Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

(Jessie White got in touch and asked me to take part in the Happy Birthday, Shakespeare! project, to which I also contributed last year. I was delighted to comply… albeit belatedly.)

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Shakespeare is now 448, the subject of a World Shakespeare Festival, a Cultural Olympiad, and a multi-billion pound industry spanning theatre, education, tourism and heritage. Last year, I talked about how Shakespeare defined my life. I suppose this post is something of an update, explaining what Shakespeare has meant to me in the past 12 months – when my life has gone in a quite unexpected direction.

I’m now 25, and a lecturer at the University of Oxford. I teach whatever I’m asked to teach, which results in increasingly unlikely combinations of Early Modern, linguistic and seventeenth-century tutorials and seminars. Unlikely, because I’m a Victorianist who’s really a Shakespearean – or at the very least, a Shakespearean as much as I am a Victorianist.

I started my thesis as a dedicated researcher whose eclectic teaching career had veered between coaching South Warwickshire’s smallest for the 11+, SEN tutoring from scratch, and a low feeling of dread as an EFL tutor succumbing to swine flu. I had taught, but didn’t think I could teach. At Oxford, I taught my first tutorials and classes in a state of total nervousness. Near-blind with panic, I studiously ignored the advice and encouragement of everybody who told me the following:

1) that I could teach,
2) that I would teach,
3) that I knew as much as any other new tutor, and
4) that I might actually be a talented tutor.

These people (who included both my supervisors, the academic for whom I research-assist, my priest and Leah Scragg) were all wrong because they didn’t know just HOW BAD I was at teaching. Obviously.

I plunged on, firmly discounting the positive evidence (the hilarity, the feedback, the 2:1 from my first student that made me happier than any subsequent Gibbs Prize ever could), and suddenly got a lectureship that spun me silently into terror.

I started the lectureship in October, at a new college. In December, I was asked to teach a last-minute Shakespeare tutorial, for a student I’d never met. It would be the first time I’d taught Shakespeare’s plays.

I can’t remember how I prepared; I know my major concern (impostor syndrome) was the fact that I was three years younger than my student. Despite this, I was relieved that, for the first time, I’d be teaching within my specialism.

It was on the way to that tutorial that I was mistaken for a 17-year-old interview candidate applying for Archaeology. Not an auspicious start.

I had always said that what interested me about teaching was not imparting knowledge, or pedagogical theory, but the students. I’m lucky enough to work with some exceptionally bright and interesting young people, and it’s understanding their interests, inclinations, prejudices, strengths and weaknesses that challenges me to find the best ways of testing and encouraging them in their work.

I’d always distinguished myself from “real” teachers who spoke about the “Eureka moments” –  the instant when a student’s eyes light up that makes it all worthwhile. The fact that my students were passing their exams and enjoying their tutorials suggests that some of them must have understood something – but I couldn’t remember experiencing a “Eureka moment”. If it had happened, I’d been too busy being scared of teaching to notice.

This was the tutorial that changed everything. Teaching Shakespeare felt more like sharing a mutual enthusiasm than adhering to rigid roles of teacher and student. We were talking about the relationship between emotion and poetic form (via everything else in the world) and I asked her to turn to Romeo and Juliet‘s first conversation (which runs as follows, up to their first kiss) and see what was interesting about the form:

 93   If I profane with my unworthiest hand
 94   This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
 95   My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
 96   To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

 97   Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
 98   Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
 99   For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
100   And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

101   Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

102   Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

103   O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
104   They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

105   Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

106   Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

[Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 5]
When she worked out what she was reading, my student looked up and her face was transformed.

Those fourteen lines make up a perfect Shakespearean sonnet. Such is the young lovers’ mutual intoxication with each other that their words instantly form a metrically perfect poem. It’s something you can’t fully sense in performance. It was something I’d found out years ago via some forgotten book, but to her it was brand new.

She got it; she understood. I was watching the Eureka moment.

I’m wary of Bardolatry – I think there are dull plots, thankless characters, and occasionally turgid scenes alongside the transcendent in Shakespeare (in particular, I avoid productions of King Lear and as I would a skydive). Nevertheless, I still think Shakespeare is the best – breathtaking, and brilliant, and now so universal that those individual discoveries, made on an ordinary afternoon in Oxford, seem all the more miraculous. Despite Shakespeare’s fame, every day people discover him for the first time.

This week, I told another group of students about my supervisor’s recent article (co-written with Emma Smith) on All’s Well That Ends Well. One of them marvelled that there was anything new to say about Shakespeare. As ground-breaking research like this article prove, there is. But what’s also vital and exciting about Shakespeare is when he’s new not to the whole of scholarship, but for individual students and theatregoers. My students’ discoveries and realisations are as miraculous to them – and, indeed, to me – as any academic theory which changes the way we study. What’s new to them is as valuable to me as it is to them. I don’t know any other writer who can inspire such awe and admiration.

I’m currently teaching the Romeo and Juliet student for her finals. She’s very tired, very intelligent, and very stressed – well within the bell curve of “normal for Oxford Finalists”. She also has no idea what I owe her. My gratitude to Shakespeare is in some ways easier to voice. Shakespeare helped a terrified DPhil student teach and enjoy it. Teaching Shakespeare is the best sort of teaching, because Shakespeare was, and is, the best of writers. I’m grateful for that, so: Happy Birthday, Shakespeare.


One thought on “Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

  1. Wonderful post, though is the picture at the top not a likeness of Sir Thomas Overbury? Your sonnet extract from R+J, as well as being metrically illuminating, reminded me of Will’s mastery of antithesis – not in the unusual collocations of words, but ideas. The way he straddles the line between divine sentiments and – let’s face it – youthful lust (or as the poet terms it, love) shows a literary athleticism that deliberately approaches a characteristic (and heretical?) Elizabethan strain of bawdiness. All wrapped in sugared paper, so that only committed cynics like me will see it as anything other than straight romance. Something for everyone – bravo!


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