Teaching Shakespeare Under Quarantine

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

SHAKESPEARE’S HENRY VIII (also performed under the title All Is True) is not a popular play. Its plot structure might best be described as unfortunate, and it is largely the reason the play gets overlooked. Modeled on the medieval de casibus genre — collections of tales of the downfall of great people — Henry VIII’s characters are a gaggle of would-be protagonists who hardly get an hour to strut and fret before they are ushered away. Yet its disordered and unpredictable plot makes the play perfectly shaped for our present moment.

The Duke of Buckingham, who first takes center stage, opens the play by making a dangerous political enemy in the powerful Cardinal Wolsey; we expect to see Buckingham fall, but not as swiftly as he does. Buckingham is gone by the early part of Act II, and our attention shifts to Wolsey, who is out by the end of Act III; then, we focus on Catherine of Aragon, who falls in Act IV. Death spreads at such an unpredictable and breakneck pace that no catharsis is possible. The tragedy of this play is that no one, including the audience, gets the dignity or meaning a true tragedy would provide.

Although the play ends with the birth of Elizabeth I, the hope for the future that she might provide rings hollow in light of the fact that those celebrating her birth are also doomed. Thomas Cranmer, whose encomium to the infant closes the play, will be executed before he sees her reign, as will her mother, Anne Boleyn. The play concludes less with the promise of a better future than by underscoring the fact that the one thing that is sure about the future is that none of us will get to see most of it.

During the last few weeks of online teaching under quarantine, I have felt some of the strongest moments of solidarity with students that I have experienced as a teacher — a feeling arising from the fact that we have all had to recalibrate how we understand the narrative arc of our lives. We had been operating under the assumption (even if we knew better, in theory) that we moved through a predictable and coherent trajectory, and now we have been forced to confront the fact that meaningful, human-centered plot structures do not govern our lives.

The upper-division students in my “Shakespeare: Later Plays” elective at Boston College, which wrapped up with our reading of Henry VIII, articulated this realization especially well. Their most common sentiment was that they have nothing to look forward to — a view expressed not as an anxious complaint but as a clear-eyed observation. Their college education won’t lead to a job (or even a ceremony to mark the end of a life-stage), their semester of assignments won’t culminate in a feeling of mastery (or even a grade), and many meaningful relationships they have made will be cut off without resolution.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG notes that, absent any sort of plague, many meaningful relationships made in college are still cut off without resolution.

He doesn’t remember anyone who did anything formally to continue a relationship or terminate one because of graduation. He said his goodbyes and goodbyes were said to him and everyone wanted to keep in touch.

A handful of people did keep in touch for a while, PG bummed overnight stays in the apartments of friends who lived in New York, but after a few years, absent accidentally bumping into someone at the airport or a restaurant, everybody seems to have moved on to newer relationships. He suspects that the great majority of shared college experiences (not involving marriage, etc.) contain an unwritten expiration date.

In his recollection, the college relationships developed by PG’s parents traversed a similar path (except for the one between his mother and father which resulted in marriage and a cute little baby PG).