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Shakespeare in the Restoration Theater:
"Staging" Assignments

Heather King

Continued from previous page

For the final assignment in the course, the performance component comes back into play, helping students synthesize the material and put their ideas about adaptation into practice. I divide the class into two groups named for the dominant theatrical companies of the Restoration: The King's Men and The Duke's Men. The 'companies' are then charged with creating, casting, and staging their own scene. We agree as a class on which pair of plays to examine — usually choosing comedy. I have experimented with asking one group to select a Shakespearean play with the other opting for a Restoration play, but the aim of the project is marginally more successful when they draw from the same source (usually the Restoration piece, since the mid-term required them to work on Shakespeare). They are to pick the scene they believe is most representative of / significant to their play, with the freedom to cut and paste material from other scenes to create a hybrid. I encourage them to watch performances by The Reduced Shakespeare Company for possible inspiration. They have complete artistic control over setting, language, casting, etc.

The paper they hand in at this performance is a culmination of those that have preceded it, making an argument for their performance in the context of the adaptation in which they are participating. For the paper, each student focuses on the character he or she performs. If any students have taken on the role of director instead of actor (as is sometimes the case in high enrollment semesters), they address the adaptation more broadly. The innovative productions staged in this class (which include scenery, music, costumes and, in some cases, choreography) are a welcome surprise to us all. One production of The Rover was set during college Spring Break and updated to include same-sex couples. The students argued that Spring Break was the best modern analogue for Carnival, and that because the provocative language about sexual double standards in Behn's text is now dated, the exploration of gender identity and sexual orientation was a plausible way to re-capture that element of the play's energy. The staging was very compelling.

Through this series of assignments, I seek to accomplish multiple pedagogical goals, as outlined above; the real achievement is frequently a bit more abstract. Throughout the semester I stress that the assignments move back and forth between known and unknown material and analytic practices, in an effort to help students self-consciously expand their intellectual repertoire. This transparency is a crucial pedagogical component to help students recognize they come to the classroom with a range of competencies that they can apply even to unfamiliar, unlikely material. Such an approach can build their confidence and willingness to take risks on page and on stage, which in turn makes the daunting task of approaching historical literature easier, and — with luck — fun.  The student evaluations testify consistently to students' enjoyment of the class, frequently to their own surprise.

The range of assignments also works to challenge all of the students, whether they are English majors proficient in Shakespeare who leave the class with a deeper understanding of literary history and performance, or whether they are Theatre majors who come to the class comfortable with performance and leave the class more proficient at thinking about historical context and literary analysis. Again, in student evaluations, the students who self-identified as English majors express surprise that they now see Shakespeare in a different light, and non-majors describe him as "no longer scary."

Significantly, the eighteenth-century context helps students to decalcify Shakespeare; instead of being seen as the only playwright in the British tradition, he becomes one of many. Unexpectedly, the assignments have also proven successful in unifying the class members. Rather than dividing into the typical cliques a persistent problem on our small campus the students have been able to work together well. Student evaluations praise the small group work for discussion, presentations, and the final scene, which is not common in my experience. My hypothesis is that because the assignments stress the range of skills they all have coming in, each student feels competent and has something to offer the others, even if he or she is not an English or Theatre major.

And finally, the assignments work to expose continuity between the past and the present. What has made this class so enjoyable for me is watching students develop their "own" Shakespeare, which they feel empowered to do partly through the assignments but largely through encountering the eighteenth-century contests over Shakespeare's legacy. I was pleasantly surprised to find in their evaluations that the majority of students enjoyed hearing the voices of eighteenth-century Shakespeare critics in student presentations; eavesdropping on the critical conversation that canonizes Shakespeare in a sense authorizes their own multiple responses to him. The eighteenth century offers an unusually rich ground for this kind of comparative course because of the self-awareness of writers, critics, and readers during the period. The sense of actively creating a tradition of "British" literature that permeates eighteenth-century criticism of Shakespeare brings to the fore questions about canon and genre, which in turn invite students to engage in those debates not just as historical artifacts but as ongoing discussions. Bringing that debate forward to consider modern adaptations opens up contemporary questions about what "Shakespeare" means to readers and viewers at different historical moments. Clearly, we have inherited many of the aesthetic dictates and hierarchies of the eighteenth century, but where did they originate? In debates about genre, political and aesthetic decorum, evolving acting styles, and the advent of women actors and writers, very little about literature could be taken for granted in the eighteenth century, and students begin to realize ways in which this might still be true. It is my hope that they leave the class with more confidence in their ability to develop new skills, and more curiosity about how texts are shaped by the context in which they are written and read.

University of Redlands

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