School begins soon, my vacation shortened by the intense summer I spent at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute. As these drowsy days transform to hectic autumn, I wonder how I will use the TSI experience in my classroom. Over the past few years, I have relied on Shakespeare Set Free to teach Romeo and Juliet, but I want to use the month I spent in DC this summer to expand my repertoire. Which play should I add? As I wade through the dusty stacks in our textbook room, Henry IV, Part 1 stands, tall and regal . . . and unread since 1990 – a complete class set. Have I the courage to go forth?
Even though we spent a full week (and I mean FULL) on Henry IV, Part 1 during the Institute – lectures, discussions, debates; illuminating, recording, memorizing and performing; and a 15-minute rendition of the play acted by our troupe of secondary school teachers from around the country – I am still intimidated. The play is long, confusing, historical – all the complaints my students voice before we embark on anything Shakespeare. Plus, I don’t know the play or English history well enough to . . . to what? I’ve no illusions of perfection – just being moderately versed is enough – but instead of urging myself forward, I demoralize myself with doubts. “What ifs” clog my consciousness. What if students ask how Bolingbroke seized the crown from Richard? Or what is a Plantagenet? Whose wife is sister to whom? Which characters did Shakespeare conflate? Or a hundred other questions I can’t answer? Thankfully a voice emerges between the scratchy static in my head, the voice of Folger curriculum specialist, Mike LoMonico: “You don’t have to do the whole play.”
An encouraging chorus of “What ifs” surface: What if we only consider the father-son aspects of the play? What if we act the 15-minute version from Shakespeare Set Free, look at a few speeches, and save the heavy lifting for Othello?
I quell my fears by reminding myself that Shakespeare study is not about knowing the plays inside out, but about challenging ourselves with difficult text. Decoding Shakespeare does something to our brains that ultimately makes us smarter, so when we come to a different Shakespeare, or Marlow, or Jonson, we are that much better equipped to untangle its meaning. So what if I don’t know enough and I enter Henry IV, Part 1 as my students do: learning what I can, knowing I will never know it all, and taking a chance just to see where it leads?
Marion Levine is a guest contributor to Making A Scene. She teaches high school students at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies in Los Angeles, CA.
For Folger Education resources on Henry IV, Part 1, including lesson plans, activities, and video interviews with cast and crew members of Folger Theatre’s 2008 production, please click here.
Photo credit: Ellen Adair (Lady Percy) and David Graham Jones (Hotspur), Henry IV, Part 1, directed by Paul Mason Barnes, Folger Theatre, 2008. Carol Pratt.