- Editor’s Introduction: Teaching Shakespeare 400 Years Later
“400 years in, Shakespeare remains there for us; there for the taking.”—Michael Witmore, Director, Folger Shakespeare Library
Michael Witmore’s remark above is from his welcome message that follows this introduction. It invokes the spirit of the year-long Folger celebration in 2016. As a physical indication of what Witmore describes, the Folger (through the partial sponsorship of the NEH) is sending along rare copies of the First Folio to all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. The task is daunting, but the key has been from the beginning the principle of outreach, of bringing Shakespeare to where his audience lives. Indeed, in applying to the Folger and the NEH, potential sites had to describe the type of programming that they would offer and agree to lead a workshop for families and a workshop for teachers. For all his descriptions of courtly life, Shakespeare, it seems, turns out to be a remarkably democratic author.
Anyhow, the more I know about Shakespeare, the more his works elude a sense of mastery. At least I have been persistent, though, in my 30-year association with the Education Department at the Folger. During that time, I have led teacher workshops in 38 states as well as Canada and the UK, led month-long and week-long institutes both in D.C. as well at several universities, taught on-line to teachers in South Africa, Russia, and Romania, delivered keynotes at several conferences, and written about teaching Shakespeare for several journals. Everywhere I have gone, I have learned a good deal about teaching Shakespeare. However, I learned the most about teaching Shakespeare from my hundreds of high school students. I discovered from them what activities do or do not work, and from their example I, in turn, have continued to develop my pedagogy—whether as a teacher at Stony Brook University or elsewhere—in pushing my (or any) audience to access Shakespeare. To access Shakespeare’s plays fully, I believe, is to fall in love with language as never before.
Into my world stepped The CEA Critic, a journal whose editors asked me to oversee this issue and uncover some of the latest thinking about teaching Shakespeare—both at the university and secondary levels. Why me? To start, I have known Jeraldine Kraver, the General Editor, since she [End Page 143] was a student at the Long Island high school at which I taught all those years ago, but it was only in the last decade that we realized we were tangentially in the same profession. Since we have re-connected, I have led several workshops the University of Northern Colorado (where Jeri heads the English Education Program) for pre-service and in-service teachers. Each time I visit, I am delighted with the students and impressed by the significant work that the faculty has been doing.
The Issue in Your Hands
When the editors of The CEA Critic asked me what I was looking for in submissions, I said I wanted essays from which I could learn—some new angle on teaching Shakespeare, some of the current research in academia, and some smart approaches to keep Shakespeare’s legacy alive in the 21st century. I think I have found just what I sought. To start, though, I set a tone as well as method with my essay, “Teaching Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Instability of the Text.” Through focused examination of first quarto of Hamlet (1603) and the first quarto of Romeo and Juliet (1597), I hope to bring the reader to look more closely at the First Folio, demonstrating why any academic discussion of Shakespeare needs to include a look at the textual variants in Shakespeare’s works. In particular, I compare the two texts with their appearances in the First Folio to demystify Shakespeare and show how we do not know exactly what he wrote. I have found that when students learn that Shakespeare is far from monolithic, they become less frightened.
After my contribution, we commence with an article by Kevin Costa, who examines performance-based teaching of Shakespeare in the 20th...