Shakespeare in the classroom

English professor Lawrence Manley is just one of several faculty members teaching courses on the works of William Shakespeare.
English professor Lawrence Manley is just one of several faculty members teaching courses on the works of William Shakespeare. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Works by William Shakespeare have been on Yale’s campus since at least 1743 — when the College library’s catalog, now on display in the “Remembering Shakespeare” exhibit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, first documented a set of Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare’s texts, according to the catalog, were found among “plays and other books of diversion” in the library.

Nearly 270 years later, Shakespeare’s plays have become much more than a “diversion” at Yale. For over a century, Yale has offered courses solely devoted to Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. The first to focus on Shakespeare took place in 1860, while the subsequent century included survey courses taught by prominent professors such as William Lyon Phelps, whose 1928 course featured a popular visit from the heavyweight-boxing champion and Shakespeare fan Gene Tunney, and Maynard Mack, who taught at Yale from 1936 to 1978.

While Shakespeare at Yale — a semester-long celebration of the Bard that has included plays, lectures and museum exhibits — will come to a close this weekend, students will continue discussing the playwright in Shakespeare courses, a variety of which are now taught across seven departments.

As Shakespeare analysis has expanded in academia and literary criticism to include more than strictly literary methods, Yale’s Shakespeare curriculum has grown to include specialized courses that look at specific aspects of Shakespeare’s work in greater detail than in the past — opening doors for a variety of teaching styles as well.

SHAKESPEARE IN CONTEXT

Searching the Yale College Programs of Study for the term “Shakespeare” yields 11 undergraduate courses offered this year with Shakespeare in their title, and nine additional courses with Shakespeare listed in the course description.

These course offerings vary not only in course material but also in the professors’ teaching methods. The scholarly approaches to analysis of Shakespeare’s texts range from that based on character and historical context to explication based on philosophy, eco-criticism or “presentism,” which English professor Lawrence Manley, who teaches the spring survey course on Shakespeare, described as the “integration of the present world with Shakespeare’s world.”

“These methods change, these fashions come and go,” Manley said.

While his approach to teaching the introductory survey course “Comedies and Romances” includes detailed language analysis and attention to plot structure, Manley said he also requires that students analyze the texts’ significance within a historical context.

Work on Shakespeare in relation to its historical setting has been “fashionable,” Manley added, for the last 20 to 30 years.

He explained that the comedies are about “sex, love, marriage, family and state,” so he tries to frame each play in the context of those ideas, as well as within the context of the dramatic careers of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

David Kastan, an English professor who teaches the fall Shakespeare survey course “Histories and Tragedies,” said his primary concern while teaching Shakespeare is the “social, intellectual, literary environment in which [the plays] are encountered.”

Kastan said he tries to model a way to read the text by showing what questions students can ask about Shakespeare and how to find what is interesting about the answers. For his own analysis of Shakespeare’s texts, Kastan said he starts with the belief that the plays are a part of history.

“To the degree that Shakespeare is our contemporary, we’ve dragged him into the present; it’s one-way traffic,” Kastan said, explaining that he finds importance in understanding the significance of the texts at the time they were penned. “I want to look at the pressure of the moment in which [Shakespeare] was writing, and how that moment enables and in some ways inhibits in what [the plays] do for that audience.”

Next year, Manley will teach “Versions of the Tempest,” a course which he described as “a slice through one play longitudinally.” The class will focus on “The Tempest,” and then analyze the text in the context of science, economics and exploration at the time the play was written, later versions of the play, and subsequent operas, novels and films.

BEYOND LC

Shakespeare courses do not fall under just the English department. In 1976, renowned Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom left Yale’s English department to become Yale’s first Humanities professor — a job through which he continues to teach seminars on Shakespeare each year.

“I resigned from the once splendid English department, which I had joined in 1955, to protest the decline in aesthetic and cognitive standards in the profession,” he told the Browser, a website that profiles writers, in an interview last year. Bloom declined to comment for this article.

There is, however, no official distinction between Bloom’s Shakespeare courses and the English Department courses, said Norma Thompson, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Humanities department.

While English Department Director of Undergraduate Studies John Rogers said he sees “no overwhelming methodological divide” between Bloom and the English department, he said Bloom focuses on the literary context in which the text was written rather than consider the social context of the time.

“He always is attentive to history, but it’s the literary historical context: Shakespeare in the context of literary history, rather than Shakespeare in the context of stage history or social history,” Rogers said.

Marina Keegan ’12, who has taken two Shakespeare courses as well as completed an Independent Study with Bloom and works as his research assistant, said there is “no context at all” in his classes with regard to political or social history.

“He’s all about the aesthetic,” Keegan said. “He is against social contextualization.”

Shakespeare has also recently found his way into the Film Studies Department. Brian Walsh, an assistant professor in English, teaches the cross-departmental course “Shakespeare on Film” and said he always starts by thinking about Shakespeare’s plays as sixteenth-century theater.

“I try to bring things back to that regularly. If we’re in the middle of a discussion about a particular passage, I’ll say ‘let’s imagine how the theatrical aspect of that would work,’” Walsh said.

While Kastan avoids use of any technology in class and Manley shows clips of film to analyze the language of the text, Walsh said he asks students to pay attention to the technicalities of a film such as its editing, camerawork and soundtrack.

Ultimately, Walsh’s class analyzes how the filmmakers approach the challenge of adapting Shakespeare’s 400-year-old texts for the modern-day screen, he said.

“We ask: what version of ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Hamlet’ does this film give us? What possibilities do the filmmakers open up and what possibilities do they close down?” Walsh said.

Kastan said the sustained student interest in Shakespeare has been gratifying, and several students interviewed said they feel study of Shakespeare will impact their professional lives.

Kalyan Ray-Mazumder ’12 said that after taking three Shakespeare classes and performing in “Othello” for his senior project, he has “dream roles” in Shakespeare’s plays that he hopes one day to perform. Keegan said she will apply what she has learned about Shakespeare’s plots to her own playwriting after graduation. As a freshman, David Gore ’15 said he wants to write his senior thesis about Shakespeare and expects analysis skills he learned in “Comedies and Romances” to help him in whichever profession he pursues.

“I think the interest in Shakespeare has always been incredibly strong and it remains strong. [Shakespeare can be] taught in different ways at different times by different professors, but his popularity among students selecting their courses has always been steady,” Rogers said.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    “I resigned from the once splendid English department, which I had joined in 1955, to protest the decline in aesthetic and cognitive standards in the profession,” he told the Browser, a website that profiles writers, in an interview last year. Bloom declined to comment for this article.

    **Let’s ignore the iceburg under the previous quote, YDN.
    (Bloom’s defection is a monumental divide in modern literary critcism.)
    PK**

  • DocHollidaye

    Shakespeare is a beautiful study and I do believe that it enhances many elements of current living. I also believe that about Poe and many other literary greats. What we learn is only as relevant as we make it.

  • ldffly

    Maynard Mack–one of the true greats.

  • monty

    PK I’m trying to get in touch with you: Email me at apachedowager@gmail.com