“In Troy There Lies the Scene”: Teaching Students to Think about Shakespeare

While teaching Troilus and Cressida this semester, one of the assignments that my students were tasked with was to write an essay on the ways in which the play made visible or commented upon an issue that was facing 16th century England.  Students were given a brief lesson on the political and social troubles of early modern England, then they were told to construct an argument which would demonstrate a line of continuity between Shakespeare’s reading of the Trojan War and the contemporary troubles facing London audiences.  Underlying this assignment was an assumption that looking at this play would offer students greater access to the historical problems facing theater goers in the 16th century, but also that these were deliberate inclusions within the play that theater going audiences would have picked up on.  At the time, I didn’t think about it, but looking back on it, this assignment was constructed to teach students to look for ways in which art teaches us lessons about the contemporary historical moment, even when the subject matter that the text is drawing from frames itself as temporally distant.  While not a perfect parallel, we were teaching students to think of Shakespeare’s texts as “containing” veiled contemporary commentaries that could be unearthed with through and careful examination.

This is not to suggest that such an endeavor isn’t worth having students undertake.  Troilus and Cressida, itself being a reworking both of legend of the Trojan War as well as a somewhat explicit reimagining of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, does examine many of the political concerns that would be of interest to a contemporary British audience and it deliberately reworks a number of the issues that Chaucer raised in his 1380 poem.[1]  The play, for instance, features an early monologue during which Ulysses pontificates on the nature of social hierarchy and the dangers that would result if the political hierarchy (that places Ulysses at the top) were called into question.  Pleading for order and stability within the Grecian camp, he suggests that “[t]ake but degree away, untune the string,/ And hard what discord follows.  Each thing meets/ In mere oppugnancy”.[2] This speech, regardless of whether we read it as a critique of Ulysses’ support for a system that benefits him at the expense of others or we read it as an endorsement of Ulysses views on the importance of a stable social hierarchy, would be of particular relevance to an Early Modern audience with very real concerns about the stability of the English monarchy.[3]  Here, Shakespeare is mobilizing a shared cultural literary memory to begin to think through the very different political conditions of Early modern England, or at the very least, this is the move that we ask our students to identify Shakespeare making.

This is a mode of processing the past that Shakespeare would return to frequently.  Owing to strict censorship laws and tightening government control over the theater, any attempt to address the contemporary political climate in Tudor and Stuart England needed to be moved outside of the present moment.[4]  This created a practical explanation for Early Modern playwrights use of the past as a site to understand their own historical moment.   While we give students the tools to understand these historical contexts and the reasons that Shakespeare might use Ulysses as a voice to critique or affirm the status quo, there is still a sense in which we are teaching students to approach literature as a site in which truths about a contemporary world can be made visible to an audience regardless of setting or surface level content.  This isn’t meant to be understood as a value judgement against this approach to teaching literature, as I think there is a value in thinking about how this mode of teaching students allows us to think of Shakespeare as both an author who lived in a very specific historical moment and a writer who is still worth reading four hundred years after his death.

This is, however, not quite the same thing as turning to Shakespeare to understand our contemporary political moment.  I feel that the assignment I’ve described lays the ground work for logics that allow us to see our historical moment in Shakespeare, but to see our world in Shakespeare, we need to impose parts of our world upon Shakespeare (or any literary text).  Just as Shakespeare brought a 16th century world view to Troilus and Criseyde in order to make Chaucer’s Trojan epic more contemporarily relevant, we too bring a 21st century worldview to Shakespeare so that we can make visible the elements of the text that help us make sense of our contemporary political moment.  Sometimes, this is done rather explicitly, as with modern retellings of the play or adaptations which make significant thematic changes.  Other times, the move is subtler, simply directing readers to carefully examine a specific element of the plays so that our contemporary experiences can be more easily written onto them, as I see happening in Greenblatt’s op-ed piece on Richard III.  Next week, I plan to examine some examples of repurposing Shakespeare for political purposes in order to continue thinking about the various ways in which contemporary audiences turn to Shakespeare as a means of understanding the political world in which they live.

[1] Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is much more cynical than Troilus and Criseyde, and it is much more explicit it its rejection of a greater spiritual order that will render political conflicts on earth less meaningful.

[2] Troilus and Cressida I.iii.113-115

[3] Dating Shakespeare’s plays is difficult, but Troilus and Cressida was likely written either near the very end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign or near the beginning of James I’s.

[4] Shakespeare frequently addressed this problem by setting his plays in the Pre-Tudor past or on the European continent.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s