Thursday, January 12, 2017

To Read or Not to Read--Shakespeare

I’ve begun yet another free online course by Hillsdale College, this one about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest.

As you’re probably familiar, Hamlet asks,

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? (Act III, Scene 1)
That’s what happens in Shakespeare; people take a look at what can be done, and what ought to be done—what is right to do when faced with whatever life throws at us.

The Globe Theater in London
from our trip last May

Professor Stephen Smith will be the main teacher. In lecture 2, his introduction to Hamlet, he says,

I really think all of Shakespearean drama broods over a key question: what habits does the human being need to lead a free, prosperous, truthful, and great life?
Here at the Spherical Model, we ask these questions too. Less artfully than Shakespeare, but we want to know, what is the way to freedom, prosperity, and civilization—rather than the alternatives of tyranny, poverty, and savagery?

Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, gives introductory lecture 1, about why we read Shakespeare—what we get out of it. One reason is to see what happens when a person makes certain choices. We can see the situation, the thought process going into the decision, and then the results—all complete.

He gives an example of something Winston Churchill advocated for that, at the time, looked like it might not move toward peace. In fact, the war lasted another five years. But it eventually did appear that Churchill was right about the choice, although some consequences are probably still playing out even now.

Actions that we take seldom are really complete. But in a play, they can be complete. In three hours you can see some dramatic things done by people, in Shakespeare in beautiful language, to explain why they’re doing it. And a world, a whole world, can be described in a few words, that is rich and beautiful, and compelling, and evocative.
In Hamlet, Dr. Arnn says,

we can find out what happened to him. We can find out his choices in detail. We can feel the pressures that he feels. We can weigh the competing goods to which he is loyal, and then we can see how it comes out in the end.
Both Churchill and Lincoln were avid readers of Shakespeare—enough that they could mouth the words when they attended performances. Why?

To conclude, what did Lincoln and Churchill find in Shakespeare? Why did they love him? Well, they were people who made extremely consequential decisions all the time. And what they could do is practice those decisions by watching those plays. To see how one thing happens and another follows—and this is this, and this is that. Also see how even the highest intentions sometimes go wrong. But nonetheless the intentions are high and worthy, even if they don’t succeed.
Both those men—I think the greatest statesmen of democratic history, along with George Washington—both those men had Shakespeare for a teacher. And if he was helpful to them, think how helpful he can be to us in our daily lives and how we carry on.
Back before our homeschooling years, our boys attended a gifted magnet school. One year they studied Shakespeare. They had a “reduced” version of Hamlet. That is, a version that uses mainly the original language, but simplifies the plot and some of the lines, so it can be more easily understood and performed by children. The teachers had originally planned to just read it together. But the kids said, “Why don’t we put it on?”

In a gifted school, if you have kids who want to do something, you probably go with it. Two weeks later they put on a performance for family. Not all the lines were memorized, and costumes and sets were very simple. But they did it. Son Economic Sphere was in fourth grade that year; Political Sphere had already moved on to middle school. Economic Sphere went around the house quoting Shakespeare at appropriate moments (seeking out such moments), which delighted me, but his brother thought he was showing off. The next year they did A comedy of Errors.

When we started homeschooling, I looked up the same reduced versions and we started putting them on. All of my kids got their chance, along with dozens of their friends. I directed for six years. Then a friend took over for longer than that. Then others stepped in. They’re still happening in our homeschool community. (In fact, auditions coincidentally are tomorrow for Twelfth Night.)

One thing our young actors learned was that Shakespeare is understandable. And he’s funny. And his plays make more sense when you see them acted out. Plus, they learned a few basics about acting, and projecting, and doing things for an audience. Mainly, they learned to think through what a character was thinking—why he was doing what he was doing—and finding a way to let the audience see that motivation. Sometimes—or nearly always—the character was not like them. That was probably valuable in itself.

So I hope we passed along a love for Shakespeare. I think we did.

During our trip to London last spring, a highlight for me was touring the Globe Theater, which is approximately where the original stood some centuries ago, and is built very much like the construction of the original, although this one is only a few decades old. They still perform there, in the open air. They mostly did that in the original, because they didn’t have many ways of lighting the stage at night. So they were open to the elements.

During our tour of the Globe Theater, they were prepping
a stand-in to take over the role of Kate
in The Taming of the Shrew

Our tour guide told a story about how that open air can affect what’s going on. Once, some years ago, a famous actor (I don’t remember who, but it was an actor whose name I have heard in my lifetime) was performing Hamlet in The Globe, and a pidgeon flew in and landed near him on the stage. This was at the point in the story when Hamlet was standing over Ophelia’s grave. Without missing a moment, the actor continued his lines while following the bird as it wandered around the stage. At last it hopped in on top of the startled, live actress playing the dead Ophelia. Hamlet hopped in after it—which he does at nearly that point in the script, and scooped it up, continuing his lines. And then, at the appropriate moment lets the bird fly free. I’ve looked for the line, not sure which it is. Possibly as Hamlet faces her brother Laertes, who blames him for her death, says,

I pr’ythee, take thy fingers from my throat;
For, though I am not splenetive and rash,
Yet have I in me something dangerous,
Which let thy wiseness fear: away thy hand. (Act V, Scene 1)
That memorable dramatic moment is something that can happen only in a live performance, and only in an outdoor theater. It’s like watching life.

Watching life is why we still love Shakespeare. It is something other species do not do—act out and observe various possibilities to try to determine a better course for a similar future life choice. And this is because humans rightly ask such questions as, “What habits does the human being need to lead a free, prosperous, truthful, and great life?”

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