Monday, March 19, 2007

I see their knavery: starting A Midsummer Night's Dream...

So we began our unit on A Midsummer Night's Dream. I decided, this year, to begin by giving the students a summary of the first half of the play - in my words - as their first taste of the thing. They read it and I told them that they probably would be confused, especially seeing several of those names poached from Greek mythology - Theseus, Hippolyta, Demetrius, Hermia, Lysander, even Helena. In past years, I've given them this summary and asked them to write a paper in which they came up with their own creative ending to the complicated love mess. That usually produced some fun writing. As I decided earlier, I'm going to ask students to post their endings as comments on the class blog.

Today, instead, was about introducing the play. This means undertaking what I call advance ops: jotting down notes on background, engaging in general discussion about the play and Shakespeare (the kids get a kick out of the fact that I visited Stratford-upon-Avon during my honeymoon. One memorable comment from the front row: "Wow, I'm surprised your wife still wanted to marry you." But it was said with a smile), and a light walk through of the plot and characters. As expected, the strongest responses from the students came when we went over Nick Bottom, who gets saddled with the head of an ass. For sophomores, just hearing that word is enough to draw some laughter. And why not? It's funny, and I think Shakespeare would agree. It led to quite a lively and energetic discussion, a prelude to what I hope is a lively and energetic experience with the play.

To help frame my instruction, I gave the students the three essential questions of the unit:

  1. How do we act when we are in love? Why?
  2. Which emotions “from the heart” are the strongest? Which reveal our true selves?
  3. How effectively does Shakespeare use humor to make his ideas known about human behavior?

What surprised me about our discussion was the idea about emotions "from the heart." To me, that is one of the most important concepts about Midsummer. Shakespeare creates these characters - especially the lovers - and puts them in situations in which their emotions are exposed. They fluctuate between love, hate, and jealousy with relative ease. Albeit they are under the influence of a magic spell, we can still relate to their inconstancy. This can be a key entry point for teenagers, who live in a world of shifting and mysterious emotions.

For the next lesson, I plan to start with the Act I, scene ii, when the mechanicals first meet to plan their rehearsals. I got this idea from the excellent resource book Shakespeare Set Free, which apparently is useful not just for Midsummer. Todd is using it for Macbeth. Anyway, in an essay in the book, Michael Tolaydo suggests starting a Shakespeare play in the classroom with a large group scene, especially one that contains language more approachable to the students. "This approach," Tolaydo writes in "Three-Dimensional Shakespeare," "generates and puts into play the necessary tools and skills to examine those more difficult and complex portions of the play, while it supplies students with self-esteem and confidence in their own ideas and opinions." (28) I've never taught it this way, but I am eager to try it out. This scene fits the bill Tolaydo describes, and to me is one of the most humorous scenes in the entire play. Bottom's insistence on playing all the parts and his repeated malapropisms set the stage for what's coming, his impending ass-head and the incompetence of the play performance at the end. I hope I can keep the kids with me that long.

photo credit: Bottom with the Faires in a costume sketch from Charles Kean's scrapbook for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shelfmark ART Vol. d48. from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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