Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt shares his first encounters with Shakespeare as a young student

Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt knows a lot about Shakespeare. He’s the author of “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” and he came to the Folger Shakespeare Library this spring to participate in a research conference on “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography.” But Greenblatt did not immediately latch on to the Bard in his student days. As he put it recently in an interview with the Harvard Gazette:

I was no child prodigy. In fact, I encountered “As You Like It” in Miss Gillespie’s eighth-grade class — and it seemed like the worst, most boring thing I ever read in my life. I can still remember the shudder with which I received the words “Sweet my coz, be merry.” I just didn’t get it at all. So it’s not like I awakened as a child to the wonders of Shakespeare.

Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt at the “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, April 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Later in the Q&A, we learn which Shakespeare plays Greenblatt would rather have studied in middle school, how videos can make a difference in the English classroom, and at what moment the Bard was reclaimed in Greenblatt’s imagination.

What follows is an excerpt; for the full interview, visit the Harvard Gazette.

Q: That junior high school experience with Shakespeare. Was that your first?

A: It must have been my first. Why a junior high school teacher would have chosen “As You Like It,” that most sophisticated of pastoral comedies, to inflict on pubescent boys — or girls — is beyond me.

Q: What would you have chosen?

A: That’s a good question. Hmmm. The traditional choice would have been “Julius Caesar,” which I think is certainly better than “As You Like It,” though still very difficult to come to grips with imaginatively. Maybe “Macbeth,” maybe “Romeo and Juliet.”

Q: How about “The Tempest”?

A: Perhaps. In any case, these were the days before a teacher could show videos. It would have made a huge difference to give students an idea of what it could possibly sound or look like. I remember feeling completely baffled by the opacity of the language. If I had seen the wrestling match at the start of “As You Like It” I might well have gotten it.

Q: But — not to belabor Shakespeare — at what moment was he reclaimed in your imagination?

A: Not so long afterwards, in what must have been my senior year in high school, my gifted teacher, John Harris, centered a whole semester on a single work, “King Lear.” At a certain point he said he didn’t understand something quite crucial in the play. I had never heard a teacher saying he didn’t understand anything about anything and that made a very deep impression on me. The license to recognize that something is eluding you, and that you’re forced to grapple with it — not to take flight, but to wrestle with the angel — seemed to me crucial. From that moment on — though I did not decide I was going to be an English professor — I saw that there was something for me.

Read the rest of the interview at The Harvard Gazette.