CLOSE READING SHAKESPEARE:
A Course Portfolio
I've come to believe that the single most important contribution I can make to my students' intellectual development lies in enabling them to become more active and sophisticated readers of a course's texts. That means that in every class I teach I deploy time and assignments to enable students to find for themselves what they think a particular text amounts to, and to show me by careful and consistent argument how they arrived at that reading. Operationally that means that I do relatively little lecturing as such, and that the lecturing I do do generally only aims to provide students with various tools--historical, critical, theoretical--with which they can be more sophisticated in the readings they themselves construct.
I will lay out how I do this with Shakespeare in the pages below, but I will declare in advance that this represents a significant change in my teaching. Indeed, I used to have goals which--from the outside, at least--seemed much more demanding than these. Originally, I aimed to teach a class that had a strong cultural studies component, something that raised the question of "Who was Shakespeare" in a theoretically sophisticated way, something that asked about the economic and political implications of the Shakespeare industry and "Bardolotry"--the often sentimental adulation ritually accorded Shakespeare by great swatches of the English-speaking public. But when I subsequently asked students to do themselves what we had been doing in class, I discovered that all my discoursing had proceeded without the majority of students actually being able to read on their own and with any sophistication the plays on which these discourses were based in the first place.
Having learned, then, that many of my students have great difficulties constructing even minimally complex readings of the plays they read, I have found myself significantly redefining my course goals. By course end I now aim at the skills I identify as those that underlie an active capacity to read and respond with sophistication to Shakespeare's texts. For me this begins by being able to see Shakespeare's language as a complex and condensed medium, and includes learning how to pay attention to its rhythms, its metaphors, its ability to characterize its speakers and to raise culturally significant topics of discourse. To be sure, I still imagine those tasks as preliminary to more advanced work as the quarter progresses. But in fact I have found the term pretty completely taken up with teaching people to be active close-readers of Shakespeare. For in practice students have found the attention this requires very difficult to supply. Typically, by mid-term only half the class will feel confident that they know what I am asking, and even those need more work before they feel confident about actually doing it.
So my Shakespeare classes begin and end with active close-reading. In this pursuit the great enemy is the ignis fatuus of "What Shakespeare Meant." Students generally begin the class thinking I will be telling them that, and they are often perplexed when I explain that I don't know, and that neither does anyone else. We haven't the merest line, after all, in which Shakespeare described his intentions in his own voice, and he sure isn't talking now. Of course we have the plays themselves, but plays are collections of lines which become interesting precisely as they represent not what Shakespeare said or thought but rather what Shakespeare imagined that some other being might have said or thought.
Yet if we can't know what Shakespeare meant, we can ask what turns out to be a much more interesting question: "What thinking does Shakespeare enable?" In posing this question my aim is to suggest that Shakespeare's plays offer narrative and linguistic structures within which to explore a great range of topics within his own time's cultural conversation, topics which audiences and readers continue to find relevant. From this perspective Shakespeare's plays make sense not as they tell us something wise, but as they enable us to think, talk, and write in compelling ways about such powerfully charged topics as power, gender, love, sex, anger, pride or civility. Within this framework, my goal cannot be to teach what the plays mean, or even what various critics have claimed about them. Rather it is to enable students to become active interpreters in their own right, locating topics as they arise in the plays, recognizing where and how Shakespeare offers a linguistic and narrative logic within which to explore them, and developing reading strategies through which those explorations can lead to interpretive argument.
My teaching of active reading begins from my understanding of what prevents students from reading actively in the first place. Most are unfamiliar with Shakespearean conventions and topoi; most are also inexperienced with active reading strategies generally. But the biggest difficulty people have is simply in understanding the language and structure of Shakespearean texts themselves. That students have such trouble should not be surprising. Most come to reading him through a clutter of cultural clichés: some think he is great because profound--indeed, profound beyond their humble comprehension; others know him as a "classic," dusty and stodgy in the way that only a comic book could recover; still others see him as a dead white male, and on that account irrelevant. Moreover, his plots are olde fashionèd--about kings and emperors, maidenheads and cuckolds--and his settings seem almost infinitely remote in time and place. First millennium England is deeply distant; Shakespeare's Mediterranean settings in the later plays even more so. Antioch? Milan? Bohemia?
But certainly the most alienating feature for my most of students is Shakespeare's language. It is laced with words that twentieth-century readers don't understand, has rhythms they don't recognize, but is nevertheless (their professor tells them) full of interesting effects. That all makes sitting down to Shakespeare a pretty intimidating matter, and as they begin the course many students rarely find themselves comfortable even in just reading through a play. Instead they more or less skim the text, looking to rely on lecture to have something to say when exam time comes. As one student described her struggle with these plays, she would begin by reading the whole play before we started it, but she would not by merely reading it even understand the plot. Then she'd hope that we'd give her a plot summary during the first class hour, after which she'd read the play a second time. She would still be just piecing the elements together, but she'd get most of it clear this time through. Of course, she would not yet have paid special attention to any particular speech, or unpacked the metaphors which stud line after line, and except that this student had particular energy and diligence, I think her experience was like that of at least half the class--and the class usually draws seasoned English majors.
My syllabus sets out to desensitize students to what is off-putting about Shakespeare's language by forcing them to slow down, go line by line, learn the dialect as they go. They need to read slowly and patiently, and I have two quarter-long strategies for encouraging that. The first is oral performance. I once tried to have students memorize and perform ten lines each from each play we read, but that turned out to be too scary. Students passively rebelled, and the enterprise limped. So now I have people simply read 15-30 lines each from the first four plays, and memorize only from the last. That still leads to a good deal of moaning, but the readings truly do get better as students progress from halting, mispronounced, lifeless iterations of words on a page to relatively smooth, sometimes even dramatic, "readings." I'm sold on this. It makes the language real; indeed, for some students it is the only thing that forces them even to "see" all the words in a given line. This activity must be well-organized, especially with a large class, or it quickly spins out of control, but though students begin with trepidation and complaint, they almost universally end up praising it.
My second strategy for the language problem leads to the heart of the course. For this strategy imagines that Shakespeare's language becomes easier as students themselves learn to see exactly how and where its "richness" lies. To be sure, some students already have experience working closely with the semantic logic of poetic language, but many do not, and some of those who do seem to backslide under the pressure of the unfamiliarity of Shakespeare's English. My way of handling this problem is both top-down and bottom-up. For the top-down dimension I supply through lecture and discussion a series of classes about things to know while reading Shakespeare. These include introductions to dramatic structure, to the logic of metaphor, to how Shakespeare typically uses formal devices, to underlying cultural narratives, to common issues that seem recurrent in Shakespearean thematics (e.g., the politics of power, or the transformations of erotic desire).
But these top-down introductions alone haven't made students more active readers. For that, they must work with Shakespeare's language on their own. This is not easy. Few students, for example, already see how to notice where Shakespeare uses metaphor, let alone think about how any one metaphor creates a particular semantic logic. Claudio in Measure for Measure uses a very powerful metaphor when he explains to Lucio in 1.2 why he has been arrested: "Our natures do pursue,/ Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,/ A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die." Yet students in my classes don't usually stop to work through the implications of these lines. The inversion of word order is confusing, "ravin" and "bane" are not words they recognize, and the whole simile depends on knowing that rat poison works by making its victims so thirsty that they leave their holes to seek water, and then, finding it, drink themselves to death.
That is a lot to know just to construe three lines, and you can see why one might skip past them. Yet unless one unpacks images like this, the brilliance of Shakespeare simply disappears. Take its language away and Measure for Measure's characters become two-dimensional cutouts. In this case to skip these lines is to miss (at the very least) how Claudio's comparison complicates our understanding of his character. On one hand he seems to accept in this line responsibility for his action: he describes human nature as rat-like, implying a view of himself pursuing the illicit sexuality of his relation with Marianna as a rat seeking to quench a poison-driven thirst. But on the other hand, Claudio's simile also tends to excuse him from responsibility. For he phrases his simile as an adage that governs all human behavior. Claudio sees not just himself as rat-like, but all of us. So is he saying, "Yes, I'm a rat, and deserve to be arrested," or "Yes, I am a rat, but so are all of us, and thus I'm not really any worse than any of you"? Or perhaps (and whether he is consciously aware of it or not) he's saying both, for his ambiguity introduces a play-long conversation about difficulties cultures have allocating responsibility for human actions. Who is finally to blame here for the state of the State?
Of course, the exact content of anyone's exploration of lines like that is not my point. I really don't much care whether students see exactly what I see in them. I do, however, care a great deal that they see that lines like this provide precisely the kind of richness of theme and character that Shakespeare's sophisticated readers admire, and I care just as much that they understand that in order to develop that richness they must also learn to explore the semantic logic that such figures offer.
But how can students learn to pay attention to this extra-literal dimension of Shakespeare's language? My way of helping them starts by offering a method for what I call literary "noticing." This I provide within the first few days of class in the form of a "What, Why, So What" heuristic. Again this is something I describe at length in the course packet; in brief it is a checklist that asks students to think of lines of poetry as the consequences of authorial choices, and to ask about them a series of three questions: "What choices have been made here?" "Why those choices and not others?" and "What difference to our reading does it make to have noticed that?"--or, more succinctly, "So What?" In the Measure for Measure example, Shakespeare didn't need to have Claudio compare himself to a rat, but he does. So in response to the question "What choices do you see Shakespeare to have made in this speech?" one answer is: he chose to have Claudio use the rat simile. That act of noticing accomplished, the question "Why" then leads to exploring the simile's semantic logic (in ways like those I gave two paragraphs back). Finally, "So What" then asks that we find a way to put the exploration we've been doing into some sort of interpretive relation to the rest of the play. "Ok, so he says we're like rats. How does that advance our developing understanding of the play? So What?"
In the early sessions of a class I like to spend time regularly with What and Why. The third question, So What, because it asks that noticings be integrated into a larger framework, is more difficult, especially when students are just beginning to look closely at what seem to them to be the tiniest of effects. But students do get better at noticing choices and formulating hypotheses (Whats and Whys); indeed, they may even begin to feel swamped by the flood of observations and hypotheses they are now able to generate. But if those hypotheses will at some point need to be sorted and judged--some even rejected--early on it seems sufficient simply to encourage students to range as widely as they can within whatever zodiac of observation they can imagine.
Once the class has become comfortable with noticing and exploring, I then introduce a second heuristic, this one intended to supply a cognitive framework within which students can do the sorting and prioritizing that the So What question requires. This second framework begins from an observation drawn from reader response criticism, that a text is a sequence of words processed by a reader through time. We begin a work, a speech, a scene, an act at one stage in our evolving understanding of a play; as that speech or scene proceeds, what we read/see affects that understanding, changing it in a number of ways. I call this set of changes the "process" of a text, and through that metaphor I invite students to think of reading as the undergoing of a process in which they move from one point of understanding to another, the difference in their understandings being the effect of what they have seen in the text. Moreover, the process of a text described in these terms is multi-dimensional, for even a relatively simple reading of a play requires keeping several interpretive contexts going at once. Some of these contexts are obvious. Early in a play a speech often functions to supply background information we need if we are to understand the plot. But at the same time that same speech may also (for example) be developing our understanding of the character who speaks it.
So process is an important term for me; another I use to focus student attention on the specific effects of words, lines and scenes is "function." As I use the word it is principally an inversion of process talk; if from the reader's point of view one undergoes a process in which one's understanding develops throughout the sequence of a play, we can think of that same process as but one part of a textual interaction in which lines and actions have particular jobs to do, effects to bring about. Texts (and parts of texts) from this perspective have functions, they DO things, and thus the language of function allows me to ask about a given scene: what does this scene do? What reason does it seem to have for existing in the first place? Answers to those questions are always convertible into the language of effect: "Shakespeare has Claudio make his rat comparison in order to frame for us a particularly animalistic, vicious view of human nature" is a functional version of "The effect of this simile is to change my understanding of how Claudio seems to see human nature as particularly animalistic and vicious." But the conceptualizing of reading as function not only give a contrastive mode of thinking to help students for whom the process metaphor isn't working, it also allows thinking explicitly about texts as linguistic constructs with both intentional and extra-intentional functions. For while texts may be doing precisely what an author would like them to do, they necessarily will do other things besides. This way of talking obviously opens onto issues of texts as cultural constructs, though how far we get in class with such issues depends greatly on how far students have come by quarter's end with more basic matters.
These are the main frameworks I supply within which I ask students to integrate their noticings and explorings into actual interpretive argument; the general procedure for the course then becomes an engagement by means of these terms with each of the plays we read, and I alternate in class between stretches when I work in lecture-discussion format to model this way of reading, and stretches when I ask students to perform it themselves.
Response papers and full-class discussion
My principal classroom methods are full-class discussion and group work, and for the success of both I rely heavily on what I call "response papers." Students write about everything they read, and for virtually every class session. The daily writing prompt is sometimes very simple (such as a What-Why exercise like: "For your assigned scene, notice three choices (Whats) Shakespeare has made in either form or language, and for each suggest a hypothesis (a Why) to explain why he has made that choice"); sometimes it is more complex ("Pick a speech from your assigned act in which you see your understanding of a character change in a significant way, and write two pages in which you first describe that change as carefully and fully as you can, and then explain both which particular words and phrases create in you that sense of change, and how they have that effect"). But I always have students write something, and I work to make that writing seem necessary and useful by assigning only topics that become the basis for at least one of the class hours to follow. Students thus always begin a day already having given active thought to the issues I will be raising. Moreover, even when I don't collect the writing (see Managing the Paper Load below), the fact that discussion begins from what they have written ensures their knowing that the writing they have done has made the class more productive than it otherwise would have been. It's difficult to think of writing used in that way as "busy work."
My syllabus advertises small group work up front; some students initially resist this, but most change their minds as the course progresses. The group work I do, like full-class discussion, again starts from daily writing; I regularly have groups begin their work by discussing what they've written overnight. Because writing has assured that students already have thought about the topic for the day, their group sessions tend to be more efficient, and more students take active roles in their discussions than otherwise might.
But writing will not by itself make group work effective. When my students have complained about groups they usually have said that the time in them was wasted, that they would have prefered wisdom from the professor to random observation and gossip from their seatmates. My strategy to head off such complaints begins by reminding students that the point of the class is their learning to read actively--not their ability to summarize what I tell them. Given that goal, group work that makes people feel themselves to be better readers will also help students find the format useful. I try to ensure that this happens by following three guidelines: 1) Focus group work on a task that while both clearly defined and intellectually challenging is nevertheless still doable by students with the skills mine tend to have; 2) Give students only enough time in group to accomplish that task (rarely more than ten minutes); 3) Hold groups accountable for their work by following group sessions with full-class discussions of the issues the groups have addressed.
Managing the paper load
Obviously, writing is central to my teaching, but anyone who has ever asked a class to write a lot will know that so much writing presents at least two problems. First, few teachers have time to read a set of papers for each class session--even glancingly. And second, especially if teachers don't collect the work, students can begin to resent the constant task, think of it as "busy-work," and only loaf their way through it. That results in poor preparation and bad attitude as well--worse than if they hadn't been asked to write in the first place.
As I've already suggested, my solution for these problems starts by making the daily writing a central focus for day to day classroom discussion. But it also includes the quarter-ending Shakespeare Portfolio, a collection of all student coursework, organized and submitted at quarter's end. This addresses the busy-work problem by giving students credit for all of their writing--not just what I have seen during the quarter. And it addresses the paper reading problem by allowing me to collect and read assignments only selectively during the term. Thus while my students will write a total of 14 to 16 response papers, I actually read only four to six sets of them as they come in. Then at quarter's end I can simply look over their full collection of assignments to make sure they are complete and well done. To be sure, some students skip assignments, or do them without enthusiasm, yet in practice most of the papers I get reflect serious effort, and certainly the quality of day to day work in the classroom benefits greatly from the writing students do.
The portfolio also requires a short essay in which I ask students to reflect on their experience in the course. I leave the subject of those essays to them, asking only that the essay truly reflect some facet of how the course has affected them, and that they engage the task seriously. Some students prepare a narrative of their class experiences--what they found difficult, how they solved various problems. Others choose to write about how their view of Shakespeare has changed over the course of the quarter. For my part, I learn much from these essays. They are in fact the single most useful source of student feedback I ever get. I've modified or abandoned techniques when students have complained about them; I have also been encouraged to retain innovations I might otherwise have given up on. After the initial groaning about oral performances, for example, I might well have dropped them altogether, except that I have now read essay after essay describing how early resistance to the idea became enthusiastic endorsement once students had grown used to reading publicly. The Portfolio's reflective essays have also helped me overcome my early diffidence about using groups, as students have repeatedly described them as effective ways to promote their sense of control over the texts we read. Especially those students who tend to be quiet in full class discussions praise the opportunity group sessions give them to try their ideas out in a smaller, safer place. And as one might expect, I also read a good deal about how much writing I require. I can no longer say as I once did that no student has ever complained that I ask too much, but for every complaint of that sort, I get many more from students who (often grudgingly) give the constant writing credit for making the class work for them.
In this course I usually assign three graded exercises: one in-class, one take-home, and the third a final, either take-home or in-class depending on what seems best for the particular class I'm teaching at the time. In assigning this work I tryt to follow the maxim: "Test what you teach." That means (as my first principle of assignment construction) that if close reading skills are what I ask from students, then those skills ought also to be what I grade. I thus do not ask students to write about secondary material, or about what critics have or haven't thought about Hamlet. That might well work in a class in which students could already read well. But for these early Shakespeare courses, my sense has been that first things need to be first.
Second, I want graded exercises not just to test comprehension, but themselves to contribute to student understanding of the material. Thus I think of the first exercise not just as a way to be sure students read the early plays carefully, but also as preparation for the take-home paper, and so on. And third, I want to be able to explain for any graded exercise exactly what I am asking students to do. They ought to be able to ask "What do you want?" and I ought to be able to give a coherent answer.
In pursuit of these principles, the first exercise typically offers a series of short scenes (or parts of scenes) from plays we've read, and asks for a process/function analysis like that we will have done repeatedly in class. Even after 4 weeks of response papers and in-class practice many still do not find this easy; that's why my second exercise is modeled on the first. I will add some complicating factor to keep it from being a simple repeat performance, but students need a second chance to get the method right, and so that's what I offer. For the final I find myself judging from the second exercise just how much the class can be asked to do. In some classes I have used a large-scale, take-home version of the second exercise; in others where progress seems to have been slower I've used an in-class exam. In my most recent class I used a hybrid form: students wrote an in-class essay, but on one passage drawn from a list of six they'd been given a week earlier.
My third principle for assigning graded work requires that I be able to explain "What I want" for any assignment I make. That has turned out to be very difficult. For although I make repeated efforts to state what I want, although we practice the process in class, although I spend class time modeling answers for the midterms, some students nevertheless find the sequential close-reading I ask of them completely foreign. When students don't like my classes their most common complaint--and despite my best efforts to inform them--is that I don't make clear enough to them "What I want."
Beyond what I've done in class, then, I've also been developing a criteria-based grading system. If I'm teaching particular skills, and if I know what those skills are, I ought to be able both to list them, and then to apply that list to the work I ask students to do. As easy as that sounds, however, it has nevertheless been a struggle. I've been experimenting with criteria for a long time, yet I've only recently defined a set for this course which have pleased both my theoretical and my practical sense. Those criteria correspond to the three major components of the reading method I teach: Noticing, Exploring, and Integrating; for take-home midterms I add a fourth: Presentation--a criterion that addresses issues of grammar and style.
Experience has taught me, however, that it is one thing to have criteria, and quite another to make them work. Effective use of criteria requires not just that they be stressed regularly in class, but also that students understand what those criteria actually mean. Indeed, unless I introduce students thoroughly to what the criteria mean and how I use them, criteria can actually confuse more than they clarify (I'm afraid experience has taught me that, too). Because I've had success in writing classes with criteria-norming workshops, I've begun to incorporate these techniques into my literature classes as well. This involves students' using criteria to read and rate sample papers for themselves. In my most recent class I ran one such workshop, but with just one paper, and with only limited success; in future classes I expect to use workshops of this sort more frequently.
STUDENT COURSE EVALUATIONS
I used to say that it took three times through a course to figure out how to teach it well; I'm less convinced there is such a number anymore. My most recent teaching of this class went well enough, to be sure. Ratings were strong, and most students expressed a sense that they had indeed achieved the principal goal I had set out: to feel themselves more confident and empowered readers of Shakespeare.
But as I indicated above, there is still a bug in the operation, and that is that as hard as I tried to be clear about exactly what "I want," 3, 4 or 5 people in the class still never figured it out. What to do? Maybe it's just that some folks will never figure this out within a single quarter--and this particular class was a nine-week summer class--actually two full weeks short of a normal term. But I resist this explanation. Rather, I think that I have not focused enough on what I learned to do in writing classes: teaching students to be better readers of their own work. For some still don't see very well what I mean when I ask them to "pay attention to language," or "be specific," or "explore the logic of literary language." Though clear enough to me, and clear enough to most students by quarter's end, that language still proves terminally confusing to some. But if I create more occasions to apply criteria to the work of others in order for them to acquire an operational understanding of those criteria for themselves, then perhaps even those last three or four or five will see better how these same criteria can offer help for their own writing.