Professors can take a lot of approaches when it comes to teaching Shakespeare. Some professors would teach the Bard’s works like they would any other kind of literature: with lots and lots of theory. Economic theory for The Merchant of Venice, racial theory for Othello, psychoanalytic theory for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, just to name a few. They think of Shakespeare’s plays like any other novel they might teach: sure it’s in iambic pentameter, which is slightly unusual for a novel, but Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in terza rima, an arguably more complicated form, and it rarely gets special treatment, in fact, sometimes students read it entirely in prose.
Professors outside of the theory camp believe that there is only one way to interpret a Shakespeare play and that is on the stage. Shakespeare isn’t meant to be read, it’s meant to be lived. These professors will force awkward eighteen-year-olds not to just read Romeo and Juliet, but to be Romeo and Juliet. They’ll say things like “once more, with feeling” and remind the reluctant actors that to maintain iambic pentameter, they might need to occasionally mispronounce common words. Students in these kinds of classes will likely hate each other, because while some are just trying to get their literature credits and get out, others will relish in the opportunity to read aloud dramatically and show off their pronunciation of archaic terms.
This “take it to the stage” approach to teaching Shakespeare is not without its merits. Shakespeare (and for the sake of argument, let’s all agree that there was a William Shakespeare and he did write plays like Hamlet and Twelfth Night) likely considered himself a poet and playwright, not a novelist. Though his work is considered high art now, it was written for the people, as any visitor to the Globe Theater in London will find out. Shakespeare’s plays have sex, and crude jokes, and characters like Puck from a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Who wants to read about someone like Puck when they can actually watch him in action?
It’s interesting then, that English teachers of all levels like to take these plays and turn them into literary works. It’s hard to graduate college and probably impossible to graduate high school in the United States without having read some Shakespeare. Who knows how difficult it must be to avoid him in England.
Many plays, not just Shakespeare’s, are studied like literature. Students can take entire courses on plays as literature and finish the course without ever having a seen a live (or taped) production of the shows they studied, but it rarely seems to happen in the reverse, where a novel is only “watched” and not read. The concept sounds ridiculous, but someone could watch the musical Big River and learn about the plot, characters, and major themes of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Could a production of Pilgrim’s Promise be far behind? Let’s hope so.