On Reading / The English Teacher / The Social Network / Uncategorized

When I Remember what Shakespeare is Good for…

Some of my students are going to meet up with Shakespeare in a few days.  They’re going to whine about. They’re going to resist. They’re going to say something along the lines of “I just don’t GET it.” Or, “It’s so hard!!!.” Or, my absolute favorite: “Shakespeare and his King James English has no relevance for me/us today.” The text? Oh, just a little drama called Othello… You know the one — the oh-so-culturally-relevant story of racial prejudice, marital distrust and discord mixed in with a little gender bias and professional jealousy.

Naturally, a veteran teacher would just ignore the whining and lamenting. I guess I’m still a 20+ year rookie then — idealistic and driven, and unable to turn a deaf ear to the proclamations of disdain for the English dramatist. So I’ll probably say something like this instead:

Othello’s writer offers an unparalleled look into the heart and mind of the common, and even the not-so-common Man. Whether Shakespeare reveals the ways of a king or a servant, he offers an unflinching look at man’s penchant for wickedness while simultaneously stirring a hunger for righteousness. He demonstrates our unending desire for love and fidelity. Consider Hamlet, Othello, Desdemona, Ophelia, Gertrude, Romeo, Juliet – whether familial or romantic, we demand love and trust – and we often destroy those who cannot or will not deliver it. He shows us the depths to which we willingly fall in pursuit of our own desires – power, influence, significance – a name. He makes us hunger for revenge, and despair when it is achieved. He invites us to desire a change ‘for the better,’ but cautions us against the pursuit of worldly gain. He leads us to hope, but frequently leaves us bereft. Such dichotomous expression thoroughly convicts as it leads to discernment. We not only judge Shakespeare’s characters and their decisions, their downfalls, their triumphs, but we envision the same in our own lives.

When Othello fears his own inadequacies, he lashes out at the one he loves most. Who hasn’t made a target out of a dearly loved one? Why else the sting of regret when Othello accuses her so unjustly? We secretly doubt her ourselves, for we see her playful interactions with Cassio, and wonder… ‘did she?!?’ Knowing she didn’t does not assuage our doubt. We know our own hearts and fear that duplicity; we suspect everyone, since we ourselves are guilty. Worse, we despise our guilt, but turn it outward and accuse others. Blaming and finger-pointing remain easier than the hard work of self-examination and honest humility.   Indeed, the ‘human condition,’ poignantly on display throughout each scene of Shakespeare’s Othello, is this: relationally, we cannot do without each other, and our selfish intent destroys every relationship we touch. How then, shall we live?

Hungering for righteousness leaves us starved and desperate. Again and again our hopes for fulfillment are torn apart. Men are merely feeders – consuming women, consuming power, consumed by jealousy and the need for control. Consider Iago – consumed by the green-eyed monster and highlighting the same monster in every man ‘round him. Watch him control with his quick wit and destructive focus. Feel the pangs of jealousy, and remember the times when we simply weren’t ‘enough.’ Ah. Our hearts nearly break with the memory – and the power of the story drags us on…

We NEED hope. We NEED purpose and meaning. We NEED fulfillment and joy. We need Love. We see those characters who fail, and mostly, want to fix them. Why is that?

Because, we were made for another world. We were made for happily ever after. The stories that end in tragedy make us cry out — NO!!!! because deep down, we fear that our own lives may be just as tragically destroyed. Because we want better for ourselves, and we fear we may not get it. Some of us know that we don’t deserve it. And we long for a better ending to the story. Where can we go?

Shakespeare’s language cuts us. His images startle and disturb. He reduces love-making to a bestial act between undeserving partners. He pits fathers against children through power and position. He leads us to the edge, and challenges us to jump. In the pages of Shakespeare, we find ourselves. And the ‘others.’ We cannot leave the pages unaffected, unless we have failed to learn to read – not merely the words, but the meaning.

That’s why his works, King James English and all, remain relevant. Necessary. GOOD.

Take that, whiny, resistant students. Take that.

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