by Selby Schwartz, Comparative Literature
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001
“Is Ariel the same as the Little Mermaid?” Mina said, absentmindedly cracking the slender spine of her paperback copy of The Tempest. Jeff slouched morosely in the corner and rolled his eyes. “How come that guy is such a weirdo? The one with his mom inside the tree?” Jennifer raised her hand. “Um,” she offered, “um, I thought it was cool but I didn’t really understand the part where — um, the part where — well, like in the first act? Which one is the bad guy? And who got drowned?”
These questions are more sincere than they sounded to me, initially, when I tried to engage my Comp Lit 1A students in Shakespeare’s delicately balanced plot. The students were clearly struggling with the complexity of character motivations, and I could see them teetering on the verge of dismissing the whole play: mocking its archaisms, flattening its protagonists, ironizing its structure, and dispelling its magic for themselves. Their skepticism exhibited a passive kind of resistance.
I divided them into four groups of five each, and handed out three props to every group. Judicious limits are the framework for creativity; given an intimate and improbable space in which to work, students will often fill it to the brim and then strain its boundaries. Mina’s group received a broken black umbrella, a candle (plus three matches), and a piece of binder paper. Jeff’s group accepted their props without enthusiasm — a colander, a long white feather, and a jump rope — and retired to the hallway, while Jennifer and the two other “Directors” coaxed their fellow students to collect their three allotted props. Their assignment required that they stage one scene in the play — any scene they found meaningful, but especially one they hadn’t understood — using all group members and all three props.
Twenty minutes later, following secret “Dress Rehearsals,” the lights were flickered, binder-paper rain showered down upon hapless sailors crouched under a mangled umbrella, and Mina-as-Ariel hovered on a desk, conducting the storm with her flaming wand. Next Jeff lumbered out, crouching warily, the colander over his head, grunting, his arms bound to keep him from grabbing at Miranda, who tickled him provocatively with her chaste white feather and lectured him on gratitude. Each performance lived a slice of the play, acting it out and making it active, inventing its drama in the process of staging. The applause at the end was as thunderous as it was astonished, and Jeff’s smoldering Caliban got catcalls.
When they chose paper topics later that week, The Tempest achieved star billing. Jennifer came into office hours to ask, privately, if she could write about how Caliban and Sycorax had lived differently on the island before Prospero took over like a tyrant. This got us into post-colonialism and five extra pages, but it is the kind of trouble and additional work I like best. The stagings sparked interest in Caliban’s use of language, in critiques of Prospero as an intellectual, ineffective ruler, in Ariel and Miranda’s filial relationships to Prospero, and in the overlap between comedy and monstrosity. When the papers came in, in fact, they were wonderfully sensitive to the machinations of character, free from those cliched universalizations of “everybody should fall in love.” Moreover, I noticed that the students made extensive use of Shakespeare’s stage directions as textual evidence to support their arguments; after all, a play is merely flat on the page until it is acted out in its living form, on stage.