The semester of a literary professor often begins in the same way as psychoanalysis—with a bit of resistance.
That is especially true if you teach “ancient” texts like Shakespeare, Milton, and Donne. A colleague of mine recently made this discovery when teaching Margaret Edson’s W;t, a play about a Donne scholar who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Her students liked the play and enjoyed discussing it. However, the conversation fell flat when they turned to Donne’s Holy Sonnet X, “Death be not proud,” the poem the play dwells on. Even a modern play about the final moments of life felt more inviting than a seventeenth-century poem about vanquishing death.
Early modern scholars are intimately tied to texts, which students often find alienating. For the teacher of early modern literature, the student’s resistance is hardly relatable; we chose this historical period and its literature because it drives our thinking.
At some point as scholars, no matter what our specialty, we get caught up in the critical discussion of literary texts and their history. While it might seem as though these texts went from being good stories to works of literature that needed to be argued over and that we went from an avid reader to an academic overnight, the truth is the path was long, but it started by discovering the conversations of critics.
Stories become literature and readers become scholars through research. Personally, I began to really care about early modern literature when I discovered the intersection between literature, politics, and theology in criticism.
For teachers of early modern literature, Shakespeare is quite often the easiest way to invite readers and students into the early modern world and its literature. Ben Jonson famously described Shakespeare as “not of an age, but for all time.”
Thanks to the Folger Shakespeare Library and JSTOR’s most recent collaborative project, Understanding Shakespeare, our students and others have access to an amazing research tool that places the text and criticism side-by-side.
Understanding Shakespeare allows students to read Hamlet, Henry V, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night in a way that has been, until now, unprecedented.
The website’s layout is easy to navigate and even easier to incorporate into the classroom. The body of the text is displayed on the left side of the webpage, while the right side contains articles quoting specific lines from the play. Separating the text from a discussion of it, is a column dividing the two sides, labeled “# of articles.”
If a particular line strikes the reader as interesting or important they can simply click on the center column, “# of articles.” This feature quickly provides links to critical articles quoting the text on JSTOR, and makes a direct connection between the text and scholarly debate.
By connecting the plays with criticism, Understanding Shakespeare offers us a way of working with our student’s resistance. As I see it, the site has re-created the path of academic discovery on a digital platform.
While it might be naïve to think all users will become as fond of early modern literature because of this digital project, it feels short-sighted to not use our research and scholarly discussions to help our students better understand Shakespeare and the early modern period.
I’ve found that criticism often allows students to return to the text with a new perspective and appreciation. Understanding Shakespeare not only helps students contextualize particular passages, it allows them to place the Bard’s plays amongst broader academic conversation concerning race, gender, disability, politics, and religion.
While Shakespeare may be “for all time,” readers serve a role in making Shakespeare into, as Jonson writes, “a monument without a tomb.” Jonson’s memorial sonnet suggests that Shakespeare is made into a monument through the reader’s acts of criticism and discussion. Jonson explains, Shakespeare “art alive still, while thy book doth live, And [and this is a big and] we have wits to read, and praise to give.”
When students struggle and resist early modern literature, I remind them that the task of understanding Shakespeare is not a small one; it requires them to ask tough questions about topics that are still important and hotly debated.
We only begin to understand Shakespeare if we discuss, criticize, and argue about his work. Amongst its benefits, the Understanding Shakespeare project makes that discussion more readily available.
There is a second benefit to the Understanding Shakespeare project. In an unprecedented manner, the website dissolves the barriers between the community and the literary scholar. Understanding Shakespeare bridges a very important gap. It allows others to begin to understand the importance of early modern studies, beyond “the ivory tower.”
In connecting the community with the academic, the website acts as an aggregator for other possible avenues of conversation and projects. This project doesn’t simply offer another form of managing content via a digital platform, instead Understanding Shakespeare forges new pathways for conversation between different groups of people within the community. Most importantly, at the center of it all is the text.
Joe Aldinger is the global curator of GAIN. He is a Ph.D. candidate at University at Buffalo, SUNY., specializing in sixteenth and seventeenth-century poetry and drama. His interdisciplinary work focuses on the relationship between literature, subjectivity, and politics. His dissertation project, “Religious Melancholy and the Lyric Subject: The Politics of Conscience,” traces a melancholic strand of early modern selfhood, which considers the ways in which the Reformation left individuals vulnerable to coercion.
Originally published November 26, 2014. Copyright GLOBAL ART & IDEAS NEXUS.