Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shakespeare Ponderings

Ever since I began teaching at this school, English II (10th grade) has studied Julius Caesar. When I was first assigned English II, I hated the play. I'm not a "words for the sake of words" person (Mercutio's Queen Mab speech feels like a tiresome detour) so a lot of the pontificating seems overlong to me. Plus it's another bunch of dudes; Portia and Calpurnia get some words that end up not making any difference to the story. And I could go on for pages and pages about how insulting Portia's characterization is - the way she attests to how much better she is than other women, and part of her justification for that is based on who the men in her life are. And then a few scenes later she's so nervous and upset that she can't think straight.

This year we got parallel-text copies of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Part of me wants to teach that instead of Julius Caesar (given that it is expected that we WILL study a Shakespearean play in English II - I would not be allowed to use Antigone or a novel instead). The main reason is that we don't teach ANY of Shakespeare's comedies. The closest we get is the first half of Romeo and Juliet in English I. So students finish our program and graduate having been /told/ that Shakespeare also wrote comedies, but not really having been exposed to them. And I feel like they end up thinking that Shakespeare is all intrigue and murder and angst and forgetting that there's more.


Julius Caesar looks at the ideas of leadership and power and the responsibility of citizens when government starts going wrong. (Or when you think it does.) And I tend to think that those concepts are of greater significance than romantic love and mistaken identities and whimsical magic. Nor are you going to get me to believe that romance is more relevant to teens than "what do you do when the people in charge are becoming bad leaders?"

Additionally, the play makes a fantastic follow-up to Animal Farm (which we also study), where the 'lower' animals let the pigs assert more and more control until they end up getting fed less and having to work harder than they did when they were owned by humans.

I guess I'm wondering about the relative value of the thematic messages in Midsummer and Caesar. I feel like the latter is much stronger, but that may only be because I haven't taught the former! So, to those of you who've taught A Midsummer Night's Dream, what do you see as its enduring messages, and why are they so important?


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