Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lost in a Good Book

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V
I remember my first encounter with Shakespeare. It was Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 big-screen adaptation of Henry V. The local newspaper reviewer lavished lengthy praise upon its complexity, its nuance, and its almost-complete thematic reversal from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 paean to conquest. I knew little about Shakespeare, beyond his reputation, and a few oft-quoted lines (“To be or not to be,”) so I decided to give Branagh a try.

So I rented the VHS, sat down to watch, and greeted the production with… complete incomprehension. Who was this strange person in modern dress, played by Derek Jacobi, who introduced the film, and kept recurring throughout? Who are these various courtiers who appear for only one scene to speak Delphic riddles? And are these characters even speaking English? I could answer none of these questions with any confidence.

I call this my first encounter with Shakespeare, even though my 9th Grade English teacher had us read Julius Caesar several months earlier. But I have difficulty crediting that initial reading. This teacher had us perform weird exercises too hasty and premature for first-time Shakespeare readers, like designing the set, or translating the dialog into vernacular English. But several months later, this same teacher insisted we could tell Ernest Hemingway was profound because we couldn’t understand him, so I have difficulty taking her seriously anyway.

So Branagh’s Henry was my first direct Shakespeare, unmediated by interpreters or state-credentialed Cicerones. I leapt headlong into Henry and immediately got lost. I found the experience so unsettling that I didn’t repeat it for nearly two years, studiously sidling away from the Bard, except a mandatory 10th-Grade sojourn with King Lear. Again, officially mandated curriculum confused more than it clarified.

David Tennant as Hamlet
However, when Zeferelli’s Hamlet hit home video, the one with Mel Gibson, I heard the hype, swallowed my doubts, and tried again. The experience was totally different. I can’t say I completely understood everything, but I certainly followed events more clearly. I sometimes had to pick meaning from context, and many outdated words or high-flown phrases evaded me altogether. But I had a real experience this time, one I’d willingly repeat.

I figured the director might’ve made the difference, or perhaps the performers, or even the visual design. For whatever reason, it never creased my brain that I myself might’ve changed. That perhaps having thrown myself into King Henry, and even being dragged unwillingly through Caesar or Lear, might’ve changed my perspective. Only after I purchased paperback editions of several plays, and read them myself, did I realize: Shakespeare had rewired my brain.

This realization hit me like a cold slap several years later when, browsing my local bookstore, I encountered something called No Fear Shakespeare. Available for all Shakespeare’s major plays, and most of his minor ones, it offers the full Shakespearean text, with a facing-page translation into vernacular English prose. Rather than providing useful definitions of individual words and phrases, as the Folger editions I read did, it simply restates everything, with the poetry taken out.

Similar editions exist, under series titles like Shakespeare Made Easy, Shakespeare Side-by-Side, and Shakespeare ReTold. Each promises frustrated students that they needn’t strain their already overtaxed brains understanding Shakespeare; some expert somewhere, who doesn’t get title-page billing, has done the understanding already. You need only memorize the plot points likely to appear on a pop quiz, and you’re golden!

Jon Finch as Macbeth
This isn’t the place to expound on overloaded students and their teachers, suffering budget cuts and staffing shortages, aiming not for deeper thought but to ace standardized tests. We all have opinions. Rather, I mean only to state that, if students have the difficulty sanded off difficult books, I question whether they’re truly learning. By which I mean, are they truly having their brains rewired by exposure to unfamiliar ideas?

For me, the difficulty understanding Shakespeare wasn’t a bug in the system. The difficulty was the system. By forcing me to adjust my mental rhythms to match Shakespeare’s, I needed to step outside myself, to encounter new ways of thinking. I emerged transformed, better able to handle sophisticated questions and empathize with unfamiliar people, because I did the work of understanding Shakespeare myself, not outsourcing it to designated experts.

I’ve read pundits recently extolling the virtues of boredom or failure, traits putatively missing from modern education. But what about the virtue of confusion? If I’d understood Shakespeare like reading a paperback novel, I would’ve missed the joy of dawning awareness. And I fear that’s a pleasure today’s students will scarcely know.

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