After starting my 200-level “Shakespeare in Context” students on a few sonnets, I assigned Twelfth Night (most had never read a Shakespeare comedy before) and Othello (they loved Iago), and then asked them to sample four different plays — The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, and Jonson’s Epicœne. That means they sat through an intro lecture and responded to just the first two acts. When we finished sampling these four plays, I asked students to pick one to read all the way through.
At least one student picked each play, but the class overwhelmingly chose to finish The Taming of the Shrew — to the point that the next time I teach this course, I will probably promote Shrew to a required play and look for some other play for students to sample.
We’re doing Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. They are then supposed to see a live local play (many saw PSIP’s all-female production of Cleopatra and Antony) and write about it, and there is one more slot where students can choose any Shakespeare or Shakespeare-adjacent play (I’m recommending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, but banning really lose adaptations like West Side Story or She’s the Man).
On Monday, my first day back in the classroom after my C19 adventure, I told students to put away their computers and phones, handed them a printout of a sonnet they’d never seen before, and gave them 10 minutes to write about it in a bluebook. I got a lot of side-eye and some grumbling, but I told them in advance that after they turned in their 10-minute cold-reading exercise, for homework they could take as much time as they wanted to and they could do as much research as they wanted to, and they could write up a more informed response to the sonnet.
During the next class period, most students said they were surprised at how close their reading of the poem matched what the online study guides said. A few got thrown because they interpreted a word wrong or they didn’t follow all the twists Shakespeare put into his sonnet, but even they admitted that after they looked up a few words they could see where they went wrong and they understood the whole composition better.
I did not take time to lecture them on what *I* think the poem means.
Last week I asked them to bring in any scholarly article on Shakespeare that interested them, and this week their main assignment was to read it, talk to their classmates about it, and then consult it to create a literary analysis podcast that does not simply summarize the article, but rather uses it to help them make their own original point about something that Shakespeare or his contemporaries wrote.
This is still September, folks, in a 200-level class! We have another 10 weeks to go!
I still feel guilty that I couldn’t fit in Henry V, or Macbeth, or King Lear, or As You Like It, or Richard III, or Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, or Jonson’s Volpone, or… well I could go on. But I’m trying not to overwhelm them.
Still, I remember that in my second semester of college, the first English course I took was a 100-level course where we started with a week on sonnets, then read one Shakespeare play a week, taking off a day in March for a midterm exam and a day in late April for a term paper workshop. We had to write a 5-page response paper every week, and we’d be called on at random to read them out loud for the class to critique (there were no online discussion boards).
I saved all those papers, which I wrote in the days before spell-checkers on my Commodore 64 computer — with cover pages I made in Broderbund Print Shop.
It’s such a privilege to introduce these young people to Shakespeare’s body of work.