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The Bard at BMCC

The Bard at BMCC by Cybele Zufolo  

Published in the CUNY Faculty Journal The Inquirer

December 2009 Volume 16

Adjunct Instructor of Writing and English, Cybele Zufolo

Borough of Manhattan Community College

When I first walked in to teach Introduction to Shakespeare at the Borough of Manhattan Community College I was greeted by a packed room of eager and enthusiastic students, some theater majors and some older students, who asked me if I was another Professor whom they were expecting. I told them I was not and they seemed puzzled.  One student asked me if I had taught Shakespeare before to college students, and I told her that no, I had not. Thinking I might lose them, I immediately revealed to the class some of my artistic background before I went into teaching; I reassured them that I absolutely love Shakespeare, and used to be a professional actress, and that I performed in a few of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as Epicoene or The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson. 

I studied Shakespeare extensively in college and graduate school. The students were reluctant. I needed to prove myself or they would leave after the first day. This was not going to happen. The first day I performed for them one of Juliet’s monologues in Romeo and Juliet, then throughout the semester, I would offer dramatic interpretations from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Desdemona in Othello and Hamlet in Hamlet. On the first day, I asked for two volunteers to read the roles of two soldiers in Verona, the backdrop for Romeo and Juliet. This was an opening fight scene between Sampson and Gregory. The lines were short and provocative. They loved the small demonstration on the first day. The class found the scene more humorous than provocative.  The energy in the room was palpable from the first day, due in part to the theater and liberal arts majors sitting in various places around the room. There was a contagious sense of enthusiasm in the room because I was teaching something I really loved and the students picked up on it. 

To teach the course at BMCC, I used the Shakespeare Set Free book series by Peggy O’Brien from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington DC. I was introduced to these books at Teachers College, in an excellent course called “The Teaching Shakespeare.” These wonderful books have an abundance of enormously helpful and creative lesson plans to structure the teaching of a particular play. There are intricate details of lessons designed to motivate and energize students about Shakespeare’s plays, while demystifying the language and image of Shakespeare as being “too difficult” and intimidating. I found the lessons in Shakespeare Set Free to be witty, lively, creative, energetic, with a thorough grounding in written response, thematic analysis and poetry. 

Students learn that these plays are actually about human emotion, silly slapstick comedy, and gut wrenching drama. These lessons help them get past the challenge of the language and see the play in a more physical dynamic way. Students actually enjoy the camaraderie of reading to another student, in a small group, on their feet. Shakespeare Set Free, and previous theatre training was an effective springboard for my course that helped me scaffold the entire semester. The challenges were there, such as how can I make this course interesting, entertaining and less intimidating for students who are new to 16th century English? How can the students stay motivated and intrigued with the material? The next question I thought was, how can they not love these brilliant plays written in a language that replicated the beating of one’s heart?

The iamb is the human heart and these are living, breathing words. The power of Shakespeare’s words never diminish. I based a substantial amount of lessons from this book, and then created a few of my own.

Students worked on group research projects analyzing the geography and history of Othello’s Venice in Renaissance Italy. Another group explored the various depictions of Othello throughout the ages from Paul Robeson to Lawrence Fishburne. Students gained a deeper understanding of the character and the portrayals of him in different time periods, where racism and xenophobia ran rampant in the theater world from 1500’s to the1920’s. We worked on the opening scene in Macbeth in which three witches are stirring a pot of magic stew skillfully brought to life by a few volunteers. Students stood in two long rows facing each other exchanging three word insults and compliments such as “thou beetle-headed saucy knave” and having fun in the process. 

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         The Bard at BMCC by Cybele Zufolo. Published -

          in the CUNY Faculty Journal The Inquirer December 2009

Some more lessons that went extremely well were: the Othello talk show, in which students speak as the characters, speaking as though they were on a modern day talk show panel, complete with a psychologist, judge and host. This lesson was designed to help students connect Othello’s predicaments in the 1600’s with those of modern day, some that we might even see on a TV talk show. The problems are not so remote and unique to Renaissance Italy, they could happen today. I remember how groups of students to acted out small scenes with playful gusto. Later in the week I gave an in-class essay, inspired by an essay written by Barbara Mowat who wrote the introduction to the Folger edition of Othello, analyzing the “motiveless malignity” (Greenblatt and Spivak) of Iago’s character. 

One lesson was for students to work in groups to bring the first ten lines of the Romeo and Juliet prologue to life. With music and movement, staying grounded in the text, student’s enthusiastically re-visioned Shakespeare’s words for a modern audience. Some had no intention of doing this, some were laughing excitedly and getting to know each other, some were taking notes and assigning different things to do. After the artistic presentation of words, I noticed that some students were surprised with themselves, and their newfound creativity. They hadn’t believed they were up to the challenge. Some shed a layer of timidity and diffidence as a new more confident self began to emerge. Some didn’t think they would like the Bard, let alone love him, or find the heights of drama, humor and excitement that I feel when I read the plays. Students were free to read male or female roles. The most important thing for me to teach was asking the students to view and read Shakespeare’s words as a script and not a text. These were not dusty 400 year-old books, these were living passages of real human emotion, all taking place on stage, between characters much like ourselves, with similar experiences. The words truly become powerful when they are read standing up, speaking to another character. When Juliet says, “My only love, sprung from my only hate!” students could easily say the same thing in modern English about the complexities of a close relationship. 

One of the most memorable lessons in my course addressed Juliet’s ‘dueling consciences’ before she takes the poison. Three volunteers sit in front of the room, on three chairs, one playing Juliet and the other two playing her ‘dueling consciences’ of good and evil, telling her to take or not to take the poison. This was a very successful lesson as students were able to see Juliet as a real human being forced to make a grave and potentially fatal decision. Students were eager to participate and spoke to our Juliet with earnest concern, as though she was a good friend. Students playfully and then fervently disagreed as to what she should do. One particular assignment I enjoyed was to write a poem that stemmed from the significance of the night in Romeo and Juliet, and everything the night meant to Juliet. One student created a magnificent post card entitled “Greeting from Verona” in which Romeo is writing to Juliet after his exile, telling her how much he misses her and longs to see her. Another day, students learned the dances at the banquet where Romeo and Juliet met for the first time, to create the environment of the play, as a way to motivate the students.

Another successful lesson called for four volunteers to demonstrate how Hamlet’s soldiers would stand guard outside the castle when they see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This helps students visualize the scene and the guards outside the castle, taking the words off the page and into their hands. Students pondered: how would a real soldier stand guard at 2AM in the freezing cold? The study of old English words becomes the study of physical actions, something my students could relate to more than the words at first. After viewing the physical action of the characters, the words became easier to understand. A Hamlet lesson that I put together involved discussing Foucault’s prison theory as a model for Hamlet’s Denmark. Hamlet often mentions how Denmark is a prison and we thought about the network of Elsinore castle as a self- contained prison.  Later in the week we explored the validity of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal complex in relation to Hamlet and his mother. 

In addition to the lessons from the Folger library, I asked each student if they would discuss two of their papers with the class, to offer insight into the writing process. It is important for students to hear each other’s work, and also helps guard against plagiarism, especially in a Shakespeare course where so much of the scholarly material is easily accessible on the internet. The presentation shows that the student did a sizable amount of research on the subject and is familiar with the subject. When I asked a student to discuss her paper, she was unable to mention any of the examples and key points of her essay, and was unfamiliar with the material in her essay.  I have found that students are not able to discuss a paper they allegedly wrote, possibly because they didn’t write it.

 

 3                          The Bard at BMCC by Cybele Zufolo. Published -

                              in the CUNY Faculty Journal The Inquirer December 2009

 

Some memorable essays were about the father-daughter relationship in Romeo and Juliet and Othello, the role of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, movie depictions of the plays on screen such as “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.” Another essay was about racial discrimination in Othello and an analysis of the Moor identity throughout the middle ages. One student chose to write about cross cultural and bi-racial romantic relationships in Romeo and Juliet, in Othello and modern society. 

A literature student wrote three different letters that the characters might send to each other such as a letter from Iago to Roderigo, revealing his sinister plan, from the Nurse to Juliet, begging her not to marry Romeo, and from the Ghost of Hamlets father to Hamlet, revealing who murdered him. 

Introduction to Shakespeare at BMCC was an effective and rewarding precursor to a program that I participated in a few months later. That summer I participated in an intensive five-week program at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton Virginia, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The program was made up of college English professors and Theater professors from around the country, who were brought together to study, perform and listen to lectures by renowned Shakespeare scholars, including one from Oxford. We worked in small groups with professional actors in the stage company of the Blackfriar’s Theater Company to offer an interpretation of key scenes in Antony and Cleopatra. On the final day, each group of actors and teachers performed scenes of memorized text, complete with costumes, lighting and music. The experience was a great joy. The Teaching of Shakespeare taught me about the power of enthusiasm for a subject. If you love a subject then they just might love it too. The spirit of the Bard is alive and well here at BMCC.