Using Bill Bryson as a warm up for teaching Shakespeare

by Mr. Sheehy

Next year I am teaching Shakespeare in our high school. It is a semester long senior literature class, and for two years it has not drawn enough enrollment to exist. I was convinced that the lack of interest was because it did not have a familiar teacher attached to it–like Lear’s kingdom, it lacked a king. After years of being taught by an icon of our department, it had been given to new staff two years in a row. These two individuals are good teachers (no Regan or Goneril situation here) but their newness and unknown entity worked against them, so the class faded out the third year.

Seeing the story as I tell it, one might wonder why I did not step in and teach this class earlier. Surely if I’d wanted it I could have taken it rather than let it go to new staff members, right? Yet I hesitated, for when Duncan is disposed of, it is not that simple to step into his throne. Also, a new class to prepare in the midst of graduate school never appealed to me (though it was once done to me without my consent) and unlike Macbeth, I resisted the temptation.

Years later, a masters degree finished, a mess of professional development credits behind me, I saw the gap as an opportunity and connived my way into teaching the Bard to 17- and 18-year olds. About this, I have grown exceedingly excited.

You see, I get to teach a class where the entire content is William Shakespeare. It’s a beautiful situation, where the curriculum can be practically as broad or narrow as I choose to make it. We may spend an entire quarter on Macbeth, and we may watch a few plays on film after reading only a Sparknotes version. It’s going to be great.

In my excitement I have begun to consume Shakespeare, beginning with a book that has been sitting on my shelf since Christmas 2008: Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage. So little is known about Shakespeare that, as Bryson explains, “the little we do know seems always to add to the mystery rather than to lighten it” (120). Bryson introduces readers to many of the controversies surrounding Shakespeare’s life and is clear to admit when anything is shaky, which at times appears to be most everything we know. I was recently previewing a film about Shakespeare (from the Famous Authors series by Lucky World Production–insanely boring) and I heard a number of details explained as facts that Bryson puts forth as technically unknown: his first play, his playing the ghost in Hamlet, the location of the original Globe–all these things were stated as definite in the film, and all of them are much more shaky in our knowledge of them.

With so little to go on, much of Bryson’s book sketches Shakespeare’s setting. In that, the factoids of Bryson’s book are fascinating. Like the American Revolutionary period, Elizabethan England is a place I feel like I know a lot about, but when I actually begin to learn something, I find I know next to nothing. I knew vaguely, for example, that folks had built buildings on the London Bridge, that it was a kind of city within itself, but I had not a clue that “some of the buildings were six stories high and projected as much as sixty-five feet over the river” (51). Nor did I realize that at one end of the bridge were displays of heads of various criminals, posted (quite literally) as a warning to others. “There were so many heads,” Bryson explains, “that it was necessary to employ a Keeper of the Heads” (51).

The best fun of Bryson’s book for me has been  to enter into that Elizabethan world and experience a bit of what it was like. I am so engrossed, in fact, that an historical novel on the period that Alan Jacobs commends has shot to the top of my reading list: George Garrett’s The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James. Such immersion enables me to experience the intended wonder of the day and what it must have been like. Bryson notes that in one stretch, after the erection of the first Globe theatre, Shakespeare wrote a triumphant series of plays: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra.

We thrill at these plays now. But what must it have been like when they were brand new, when all their references were timely and sharply apt, and all the words never before heard? Imagine what it must have been like to watch Macbeth without knowing the outcome, to be part of a hushed audience hearing Hamlet’s soliloquy for the first time, to witness Shakespeare speaking his own lines. There cannot have been, anywhere in history, many more favored places than this. (127)

Part of what Bryson wonders at longingly, experiencing the plays without knowing the ending, is why I never tire of teaching Shakespeare. Though I’m approaching 20 teachings of Romeo and Juliet, I am eager to do it again, because the fascination of my students as they encounter the characters they’ve never conceived of is at least to witness that wonder.

Yet to read about Shakespeare’s day is not to be filled exclusively with longing to be there. The theatre has come a long way since the days it spent on the outskirts of London. In Shakespeare’s day, one man who’d seen Titus Andronicus sketched a scene of the play. His illustration shows “surprisingly motley costumes (some suitably ancient, others carelessly Tudor)” (76). Additionally, and more well known, “theaters had little scenery and no curtains, . . . no way to distinguish day from night, fog from sunshine, battlefield from boudoir” (75). Actors had to memorize tremendous numbers of lines, with companies performing “at least five different plays in a week, sometimes six” (79). These factors convince me that William Shakespeare would be pleased, and indeed, quite impressed, with some of the productions of his plays that have been performed over the years. Surely he would have liked King Lear as I saw it at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and I’d bet he would have appreciated Branagh’s Hamlet and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

I continue to read Bryson, and I am sure I will continue reading more on the Bard after I finish with The World as Stage. What a thrill it will be to teach teenagers about this tremendous dramatist and poet. I am a lover of language, after all, and it is hard to see how one can be a lover of language, particularly the English language, and not hold the works of William Shakespeare in highest esteem, for he was a man who, above all else, celebrated and pushed “the joyous possibilities of verbal expression” (110).

Next year I am the teacher for “Shakespeare.” I like the sounds of that.

He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail!

Thanks for reading.

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