I think? Maybe “interdisciplinariness”? Whatever. It’s beside the point.

Duane made an excellent post at ShakespeareGeek about how Shakespeare is taught to young students, and whether or not they should be expected to provide analyses based on history, literary theory and the like. Now, let’s not beat around the bush: No grade-school kid enjoys learning about British succession law, or the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and how those things influenced Shakespeare’s writing. And as Duane correctly points out, it’s this style of teaching that makes kids think Shakespeare is dry, dull and outdated. Nobody wants them to think that.

But should we eliminate the literary element entirely? I don’t think so. I’ve sometimes encountered an attitude that Shakespeare was just an entertainer, not a commentator on his times, a literary master, etc. And he was all those things.

Those who read my blog regularly know that I’m fascinated by literary analysis of Shakespeare, but that’s not my sole interest. I often compare my love of Shakespeare to my love of a person. When you fall in love, you love the other person in many ways: intellectually, emotionally, physically, psychologically, etc. But are they all distinct feelings? Can you say, “Here is where my intellectual love begins and my emotional love ends?” Of course not. It’s one complex, inter-related feeling. My love of Shakespeare is the same. I don’t love Shakespeare analytically sometimes and aesthetically other times. They feed off of each other.

I thus don’t think any understanding or appreciation of a play is complete without some analysis. Say you are teaching Othello. But say also that you fail to teach your kids about the tense relationship between European Christendom and the Ottoman Turks, and how that drives the play. No, you don’t need to dedicate hours upon hours to studying the political climate. But you do need to bring it up and give the children some background (and, perhaps, draw modern parallels, like the current tension between the West and the Middle East). This ought to help the students appreciate the play more, not less, because it makes more sense in light of that knowledge. It speaks on more levels. At the same time, if you teach Othello only as an exhibit in a history museum and not a passionate love story, you’ll make it dry and lame. The combination of both is what gives Othello its energy and spirit.

Even from a theatrical standpoint, the same is true. I cannot speak from experience, having only a slight background in theatre, but every actor or director I’ve spoken to (and I’ve spoken to many) has told me that one cannot be a good actor without studying the history of the play one is acting in.

Which brings me back to my original point: Interdisciplinaritivitism. The very first discussion Susan and I had on our podcast was about the fact that literary experts and theatrical experts tend to look down on the other. But both groups would benefit if they cooperated. Shakespeare is one of history’s great geniuses, because he wrote on thousands of levels simultaneously. Why do him the injustice of ignoring those levels?

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