Publisher's Note — January 16, 2014, 2:20 pm

In Praise of Shakespeare’s Comedies

Rethinking the best way to introduce Shakespeare to the young

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on January 16, 2014.

Like many parents, I’m always looking for an opportunity to pry my kids away from screens and interest them in more edifying entertainment, such as Shakespeare’s plays. My reasons are conventional: I think a widely shared Western “canon” is beneficial to society, no matter how white or how male the writers.

Common cultural language and history are essential to civic harmony, of course, but beyond that it’s reassuring to recognize famous lines of poetry and prose, since it makes you feel part of a larger universe of sentient people. “Oh, I know that line,” is one of the most pleasurable expressions of everyday life. Apart from the authors of the Old Testament, Shakespeare remains the champion of commonly known — and deeply insightful — phrases; his writings provide the surest path to discovering what one might have in common with all sorts of different people.

That said, I’m no Shakespeare scholar. I don’t always get the jokes and sardonic asides. Until I bought tickets for the current production of Twelfth Night on Broadway — which spurred me to read some of the text — I didn’t know that “If music be the food of love, play on” begins the play. And I wasn’t aware that the grand-sounding and famous line “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” is written by rogues to ensnare a foolish character in his own vanity.

I confessed this to my daughters, aged twenty-one and thirteen, so they wouldn’t think me a snob, but also to convince them that anyone can learn something new from a Shakespeare play. I (not my wife) was worried they’d be bored — that following the plot would prove too difficult because of the complicated locutions and Elizabethan language, not to mention Shakespeare’s double entendres and layered irony. But I was wrong. My kids’ attention almost never flagged. Although the story was at times confusing, nobody even hinted that we should go home at intermission.

This version of Twelfth Night, starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry, is extraordinary. From the performances, to the costumes, to the highly choreographed curtain call, I don’t think I’ve seen a better theatrical production in the past twenty years.

Having the actors dress for the show in front of the audience is a great idea, but replicating the original atmosphere of the Globe Theatre — with audience members seated in bleachers onstage and an all-male cast that sings and dances — somehow made the play more contemporary and exciting. Still, none of this clever stagecraft would have had much impact if the writing itself weren’t so good, and so funny, which made me rethink my assumptions about the best way to introduce Shakespeare to the young.

I received an excellent, if orthodox, early education in Shakespeare from my high school English teacher, who guided me through the bard’s greatest hits with enthusiasm and aplomb. However, out of respect for traditional pedagogy, he started me on the tragedies and the histories, and we never got to the comedies. My teacher also probably figured that a seventeen-year-old boy would be stimulated by the power struggle and violence of Julius Caesar — the first Shakespeare play I read — and that I would more likely identify with the fun-loving, victorious Prince Hal in Henry IV than I would with, say, the pathetic, self-important Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

My assigned reading in A. C. Bradley’s book Shakespearian Tragedy pushed me further into tragedy’s corner. Perhaps tragic lives were the only theme that really mattered, in drama or in life, since those were tragically violent times: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinated, the Vietnam War raging, and the antiwar movement still occasionally bloody.

But after seeing Twelfth Night I concluded that exposing my neophyte daughters to Richard III or Hamlet or the very frightening Macbeth might have killed their interest in Shakespeare forever. I’m not much animated by sexual politics, but lots of people are these days. The gender confusion, ribald treachery, and coverups in Twelfth Night are surely relevant to teenagers and twentysomethings bombarded with debates about gay marriage, stories of celebrities and politicians brought low by confused sexuality, and the cruelly ironic tilt of so much American comedy. What character better captures the spirit of our mixed-up age than Viola, a female played (in this production) by a male actor, who disguises herself as the page boy Cesario, then is nearly married to Countess Olivia, before being betrothed to Duke Orsino, who has trouble telling Viola apart from her look-alike brother, Sebastian?

With the mystery about who’s who “resolved” at the end of the play, Orsino utters this perfectly logical, but teasingly ambiguous speech to his surprising new fiancée:

Meantime, sweet sister,
We will not part from hence. Cesario, come —
For so you shall be while you are a man,
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen.

For younger people, overloaded with violent imagery and suffering, I’d hesitate before adding to their burden with the Prince of Denmark’s neurosis or the malevolent rivalries that lead to Romeo and Juliet’s demise. It’s no tragedy to meet Shakespeare for the first time with a smile on your face, and leave the theater laughing.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note July 16, 2015, 6:02 pm

The Ignorance of Journalists

“The fix was in from the beginning, despite the revolt. Fast-track authority was never in danger.”

Publisher's Note June 12, 2015, 10:53 am

Nonsense Brokers

“Rep. Kathleen Rice last week reversed her opposition to fast-track the TPP. If history repeats itself she won’t be the only member of Congress to betray her working class and labor-union supporters.”

Publisher's Note April 16, 2015, 3:51 pm

The Grind and the Gun

“Attributing white-on-black violence entirely to racism misses the larger problems that poorer people face in this country. They suffer a thousand cuts that never get talked about, except when the victims bleed to death.”

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gangs of Karachi

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today