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Shakespeare and Primary Sources in the Classroom

Studying Shakespeare's plays through the use of primary source material has exciting possibilities for students and implications that extend well beyond the classroom and the course. There are two basic, though not always distinct, categories of works we can consider through this approach. The first includes what are ordinarily called Shakespeare's "sources": those works he almost certainly examined, or at least knew about, when composing his own plays. The second includes works contemporary with Shakespeare that can help us illuminate both the specific, topical concerns of his audience as mirrored within the plays' fictions (however remote from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England their settings may be) and the broad cultural situation of the plays themselves.

Most - not all, but most - of Shakespeare's plots can be traced to contemporary works of narrative fiction, historical chronicles (both prose and verse), other plays, or some combination thereof. As an example, let us consider Giraldi Cinthio's collection of stories, "Gli Hecatommithi" (1565), one of which provides the basic narrative source for the plot of "Othello." Students will be struck first, perhaps, by the very fact of Shakespeare's indebtedness, but also by a number of conspicuous differences, large and small, between the story Shakespeare receives and the play he creates. To think about some of these differences is to arrive at some new sense of what "Othello" is and is not about, or rather what it does and does not do to its audience. Questions like those following may be useful in sharpening our students' abilities to articulate their responses to the play:
  • Though its time scheme is indeterminate, Cinthio's story seems to unfold over several months. What does Shakespeare do to this time scheme, and how do his changes inform the representation of Othello's jealousy?

  • What is different about Iago's announced motives and emotions, as compared with the Ensign's?

  • What difference does it make that Othello and Desdemona elope, rather than live together for some time in marriage, as in Cinthio?

  • Cinthio's Moor is simply transferred to Cyprus as a part of his military service. Shakespeare's Othello is needed urgently to lead the Venetian forces against the Turkish fleet. Why might Shakespeare make this change? What are some of its effects?

  • In Cinthio, the Moor and Disdemona travel together to Cyprus. No mention is made of how the Ensign, the Ensign's wife, or the Corporal arrive there. How do the characters travel in Shakespeare's play? Why is that important? How does it affect one's response to Othello's jealousy?

  • What are the circumstances of the Corporal's demotion in Cinthio, and how does Shakespeare dramatize the parallel incident with Cassio?

  • What are some differences and similarities in the appearance and function of the handkerchief in the two works?

  • How does each work represent the fact of the Moor's/Othello's race, his racial difference from the other characters, and their responses to it?

  • What changes does Shakespeare make to the episode of Desdemona's murder, and why? What difference does it make that Othello "stifles" or "smothers" (the quarto and folio stage directions, respectively) her?

  • What are the dramatic functions and thematic effects of new episodes, or of new characters like Roderigo? (And how new, in fact, is he? Can Roderigo be traced to some other feature of the source?)

  • Why might Shakespeare change the rank of the Corporal to that of Lieutenant? What does "lieutenant" mean, literally?

  • Cinthio's text concludes by noting that the Ensign's wife is the source of the story. Does Emilia herself fulfill any kind of narrative function in the drama? In a larger or looser sense, why would she (of all the characters) be, in effect, the source of the source of Othello?

My formulation of most of the preceding questions locates creative agency and theatrical choice within the, well, Will, of a single author, Shakespeare, who ponders an existing work and makes decisions about how to adapt it for the stage. As both postmodern literary theory and new historicism suggest, in different ways, such a paradigm is grossly reductive of complex transactions among writers, audiences and readers, and the culture at large, all of which inform the production of the work itself.

Such transactions may thus be better illuminated by a study of another kind of primary source material: works that express some of the major concerns, assumptions, and conflicts of Elizabethan and Jacobean society.

Such questions and areas for study may be readily formulated, and refined as the students probe more deeply. For "Hamlet," what were Elizabethan attitudes - and the plural form is important here - to revenge? To ghosts? To the social decorums and obligations of mourning? To remarriage (indeed, to remarriage within the same family)? To suicide? For "The Taming of the Shrew," what can sermons, homilies, tracts, commentaries, and legal documents tell us about approved spousal roles? What are the obligations of a husband and a wife to each other, and what constitutes disobedience within those roles? My own research once led me to try to understand "Twelfth Night" in the context of the popular culture of a society, some or many of whose members enthusiastically attended bearbaiting matches and other violent amusements. The play makes both explicit and implicit reference throughout to bears, dogs, and the particulars of bearbaiting, so my concern was to think through not only the local implications of these allusions but, more generally, the potential analogies between blood sport and theater itself, through the violence of comedy, courtship, and love as represented in the language and action of "Twelfth Night."

To return briefly to the example of "Othello," historical context can deepen and complicate the kinds of questions we might pose about Shakespeare's alterations of Cinthio. The character we know as "Iago" is known only as "the Ensign" in Cinthio. How would the Spanish name Iago (cognate with "James" or "Jacob" in English) resonate with Shakespeare's audience in 1604, and in the context of Spanish-Moorish history? Why does Shakespeare whip the calm seas of the source into the violent storm of the play? Why, indeed, does he rewrite history? The Turks defeated the Venetians twice at Cyprus in 1571, gaining control of the island despite other naval losses in the eastern Mediterranean, but in "Othello" we are presented with something that looks more like the legend of the Spanish Armada's defeat in 1588. How would this affect a Jacobean audience's perception of "Othello?"

Any methodology carries its own special risks. It is important to remember that the authors of Shakespeare's sources did not know that they were the authors of Shakespeare's sources: namely, works that draw our special interest largely because, at some point in Shakespeare's compositional process, they drew his. (In at least one case, that of Robert Greene, the author would be vexed, but not surprised, that several of his works were lifted by Shakespeare, like sheets from a hedge, in the making of "The Winter's Tale.") Thus, it may be useful to think of these sources as emerging from the same cultural matrix as Shakespeare's plays, rather than as prior to Shakespeare and, as it were, awaiting his perfecting alchemical experiments. Moreover, time drives pedagogy (often into tight corners), and historicizing Shakespeare in the classroom can invite specious and superficial explanations of various features or attributes of the plays. It therefore behooves us to encourage caution, tact, and an open-ended flexibility - or a certain uncertainty - in our students as they begin to apply new historical information to their sense of the plays.

The benefits of this approach, though, are equally evident. A study of Cinthio and other literary source material can get us closer to "the quick forge and working-house" of Shakespeare's creativity, allowing us to see the plays as a series of specific authorial decisions about what to write, what to take or leave, what to condense or dilate, and what to alter into a new design. Without claiming to comprehend authorial intentions, conscious or unconscious, we can nevertheless get some purchase on the specific concerns of a play, if only by noticing where and how it departs from its source or sources. Comparative studies of this sort might also intrigue and assist any future playwrights in the class, showing some of the processes involved in transforming non-dramatic material into scripts for performance. Implicitly, too, an approach through primary documents from Shakespeare's culture tends to correct some of the imbalances created by Shakespeare's peculiar iconic status as a canonical god. To see that these plays emerge from the specific cultural circumstances of a society - dynamic in some areas, static in others; readily analogous to our own in some ways, strikingly different in others - is to become aware that Shakespeare's plays did not have to happen, and are not isolated artifacts. They are, instead, the immediate result of one person's astonishing gifts of industry and imagination, mediated by many, and variously describable, forces in the early modern world.

Stephen Dickey,
UCLA, Department of English
Teaching Shakespeare with Primary Sources

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