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Taking Chances in the Classroom, Taking Shakespeare at his Word


There are many passages in the plays of Shakespeare that could illustrate the difficulty that his language presents to students. We begin with this one because it is not only an example of the difficulty; it is about the experience of it:
'Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen
Tongue, and brain not; either both or nothing,
Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such
As sense cannot untie.
Be what it is,
The action of my life is like it, which I'll keep, if but for sympathy.
(Cymbeline, 5.4.145-50)
The speaker of these lines, a character named Posthumus in the late play "Cymbeline," is describing what it feels like to read something that he knows makes sense but that makes no sense to him. Like the message that he is at this point in the play trying to read, his own speech, the one we quote above, will likely baffle a new reader of Shakespeare. The words of the speech are English words, most of them ordinary, one-syllable words; but they are arranged in a way that sounds offbeat (brain not for "not register on the brain") and contorted (be what it is for "no matter what it is"). As is characteristic of lots of poetry, a word ordinarily a noun (tongue) does duty as verb, and words (sense and speaking) get repeated, in a pattern that sounds like (because it is) double talk.

What makes this moment in "Cymbeline" particularly relevant to the case we want to make here for the value of Shakespeare's language is that Posthumus's response to trying to read something he cannot understand is to trust his intuition that it matters to him. He says that even though he cannot comprehend what he is reading, he will hold onto the book. He does this, he says, because he feels a connection to the words (he calls it sympathy) even without their making sense to him. What enables this connection - a connection that occurs prior to full comprehension - is the ability of speakers of a common language to recognize vocabulary and grammatical patterns even when they cannot make sense of particular words arranged in those patterns. If students are native speakers of English (and in most cases, even if they are not, so long as they are reasonably fluent in English), this will be true for them about Shakespeare's language. In precise linguistic terms is not Old English, as they like to say, nor even Middle English, but an early form of Modern English, the language they speak.

Engagement Before Comprehension

In its strangeness that is nonetheless familiar, Shakespeare's language offers opportunities for students to undergo complex and crucial cognitive experiences. This moment in "Cymbeline" is a kind of parable about the value of embracing something that is difficult and allowing the difficulty to persist rather than seeking an immediate resolution of it or being discouraged by it and giving up the attempt to understand. In "Cymbeline," Posthumus does eventually encounter someone who paraphrases the baffling text for him; and, sure enough, when it is decoded, he finds that his intuition about it was correct: it was a comment on his situation. But what the message says is far less important than the decision he makes to take heart from the sympathy he feels with it before he understands it. In the story of the play, his decision to cherish the book in its mysterious condition saves him from despair. When he finally understands the message, it is an anticlimax; what it says, interpreted, is not particularly reassuring. Similarly, as the meaning of these lines we have quoted dawns on us, it pleases us but somehow does not account for all that the lines suggest. "Senseless speaking, or a speaking such / As sense cannot untie" is first of all an incantation, a closed packet of words - all "sense" and "speaking" and "such." In its sealed condition it is compelling. When, through paraphrase, it is unwrapped and laid open to our grasping, comprehending brains, we are gratified; but the mystery it originally presented is not completely resolved. Finally, it is our ability to respond to the mystery that is the most valuable thing.

Teaching Shakespeare often, necessarily perhaps, becomes a matter of getting around the language. This is a paradox, of course, because what we call "Shakespeare" is nothing, really, but the words - nothing, that is, but the printed texts of plays and poems that have come down to us associated with the name of the glover's son from Stratford. The intense richness of most of that language is a good enough reason for working to get students back to it, once the stories those words seem to convey have sufficiently captured their imaginations so that they can begin to feel in some control of what all those words are about. We want to argue here, however, that that richness can also make it worthwhile to try to get students engaged with the language before they fully comprehend it.

Take Intellectual Risks

There are old and new strategies for helping students do this. The old ones are borrowed from foreign language instruction - listening, repetition, learning by heart. More recently, teachers have proposed livelier exercises, involving movement and more interactive strategies of voicing the language in pieces determined by rhythm or other sound devices, regardless of the grammar of the speech. Giving students the opportunity to voice the words as if they understand them, even before they do, can connect them to the language and make them wonder at it. There is a prior question to be asked, however, about doing this: why? Why take class time to work with Shakespeare's language before telling or showing or leading students to be in full control of what it means?

Here we want to consider the difficulties that students encounter in Shakespeare's language as a positive pedagogical value and suggest that teachers consider ways to make the most of the way the language resists immediate comprehension rather than rushing at once to overcome that resistance or explain it away. This, we know, is risky business. Students (and administrators) are impatient and want explanations and answers; and these days attention spans in all categories of the clientele we serve are often very short. The attitude toward Shakespeare's language that we are promoting here is, we know, not one most teachers can afford to assume all the time; but it is, we think, an important one to consider indulging in now and then. It proceeds from a theory of education that suggests that the most important thing we can do for students to prepare them for the world they will inhabit is to help them learn to feel comfortable in a condition of not knowing for sure. Shakespeare's language is good proving ground for learning to take intellectual risks because its beauty and complexity assure, often enough, that those risks pay off.

In her book "The Having of Wonderful Ideas" (Teachers College Press, 1996), the educational theorist Eleanor Duckworth writes that the virtue of knowing is overrated: "Of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands. It is automatic. It is thoughtless" (Duckworth 64). In these times when teaching students "the right answers" to high-stakes tests may direct a teacher's curriculum, the progress toward what Duckworth calls "wonderful ideas" is impeded by lessons focused more and more entirely on right answers. Students learn not only that they must race to get the right answer but often the more fundamentally unsound lesson that there is, in fact, always a right answer. This flattens out their experience with thinking and their experience with the material they encounter in school. What then, do our students do when faced with life's uncertainties, when the right answer is not one of the choices on the test's answer sheet, when perhaps there is not even a bubble card?

The condition of not knowing is one that causes us to feel uncertain, uncomfortable, and sometimes incompetent, so we resist this feeling with all of our might. But Duckworth suggests that it is what we do when we don't know that counts even more than knowing the right answer to a particular problem. She urges teachers to "keep it complex" so that thinking can occur. Thinking involves cognitive play, a valuable experience even if it leads to a dead-end. And thinking, even if it seems unsystematic, is mental activity working to solve some kind of problem, so it is an activity that creates attentiveness to the situations in which there is a problem. Some theorists, among them Howard Gardner (Frames of Mind, Basic Books, 1983), even suggest that thinking involves finding the problem as much or more than solving it.

When Shakespeare's language presents problems and we can persuade students to work to articulate the problems it presents, we can begin to push them to try to figure something out. This kind of thinking prepares students for the work they will do as adults, not only the work that they are involved in professionally, but also the work they will do as responsible citizens in an increasingly complex world.

Case Study: Romeo and Juliet

A convenient place to illustrate the benefits of valuing the uncertainties that characterize Shakespeare's language is the prologue to "Romeo and Juliet:"
Two households, both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
This sonnet differs from the passage in "Cymbeline" with which we began in two important ways: it is a far more familiar passage of Shakespeare, and its vocabulary is far more sophisticated. Both of these characteristics make it even more difficult than the lines of "Cymbeline" to read. In the first place, we know what it is saying (who does not know the story of these lovers?) and, if we do not, we will know once we have the most superficial experience of the play it introduces; so close attention to these fourteen lines can seem unnecessary. And in the second place, many of the words that the poem uses (dignity, mutiny, civil, loins, misadventured, piteous, overthrows, passage, continuance, traffic, patient, attend, toil) seem inappropriate to or at least oddly distanced from the dilemma of the lovers. It can be tempting, in other words, to paraphrase this poem in light of what we know the play that it introduces is about and move quickly on.

Much, however, is to be gained by taking Shakespeare at his word, much about the play and much about the value of collective effort in trying to come to terms with something difficult. In working through this sonnet, different levels of linguistic sophistication in a class can be positively valuable. It is not just that stronger students can help the weaker ones. It will sometimes be the case that students for whom the poem presents a higher degree of difficulty will ask the crucial questions or disrupt the premature conclusion. In light of the attitude toward education we have been discussing, the ambiguities and uncertainties that the surface of this poem presents are far more interesting than a coherent interpretation or a paraphrase of it. In taking the poem at its words, a teacher, if she can risk her students' impatience, will find them helpful (even if apparently unwilling) collaborators. When they pronounce it confusing and boring, it will open up important issues - in the play and perhaps more broadly in a discussion of human conflict - to support the reasons for their frustrations rather than simply offering corrections or explanations.

Dignity, for example, in the first line, may seem an odd word in its surprisingly specific suggestion that the issue that drives the conflict of this story is a matter of money or social status or pride. It can be provocative to allow these issues into a discussion of the reason for the frustration the lovers experience when their families' hatred seems an obstacle to them.

Mutiny can appear to be a wholly incongruous word. To modern ears, it suggests rebellion at sea; but even if we correct for that (as a dictionary will lead us to do) and return it to its meaning of rebellion, it will seem out of place in a poem introducing this play. In the third line, the poem is still talking about the families, the "households"; and while it may be easy to think of the young people in the play as rebelling against the prohibition of their families that they might love one another, it is a challenge to that perception to find the prologue sonnet calling not the lovers' passion but rather the outbreak of the ancient quarrel rebellious.

Civil will likely seem (once the students, perhaps, if they do not know the word, have looked it up) stuffy and so all the more annoying in its being repeated. Its root-word connection to the word city may be a way to help students register and articulate the odd feature of the poem whereby it does not mention the proper names of the lovers, nor even of the families, only the name of the city. In other words, we may come to this play eager to encounter Romeo and Juliet, Montagues and Capulets; but the prologue has something else on its mind.

With luck, loins will get snickered at, and so it will be exciting to consider the implications of fatal loins. Again, patient attention to the way the poem unfolds will force the realization that the poem, at this point, is talking, not about the lovers, whose desire for each other does prove fatal, but the parents.

Misadventured and piteous in succession deserve to be called what they so obviously are - pretentiously big words - and, again with a dictionary perhaps, students can fairly ask whether they are in any sense preferable to simpler synonyms. Having them piled on one another in a single line makes this question all the more to the point. If what happens to the lovers is so obviously unlucky and sad, why does the prologue need to overstate that?

If attend is confusing, the confusion runs deep into the prologue and into the issue of how we experience a play. If Shakespeare means "listen to," why does he use a word that primarily conveys "show up for? Why is hearing so much the issue? And what do we make of the way are we tempted to hear here as repeating that same idea?

These comments do not exhaust the good questions that can be raised by paying attention to the odd vocabulary of the poem, but we will conclude with a comment on a phrase that does not seem, at first, odd at all: take their life seems a clear statement of the outcome of the play's story. Some students (possibly those who could be candid about their interest in loins) will realize that "take their life" means "come into being." Most, however, will say, without unraveling the grammar of the fifth and sixth lines of the poem, that it means "commit suicide." These latter are, in an absolute sense, wrong; but they have a point. The words do plant the suggestion of suicide, even though that reading of what they literally mean at this point in the poem is incorrect. It can be tempting to let the matter go at saying that the phrase in the context of the sonnet means both things, but a teacher might consider pushing for a more complicated response: only by recognizing that one reading is more grammatically justifiable than the other do we begin to see the significance of the disagreement. There is a crucial political - civil-lesson to be learned by realizing how a wrong answer, or the argument of one's muddle-headed opponent, can convey an insight.

All in all, the elements of this poem that resist being comprehended and resolved into some alignment with the story the students anticipate can set an agenda for a consideration of the play as it unfolds. Some of these elements will surface again as the students encounter the details of "Romeo and Juliet." And some, perhaps many, will not. The sonnet has a wild energy that the ensuing play may not completely justify. So long as there is some payoff, it will persuade students of the value of letting their intellects work on the mysterious features of Shakespeare's language. Conveying that value by making it the pretext for thinking more deeply about the situation of the play is the point.

It is the value of entertaining, provisionally and playfully (for the sake of argument, as the old phrase has it) words that do not, at first, convey anything we think is relevant. In entering that provisional state, students can learn to test possibilities, discard some and follow through on others. They can experience frustration and learn to overcome it. They must defend their own insights and try to appreciate others. In this condition, there is no certainty, but there may be, as the lines from "Cymbeline" suggest, something more important. We should keep on calling that thing sympathy: the intimation of connection before it can be assured. Sympathy is a human impulse to reach out across the differences of language and experience. Sympathy is the capacity to understand another and even one's self in the midst of confusion. Sympathy is something that the resistant but finally richly communicative language of poetry can keep at the center of what goes on in our schools.

NOTE: We quote the lines from "Cymbeline" from The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. G. Blakemore Evans (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997) and the lines from "Romeo and Juliet" from the New Folger Library edition of that play, eds. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Pocket Books, 1992). Like most editions of Shakespeare, whether complete (like the Riverside) or single-volume (like the Folger editions), each of these editions has introductory material to help students encounter the strange features of Shakespeare's language, and each has a strategy to provide reading help to students as they move through the plays. In the Riverside, explanatory notes and glosses are at the bottom of the page, and there is no signal to the reader in the text itself to prompt a reader to look for help. In the Folger texts, these helps are on the left-hand page, with the text of the play on the right. Both editions, in other words, seem to want the reader to seek assistance only when needed. Our point is not to endorse these particular editions but to take the opportunity of acknowledging our use of these texts to note how their presentation of help encourages readers to think first on their own about the meaning of what they are reading.

About the Authors

By D. Kay Johnston, Department of Educational Studies, Colgate
Margaret Maurer, Department of English, Colgate University
Shakespeare's Language

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