Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Play, Play, Play

~by Kevin J. Costa

Sometimes I wonder if the performance-based approach to teaching Shakespeare, which we promote at the Folger, is seen only as an “entry-level” tool for students and teachers intimidated by Shakespeare. For sure, this is a major audience. But performance-based work on Shakespeare doesn’t have to stop there. In fact, I think it shouldn’t. What does a performance-based approach do for that (growing) group of students who are already in “the choir,” so-to-speak?

Two students of mine at McDonogh School offer an example. We’ve been studying Twelfth Night for some time, and we are preparing for a night of one-act performances from the play. These students are playing Orsino and Viola/Cesario in Act 2, Scene 4 — the moment when, for the first time, Orsino seems to take interest in someone other than himself. From the start of the play, Orsino tends to hold court, sharing his convictions about how the world of love works — an armchair expert, but, because he’s the Duke, the one with the bully pulpit. Cesario, however, has a knack of throwing people off their game whether emotionally, rhetorically, or both. “How dost thou like this tune?” asks Orsino in Act 2, Scene 4, and Cesario responds, “It gives a very echo to the seat / Where love is throned” (2.4.23-25). Orsino responds,

Thou dost speak masterly.
My life upon’t, young though thou art, thine eye
Hath stayed upon some favor that it loves.
Hath it not, boy? (2.4.25-28)

Orsino’s interest in Cesario, noted by Valentine at the outset of Act 1, Scene 4, only deepens here. Yes, Orsino still characteristically holds forth with declarations about the truths of love, but we see an increase in the number of questions he asks Cesario — a suggestion that he, for once, isn’t only thinking of himself:

Twelfth night, act 1, scene 4 by H. Thomas Maybank. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Twelfth night, act 1, scene 4 by H. Thomas Maybank. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

Ay, but I know —

What dost thou know?

Too well what love women to men may owe.
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your Lordship.

And what’s her history?

A blank, my lord. She never told her love [. . .]

But died thy sister of her love, my boy?

I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers, too — and yet I know not.
Sir, shall I to this lady?

Ay, that’s the theme.
To her in haste. Give her this jewel. Say
My love can give no place, bide no denay. (2.4.111-122, 131-37)

It’s refreshing to see Orsino concerned about someone else who might be in love. Sure, love is his occupation and so it’s no surprise that he’d take interest, but this is one of the first times he seems to realize that other people might know what it is to have such strong feelings.

At the end of a recent class, my two students stopped me with a question about these final lines. “Mr. Costa,” they said, “does Orsino want to give a ring to the sister of Cesario?” They were confused, of course, because they know that person doesn’t exist in the play. Still, they thought that Orsino (who, unlike the audience, doesn’t know this) wanted to give the ring to Cesario’s sister. I said we should look closely at the text again, and we discussed how Cesario’s line, “Sir, shall I to this lady?” redirects the moment to the “theme” at hand:  i.e., Olivia. And then one of my students said, “Well, should we change the word ‘lady’ to ‘Olivia’ so that the audience gets it?” I told them I didn’t think it at all necessary; in performance, I insisted, the redirect would be quite clear if the person playing Cesario shakes him/herself out of the increasingly intimate dialogue he/she has with Orsino and gets back to the original business at hand.

Students perform Twelfth Night in the 2011 Secondary Schools Festival. Photo by Duy Tran.
Students perform Twelfth Night in the 2011 Secondary Schools Festival. Photo by Duy Tran.

This experience confirmed something in a very concrete way for me about how playing Shakespeare is the most rigorous, specific work a person can do with these texts.  What my students experienced as “confusion” in this extraordinary moment in Twelfth Night was actually the discovery of something at the heart of this play — ambiguity: the ambiguity of language, the ambiguity of feelings, the ambiguity of sexual identity. Who, indeed, is this lady to whom Cesario and Orsino refer? Well, sure it’s Olivia. But the reference to “this lady” by Cesario followed two lines later by Orsino’s, “to her in haste” occurs so quickly that we might well be confused by the referent of these two pronouns. And, one might really wonder, at this moment, who really is the object of Orsino’s emotional energy. Olivia seems to have fallen off his radar, if just for a moment, only to be replaced by the image of Cesario’s “sister” with whom he grows increasingly interested. And if Cesario, as we’ll see, is mistaken as her twin, Sebastian, later in the play, then that means Cesario’s “sister” is, in a strangely logical way — you guessed it — Viola. And we all know who Orsino ends up with at the end of this play!

Confusing? Complicated? Ambiguous? Yes to all of the above. We wrapped up our conversation with a thought: yes, this ambiguity might be apparent to the student sitting at her desk reading quietly, but I can’t imagine that it would have caused us to debate this complex emotional and linguistic tangle in such a lively, enthusiastic, and very rigorous way if they weren’t playing it. What’s more, I had precious little to do with this big question that they had formed — it was their discovery. I just jumped into a problem that had already captured their intellect and imagination and became a partner in their work.

To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I’d have alighted on the ambiguity of these pronouns if I were just lecturing because, for better or for worse, I’m too familiar with the play. Fresh eyes, however, can discover so much that routine ignores. I guess the point is that playing Shakespeare isn’t just a gimmick to lure the frightened; it is, rather, a profound tool that sharpens one’s critical acumen further with each successive use.

Kevin J. Costa is a TSI 2010 Alumni. In addition to being an English teacher at McDonogh School, he is Director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, Head of the Drama Department, and Director of Fine & Performing Arts. He also serves as the Director of Education for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and is former Chair of the Shakespeare Theater Association’s Education Committee.

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