Shakespeare Through the Montreal School System: Your High School Teachers Hated You

I admit, that title might be somewhat misleading but don’t leave just yet. Shit, I should probably be writing my history assignment but this has been pissing me off since Monday (plus, I need to catch up on my blog posts and I find it’s actually quite liberating to just sit down and write about the things that are bothering me in life rather than ruminating on them for a while and deciding they’re not quite interesting enough. Well you know what? They are interesting enough and I’m going to blog about them! Also, my typing abilities have increased quite a bit too, always a bonus).

So, on Monday in my English literature class (covering a period from around 400 AD until 1660–>BRITISH RESTORATION WUUUT. Basically you start with Beowulf and go from there), we started reading Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (or what you will). Now don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare so much that I joined a Shakespearean theatre troupe in Highschool, started my own shakespearean theatre troupe in CEGEP, took two Shakespearean english classes at the collegiate level, and am currently enrolled in a year long Shakespeare class in university. Yes, I am a Shakespeare geek. In camp b’nai brith’s yearbook (yes, they have one of those. what the hell), for the little box that says what you want to be in life, I wrote “Shakespeare’. Let’s be fair though, I couldn’t really think of anything else and I had about 30 seconds to decide. Anyway, the point is that I’ve studied the works of Billy the Bard for quite some time at such a young age, and I’ve been exposed to several methods of teaching it, one of which severely pisses me off.

What a stud
What a stud

Now, at the high school level, you have teachers who don’t really know what to do with a class that obviously hates Shakespeare. Let’s face it, no one (except for like, me apparently) wants to study Shakespeare in high school. You know why? Because they don’t understand fuck all! Shakespeare is not english! So you present these seemingly boring-ass plays and, unless your teacher good lucking or just insanely talented, there is just no way he can make King Lear interesting to a bunch of sixteen year olds. Unless you’re me of course and turn it into a puppet show. But the fact remains that he’s not teaching Shakespeare, he’s trying to teach Shakespearean english by going line by line and translating what’s written rather than extrapolating meaning and forming delicious hypotheses about the state of the world in Shakespeare’s time. But far from being entertained or delighted with your burgeoning enthusiasm for the topic, they’re mostly just going to hate you and the rest of your class for wasting their time earning minor ducats at a thankless job.

Next, at the collegiate (or CEGEP) level, your teacher takes things a step further. He (or she, I’m sticking with he, it’s a shorter word and my hands are starting to hurt) figures that, since you all signed up for this class of your own volition, you all want to be here. That’s until you realize that half of your class is fresh off the boat from China and Korea and barely understand french or english, let alone a mishmash of words from the early modern era. So it’s up to you to keep the discussion afloat while everyone else spews the obvious from the row behind you (yes, I’m looking at the two of you. You guys were annoying) except you don’t really agree with what your teacher is saying. Yeah, Shakespeare and sexuality go hand in hand but, come on, that wasn’t the only thing that was important about his plays. But so it is, your teacher has taken the Freudian, 20th century analysis of Shakespeare and, although what he has to say about it is very interesting, it gets old after the 3rd play (and we were going to read eight…). Shakespeare is not all about sex, doc, no matter how much you plug it (okay wow, that came out wrong. So did that. Moving right along.)

And now you’re in university. So far so good. Luckily for you, your prof has given you not only an interesting historical overview of the period and playwright, but you’re actually reading the plays in class and not watching the movie-versions for three classes straight. There are prepared lectures that discuss context, sexuality, historical accuracy, character motivation, Petrarch, Marlowe, and other writers of note that had an impact on Shakespeare’s writing. It’s a hoolapalooza of fun and intersting tidbits (even though your professor’s voice is so baritone that it puts you right to sleep and he only presents the cheesy BBC versions of the plays in class) but who really cares? The acting is impeccable. No complaints really.

So, in case you couldn’t tell, I think it’s annoying to teach Shakespeare from a purely Freudian, post-victorian perspective. From the sheer number of articles I’ve read on the topic, Shakespeare’s England wasn’t nearly as sexually repressed as Victoria’s England. Especially in rural areas (do you know what a Greenwood Marriage is? Look it up, it’s pretty amusing) and by restricting your class’ analysis of Shakespeare, they miss out on so much.

Let me put it this way. I spent a month researching festive ambivalence in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It because I refused to write about gender norms and sexuality. I had never heard of the term “festive ambivalence” and it didn’t really register until then that these were festive comedies written for specific Elizabethan holidays. So I did the research and came up with some fun conclusions and presented it to a class that knew even less about the topic than I did before I started researching it.

My university prof spent talked about festive ambivalence like it was the most obvious thing in the world in about 20 minutes. He had reduced my paper to twenty minutes of class time.

Take that, CEGEP.

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