are, and I figured it was finally my turn for unmasking.

It didn't help that about half of my class had read the play in high school. "Oh, Lord," I thought. "Their no doubt highly trained high-school teachers have picked this play apart for everything of value in it, and I'm going to be the last vulture to the party."

Never, however, underestimate the laziness of high-school English teachers. The students who had read the play before were familiar with the plot, but it didn't seem like anyone had ever encouraged them to look at the issues under the surface of the play: the conflict between reason and insanity, the undermining of love's free will, the class struggles, etc. And as for my paltry knowledge of Elizabethan customs, I learned quickly that the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind, as the old cliche says.

Or maybe I'd just picked up enough about life in the 16th century from my Shakespeare-free British literature courses and from dating a Shakespeare scholar. On the first day of our class discussion, I managed to talk for half an hour about conventions of the day. It also helped that the play was set in ancient Greece. Due to the continual inferiority complex I mentioned in the last post, I constructed an enormous chronological list of "Great Books" a few years ago, and last summer I happened to read through all the Greek tragedy. So I was pretty much ready for questions about the location of the action of the play, and I knew enough to get through questions about the location of its writing.

More to the point, I suppose, I genuinely loved this play. It was much funnier than I'd remembered it being--uproariously funny, in fact, no doubt to the chagrin of my terrible 9th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Wise, who told us that Shakespeare's comedies weren't funny in the way we think of funny. Quite to the contrary: Midsummer is exactly the type of thing a fourteen-year-old boy would laugh at, provided he could get through the Early Modern English.

I had to explain some of the jokes to the class, of course. They've been conditioned their entire lives to see Shakespeare as the stuff of the upper-crust, and maybe their minds are just too innocent to figure out why the playwright named his characters "Flute," "Bottom," and "Puck." I had them read the funny scenes out loud in class, and I laughed exaggeratedly at the funny parts. I'm not sure if that helped them figure out what was funny or if it just made them think I'm a mental patient.

I found our brief drama unit rewarding, though, for the same reason that I found our poetry unit rewarding: Students came into the class thinking they hated Shakespeare and left with at least a tenuous respect for him. I suppose I can say the same about myself.

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