If we are truly concerned with suicide ideation, bullying, and domestic abuse, then shouldn’t we move away from these darker sides of humanity in our literature choices?
The beauty of Shakespeare, we English-teacher types argue, lies in his understanding of human nature and motivation, use of poetry and dramatic structure. mmkay. Then, I humbly suggest that we use some of his comedies to share these same elements with students.
Joe Dixon (Bottom) and Andrea Harris (Titania) in A Midsummer Night's Dream by the RSC.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton. January 16, 2009
Consider A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which pulls on teen heartstrings just as much, if not more, than R and J. Imagine their reactions to Helena and her machinations, Hermia’s rebellion against an arranged marriage, the outrageously funny Pyramus and Thisby, and the perfect tying up of every plot point—all worlds, the natural, the supernatural, and the created are one.
It’s beautiful, fun, and provides students with an answer to why Shakespeare is timeless. It answers, “Why do we have to read this?” with a chuckle and perhaps a stronger lean towards understanding his creative choices as a playwright.
That’s what we want them to understand about him… isn’t it?
Further, what does our audience of students need to read, today? What might effectively transport them to another time, place, and situation, where they might just want to stay for a while?
Some years ago, when Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne plowed through Florida, we decided to cancel our theatre department’s production of Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. After six weeks of no school, we could have pulled it together with a bit less flair, but we took a moment to think about our audience.
Our intended audience was trying to get back on its feet after losing homes, loved ones, and jobs. We all had firsthand knowledge of MREs and generators, and what it was like to go without water and electricity for weeks. People fought each other over bags of ice. Bare signposts and fallen trees, blue FEMA tarps on roofs, and devastated businesses—these were the sights that greeted us on the way into school in the aftermath. That and our gym roof that had been peeled away from the building like a sheet of aluminum foil.
While Miracle Worker is a profound and wonderful play, it just wasn’t what our audience needed. So, instead, we wrote a play: a comedy that pulled in laughter to help overcome the dark moments. A comedy that spoke to their spirits at that moment.
Comedy, and an analysis of this art form, may be what our audience of students needs. Enough what with the death and the dying and the killing and the feuding families. They’ve got that covered, I think.
Do we dare go against the tide and take a creative risk with students, or do we rest on our tried-and-true already-printed out lesson plans, literary guides, and tests for Romeo and Juliet?