Saturday, February 8, 2014

Retiring with Shakespeare

I think, but I'm not sure, that in the spring of 2002 I taught the Shakespeare course at LCC for the last time as the faculty member assigned the course. I'd been teaching the course on Wednesday evenings for about ten or eleven years.  I took over a section while the quarter was in progress one quarter because the course's instructor was terribly injured in an accident in the home and, for reasons I don't remember, I picked up sections here and there -- just a few. I was probably replacing an instructor on sabbatical or something like that.  I last taught a Shakespeare course in spring, 2007. 

When I was a full time member of the LCC English department, we rotated literature assignments on a three year basis and when other faculty, with no resistance from me, wanted to teach the Shakespeare course, I went on to teach (and enjoy) other literature courses and never put my hat in the ring for Shakespeare again.

This might seem odd.  I love Shakespeare's plays more than any other writing of any kind that's ever been done.

You'd think I'd want to do all I could, within the agreement we faculty had about course assignments, to get back to teaching that course again. 

But, I didn't want to any more.

The reason is simple:  I was tired of working with the plays as subject matter in a classroom.  I loved talking about the plays and discussing them with my students, but, in the end, the plays were a means to an end:  grades and credits.

As I grew older as a literature instructor, I became more and more dissatisfied with the idea that I was teaching poems, plays, and novels in exchange for college credits and that the reason for the student writing papers about these poems, plays, and novels was to earn grades and earn credits.

I had had the same experience as a graduate student.

I was lousy at writing papers about Shakespeare and other literature.  I didn't really enjoy reading scholarship and I didn't enjoy writing interpretations of plays, poems, and fictions.  I loved the literature.  The literature excited me, especially its beauty.  I fell in love with stories and poems for their own sake, not for what I could write about them.  The literature inspired me to examine my life and life around me more deeply.  The literature has always deepened my moral and ethical probings.  Plays, poems, and stories would keep me awake at night, the questions they raised racing in my mind.

I wasn't much for establishing a reading or writing about it.  I mostly enjoyed and was enriched by the experience of literature.

In graduate school, the experience didn't matter much:  writing papers and performing well on field exams, and working something out in a dissertation mattered.

Had I written what really mattered to me, I would have gushed about my love for what I read and for the ways the living of my life, or my hopes for living a well-lived life, were being shaped by the literature.

I enjoyed my teaching career and I loved doing all I could to bring plays, poems, essays, and stories alive for my students.  Honestly, what I really wanted to do was sit around with small groups of them and talk about these characters and stories and ideas and poems and leave it at that.

I've always enjoyed conversation more than writing or reading papers.

It's why, in my retirement, when it comes to Shakespeare, I've been seeking experiences that have nothing to do with papers, credits, class preparation, school quarters, or elaborate readings of the plays.

The past few days, I've watched Ian McKellen's Acting Shakespeare.  I wish I had the DVDs of Playing Shakespeare, of John Barton working with actors like Judi Dench and Ben Kingsley and many others where they work out specific scenes of plays, discussing what goes into bringing the scenes alive, and where they experiment with different approaches to the same character or scene.

It's all so immediate, in the moment, of the body.  It's not working out readings for an academic career.  It's working with Shakespeare in the most alive way possible.

I've been watching Uncovering Shakespeare and Looking for Richard.  I've read early works by some of the scholars who appear in Uncovering Shakespeare, namely Stephen Greenblatt and Marjorie Garber.  When I read their works from the 1980s, they were writing articles and books for their scholarly careers.  Greenblatt wrote New Historicism.  Garber wrote cultural criticism.  But, here, in Uncovering Shakespeare, they talked about the plays and characters without the trappings of academia.  They talked straight forwardly, without jargon, and beautifully illuminated the interior aspects of different characters and illuminated the complexities of the stories.

Even better, both Uncovering Shakespeare and Looking for Richard took us into discussions between directors and actors, into their deep investigations of what the characters are about and what is happening in the stories' plots.

Character analysis.  Plot summary.  Getting the story straight. Working to tell the story.  In the moment.  They puzzled over ambiguities, sorted out complexities, and brought the plays to life.  They weren't developing a thesis or aligning with a theoretical movement.

They were speaking the language and working the problems the plays confront a director and cast with.

In retiring with Shakespeare, this is what I want.  I want to dive directly into the darkness of Macbeth and other plays.

I don't want the academic apparatus.

I want to know the characters, revel in the language, feel fear, indulge my love, think about my life and the larger questions of life itself.  I'd like to dive with others, the way a cast does, even if with just one other person, around a table, talking about the story and the characters, figuring things out, being guided by bringing the play to life.  Do the stuff that would earn a "C" or worse in a graduate seminar paper in the English department.

I'm not much of an actor.  I know that.  But in watching these programs over the last couple of days, and having acted in a few plays, I know that my love of Shakespeare is much more deeply satisfied by doing what mature, seasoned directors and actors do:  read the play closely; probe and experiment with possibilities;  consult outside sources to help understand the characters and the story; bring the play into physical life; bring the spiritual to life out of the physical.

Oh, yes, I have a few "big ideas" about the plays, I guess -- mostly related to genre (tragedy, comedy, romance) and the rhythms of life, death, rebirth, and love.  I have big ideas, I suppose, about Shakespeare's love of doubleness, of opposites being true at the same time. I am always thinking about Shakespeare's portrayals of goodness.  And of evil.   The plays take me to these ideas.  The language.  The images.  The action.  The characters.  The stories.

I want to listen to others talk about Shakespeare.  If it's a lecture for all listeners, I'm into it.  If it's academic, less likely.  I don't think I want to take classes, unless I know the class is centered on looking closely at a play.  The classes I taught frustrated me because we had to "cover" a certain number of plays.  I wanted to spend all quarter on one play, immerse my students in it the way a cast gets to immerse itself in a single play over the weeks of rehearsing and performing it.

I think I have almost succeeded in being able to experience Shakespeare free of thoughts about what I would do in a class with this or that.  I think I have freed myself of thinking about the possibilities for writing a paper.  The plays move me more than ever.  I'm able, more and and more, to experience them in the moment, free of other concerns, and, when I see a play, free of standards I've read about or been taught that determine whether the production is good or not.

It means that in retiring with Shakespeare, I am setting what I find superfluous aside and opening myself up to countless possibilities and bottomless enjoyment.  

No comments: