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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Most Teachable Non-Shakespearean Drama

The brief discussion in the comments to a post a couple days ago got me thinking: which non-Shakespearean play was the most successful for you in the undergraduate classroom? I haven't had a huge amount of experience with the basic Tudor/Stuart Drama class, or with opportunities to teach a non-Shakespearean play in other classes, but so far I'd say the ones that taught the best and got the most enthusiastic responses on the course evaluations were The Revenger's Tragedy and The Jew of Malta. Probably Revenger's most of all. My students absolutely loved that play (and not just the men in the class, either); the combination of sex and violence is an obvious appeal. But they were also fascinated by the play's engagement with Renaissance discourses surrounding death and bodily remains (the memento mori, scientific anatomy, saints' relics and anti-Catholic attacks on them): no doubt college students are pondering death as much as sex during those 2 am dorm-hallway disquisitions. And they loved discussing gender in this play: the relation of Vindice's Gloriana to Queen Elizabeth, the bizarre scene where Antonio displays to his fellow lords the corpse of his wife, who has committed suicide after being raped, as though she were a prized piece of statuary (his "last duchess"?). For whatever reason, this play more than any other made the gender issues we'd been discussing throughout the semester really clear and vital for them. What surprised me--maybe it shouldn't have--was how much the women in the class enjoyed the play. I had been a little anxious about teaching it because it's so gruesomely misogynistic, so much about the objectifying (quite literally) of (dead) women's bodies. But what seemed to strike the women (in addition to what struck everyone--that it is an incredibly well-made, exciting, and powerful drama) was how the play carried to almost farcical extremes, and so cast into stark relief for examination, questions about women's bodies that are still very much with us.

I'll be teaching non-Shakespearean drama in the fall at my new institution, so I'd love to hear which play has taught best for you, and (if it's even possible to explain, and I'm not sure it always is) why.

  • At 5/18/2006 09:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    It's a bit intimidating to be the first posting on this, especially as my teaching experience is limited (I'm a grad student at an institution that prides itself on faculty-taught courses for undergrads).

    But having taught 'Tis Pity She's a Whore for the second time today, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Students are honestly shocked by the plot and astonished that such a thing would have been presented on the Jacobean stage. Plus, there's the sublime theatricality of the heart on the dagger. There are a lot of options for discussing class, gender, metatheatricality, rhetorical techniques, and the problem of signs.

    I've also had good luck with A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. The humor seems more accessible than many of the other city comedies (like, say, The Roaring Girl, which is so completely localized that the notes take longer to explain the joke than the joke itself). I've found that the amount of joke-explaining I've had to do with this play helps to expand the cultural and historical context for students and makes them feel a bit more confident that they know what's going on. Most of the discussions on this play have focused on class issues over gender, and when read in concert with tragedies, it opens up complications in genre categories as well.

    And, on a purely complimentary note, thanks so much for setting up this blog. It provides much-needed evidence for my suspicion that a bit of irreverence in approaching our Great Literature is not incompatible with serious work.


  • At 5/18/2006 11:39:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi St. Eph, and welcome! Thanks for commenting, and thanks for the kind words. I thought about doing 'Tis Pity the last time I taught Tudor/Stuart for some of the reasons you mention--decided not to do it because I already had Revenger's Tragedy and was generally over-weighted with tragedy. I'm glad to hear about its success with your classes because I've never taught it but I'd definitely like to.

    I think it's much harder to find a comedy that works than a tragedy or tragicomedy. Knight of the Burning Pestle did not work at all for me; the best comedy for me has been Epicene, which allows us to discuss the politics (class, gender, and otherwise) of "cool" (ie, wit, sprezzatura, etc). Not surprisingly, that interests my undergrads.


  • At 5/18/2006 11:53:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Some fairly traditional suggestions (that worked for me, bearing in mind that I'm chiefly a poetry/language person):

    Edward II
    Duchess of Malfi
    The Broken Heart
    Fair Maid of the West

    I guess if I had to pick one, I'd choose Duchess. You just can't go wrong with fake corpses and lycanthropy.


  • At 5/19/2006 12:09:00 AM, Blogger Boy From Oz wrote…

    All of our early modern subjects combine shakespeare with other plays: I teach one that has Henry V, Coriolanus, Shrew, Women Beware Women, Chaste Maid and Bartholomew Fair (links are issues of power and issues of gender), and we have a very successful tragedy subject that has Faustus, Macbeth, Hamlet, Revenger's Tragedy, Measure for Measure and The Changeling.


  • At 5/19/2006 12:40:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    I'm with muse – The Duchess has so much going on (transgressive love/widows/class conflict/gender/medicine and cosmetics/death and mourning/anti-Catholicism, etc...) and it's a wonderful play. My students really enjoyed it as a text. Alternatively, The Spanish Tragedy is also excellent, since it also engages with the wider concerns of the time, as does Doctor Faustus, and they are both good teaching texts.

    Taking a break from tragedy, I'd suggest Volpone. It's hilarious (well, I think so) and it's easily the most accessible of Jonson's works.


  • At 5/19/2006 09:26:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    Man, do I have a lot to say on this front. And, likewise, man, am I completely unable to find some time to post about it. 60 papers and 40 exams stand in between me and a semester of leave... which I will devote entirely to Blogging the Renaissance.

    But a happy welcome to all the new contributors here.


  • At 5/19/2006 12:07:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    a semester of leave... which I will devote entirely to Blogging the Renaissance.

    Oh man, Truewit, I know your former diss director, and let me just say that if you do devote your leave to BtR, your director just might do something unspeakable to you. Now that I think about, in fact, the real reason we're blogging anonymously may have nothing to do with our snarky conference-blogging, or our somewhat-more-honest-than-usual book reviewing, but rather just to prevent your old diss director from seeing how much time we're putting into BtR and then doing physical harm to us.

    Mind you, that doesn't mean I think you shouldn't devote your leave to blogging.


  • At 5/19/2006 12:27:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    But note how much rarer the comedies are in people's comments so far. And yet Shakespeare's comedies teach really well--my students always love MND, AYL, and Twelfth Night in particular. I wonder if Shakespeare's propensity for romantic "green-world" comedies, and his apparent reluctance to write more topical, satirical, or city comedies (Measure being the obvious exception; Merchant and Merry Wives being more complicated half-exceptions) has something to do with this--and with the greater ability for critics to imagine his comedies as timeless and hence to canonize them. That is, what some might see as Shakespeare's relative resistance to more immediately politically engaged comedy is what makes his plays more teachable?


  • At 5/19/2006 01:53:00 PM, Blogger La Lecturess wrote…

    As I said in response to that earlier post, I agree that Volpone teaches beautifully, and I haven't had any problems (well, no more than one ever has in teaching early modern texts) with students finding Jonson's writing or her persona/personality off-putting or pretentious. Dude! He was a spy! He killed a man! He was imprisoned for political satire! Students love it.

    But in response to Hieronimo's comments, above, about Shakespeare's comedies: I've found Merchant to be, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most interesting and successful of Shakespeare's plays to teach. Students are usually uncomfortable with it at first, but in my experience they respond really well when one asks them to tackle the racial problem head-on: IS the play anti-Semitic; is it quite the opposite; or is it somewhere in-between? It's also a useful occasion for talking about differences in the interpretations and staging of Shakespeare's plays over time. What does it mean that Shylock is now often portrayed as a victim rather than a villain or a buffoon? Are we just smarter and more enlightened than an Elizabethan audience (and seeing Shakespeare's secret intention, which went unnoticed all those years)...or are we trying to salve our own anxiety about the play and Shakespeare's possible prejudices and reading against the grain? (And if we are, is that still okay?)

    Has anyone else had this experience? I've taught the play in both Brit Lit and Shakespeare surveys, both in my current position and when I was in grad school--and my students have always seized on it eagerly.


  • At 5/19/2006 05:08:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    In response to H's comment about T's old diss director. I shudder to think what mine would do, if she were to find out about my recent blogging forays.

    But I suppose we are lucky to have our former diss directors take such an interest in us, long after leaving their care. I know for a fact that "once a student of my diss director, always a student of my diss director" rings true. She expects to see all the proofs of her former students' books and future books. Thankfully, this is a good thing as she's probably the best reader anyone could have (despite the harshness). I've got many colleagues who are jealous of that.


  • At 5/20/2006 12:07:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    @la -- I still think that Volpone is the most accessible of Jonson's corpus. It doesn't have the same reliance on topical allusions and canting that The Alchemist or Bartholomew Fair do, although both are great plays. Yes he was a spy, and he killed a man, but he's still a pretentious, cantankerous old bastard. My students were really turned off him when we compared his elegy to his son with Katherine Phillips'. Being fair, we didn't look at any of his plays for this particular unit...

    Merchant is my favourite Shakespearean play, equal tied with Macbeth, and I've found that students really enjoy both of them as texts. Maybe it's because they feed off my energy and excitement. I like to think it's because they lend themselves so well to engaging with the sorts of serious questions about interpretation that you've listed. The movie with Al Pacino is also useful for looking at the need that some students/scholars/directors feel to 'distance' the text and it's anti-Semitism from our own time. How successful is this?


  • At 5/20/2006 08:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Hope this comes out right - don't do this very often... I tried The Antipodes and The Sea Voyage for the first time this year, together with The Tempest and The Two Noble Kinsmen in a C17th survey course for second years at Campus University in the UK. We thought the combination of travel, amazons, supernatural, plays-within-plays and attempted cannibalism might go down well, and it seems to have been fairly successful. At least the plays went down quite well in classes; I haven't been able to mark any papers as we're on a marking boycott as part of a pay dispute - the one thing worse than marking is not marking...

    I've also taught The Spanish Tragedy (good, it comes right at the start of a course so they still have enthusiasm, they generally like Bel-Imperia, and the biting out of the tongue always gets a reaction), The Duchess of Malfi (also good), The Changeling (good), Women Beware Women (pretty good if you can get them to follow the final scene; the seduction/rape question also gets them going), and Faustus (usually good, though they get bogged down in trying to decide whether Faustus is 'weak'); I've also had good results with The Jew of Malta and mixed results with Edward II. For comedies, Volpone tends to teach better than The Alchemist (too local/obscure) or Bartholomew Fair (extremely complicated, though I think it would go down well if they could see it performed). I've not been able to try Epicoene with undergrads yet. I've told that The Witch of Edmonton works well (bigamy, witchcraft and a devil in the shape of a dog - what's not to like?) and I once taught on a course that juxtaposed The Taming of the Shrew with The Woman's Prize.

    My (very sad and very academic) reaction to the Pacino Merchant was 'ooo, this would teach well'...


  • At 5/20/2006 10:44:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi Crispinella, thanks for your comment. The one that jumps out at me is The Antipodes--I've only taught it in a grad class, but I could see undergrads really liking it, and it's a comedy, and a non-Jonson comedy at that! Maybe I'll try that one this year, pairing it with The Tempest as you did ...


  • At 5/20/2006 01:34:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    I'm taking a break from everything I'm supposed to be doing to put in a plug for The Shoemaker([']s[']/s) Holiday. My students quickly latched on to the idea that it sets out an economic dreamworld through Simon Eyre's rapid rise through the civic hierarchy to Lord Mayor, Lincoln's ability to play Dutch Skowmaker flawlessly, and the incorporative party in the final scene. David Kastan's Workshop and/as Playhouse essay is pretty brilliant on this. I used SH early in a non-Shax course to set up the basic energies of early modern comedy in general (in a way that AMND or AYLI might in a Shakespeare class) and to introduce the more local purposes that London comedy served as it staged economic relationships in flux. If you teach SH, plays like Chaste Maid, Honest Whore, Dutch Courtesan, and even Bartholomew Fair become teachable as reiterations of civic fantasy. We read Hyde Park at the end of the semester, and students were still looking back to Eyre's mysterious shipment of discount almonds and cambric as a model for the kinds of directed coincidences that organize life in London comedy.

    Plus: Stage Dutch. Never fails to amuse.


  • At 5/20/2006 03:24:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I had a disaster with the *Shoemaker's Holiday* -- they hated it. Maybe I didn't do it justice, but though they caught on about economic fantasy, they didn't care very much, and they didn't like reading it.

    I should say that I had a fairly unengaged class that semester, so maybe this doesn't mean anything. And it is true that, once they got to *Bartholomew Fair*, they like SH a lot more in retrospect...

    I wonder, also, whether it isn't a different thing to teach that play to different student audiences? Say, to an elite university class, or to a state school or regional university. Must play very differently, I would think, in a distinctive kind of way.

    I like the *Antipodes* idea too -- I think that might work.


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