- Shakespeare and the Digitized Word
In an essay published in the New York Times Magazine, Stephen Greenblatt muses about the difference between the way his students access Shakespeare and personal memories of his own early encounters with Shakespeare. Greenblatt remembers with a shudder being forced to recite lines from As You Like It in eighth-grade English, but “not long afterward, I fell in love with him, not through the charm of performance but through the hallucinatory power of his language.” Shakespeare’s poetry was Greenblatt’s “birthright” as a native speaker of English: “All that I needed to do was to immerse myself in it passionately.” As the offspring of Lithuanian immigrants, possessing Shakespeare’s language was a crucial aspect of Greenblatt’s quest for identity, even if further experience in life showed that not everyone would concede to him the cultural right to Shakespeare. Predictably, perhaps, in this narrative, Greenblatt’s current students are web-savvy and write with ease, but “their engagement with language, their own or Shakespeare’s, often seems surprisingly shallow or tepid. It is as if the sense of linguistic birthright that I experienced with such wonder had faded and with it an interest in exploiting its infinite resources.” To be fair, Greenblatt recognizes not only his students’ ability to appropriate Shakespeare to their own talents, be it music or creative writing, but also their recognition of Shakespeare as the “common currency of humanity.” Still, the critic’s remembered absorption with Shakespeare’s “hallucinatory” language remains a nostalgic talisman.
In 1966, another Shakespeare scholar, Bertrand Evans, had professed a similar passion for Shakespeare’s language and a similar sense of the difficulty of communicating that passion to students. In a book that was energizing if controversial, Teaching Shakespeare in the High School, Evans insisted that Shakespeare should be the “birthright” (although he did not use that term) of all students, not just the most gifted, and he proposed a plan for teaching Shakespeare’s text across demographics: the teacher should read the text aloud to the class, line by line, and “so unostentatiously that . . . students are conscious of the text and not of the teacher” (109).1 Evans was against over-reliance on media, imagined discussion as seamlessly intertwined with the reading itself, and approved of memorization as a useful activity. As the culminating part of the Shakespeare unit, which could reasonably take up one-third of a semester, all students should get a chance to perform the texts they had learned so assiduously. [End Page 213]
I put Greenblatt and Evans into the preceding dialogue because each champions in his own way a Romantic view of deep engagement with Shakespeare’s language through reading, either aloud or silently. They share a feeling that individuals can engage with Shakespeare through reading of texts, whether in solitary enjoyment away from school discipline (in Greenblatt’s case) or guided by the living voice of a self-effacing teacher, who opens the portal to Shakespeare’s language and then steps aside quietly (in Evans’s case).
The pedagogical focus on Shakespeare’s language has a long history, stretching back through the twentieth century to the Romantics. Not all approaches to the Shakespearean text, of course, have valorized the individual reader. The Shakespeare Set Free books and related pedagogical programs sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library get students up on their feet, performing and understanding the verse through a range of informal exercises, and the pedagogy of teaching Shakespeare through more formal acting programs has a long history of its own. But, the focus on Shakespeare’s language, whether as a gateway or a barrier, has remained pretty much a constant on the educational scene. The success of the No Fear Shakespeare series testifies to an enduring wariness of Shakespearean language, and the Common Core Standards, although losing traction in some states of the U.S., have given Shakespeare new currency as a source of complex texts whose “archaic” language students can and should master.
In this essay, I focus on projects within New Media and Digital Humanities Shakespeare that support the efforts of individual, solitary readers to “possess,” in Greenblatt’s lexicon, Shakespearean language...