Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
If you were to teach a Shakespeare text in a high school classroom and could not choose Romeo and Juliet, which play would you choose and why?
Logic says that I ought to choose a play like Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello–a Shakespeare play that has become culturally embedded and that students should be exposed to if they intend to continue studying English literature in college. However, plenty of colleges still require a Shakespeare course for an English major to graduate and such a course will probably include most of the more famous plays. Therefore, I would have to choose between Henry V and Cymbeline.
Henry V is, of course, the one history play that most people who read or study Shakespeare will eventually be exposed to, which tempts me to choose Cymbeline–a totally underrated because absolutely bizarre romance that includes a jealous lover, missing princes, a disguised princess, and the descent of an actual god. I find it great fun, but I have to admit that it would probably make high school students think Shakespeare was more than a little crazy. Best then to go with Henry V.
Henry V, of course, poses its own challenges, such as the fact that it is considered the last part of a tetralogy and students would get the most out of it if they could follow the ideas of kingship presented in the earlier works, and if they could have met Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II. Still, it works well enough on its own and one can fill in some of the gaps with a brief lecture before reading.
I think students would appreciate a history play in which the protagonist appears (to many) to be a hero. His youth and his desire to find his place in the world and solidify it might appeal to many. Furthermore, film versions such as the ones starring Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston could provide another avenue for students to access the works. And, of course, the play raises rich questions about kingship, leadership, the way we retell history, etc. for students to discuss. It might be a nice change from another year of Romeo and Juliet.
Participating this week? Leave your link in the comments!