Ralph Alan Cohen has some serious problems with the ways in which Shakespeare is commonly taught in our schools. He states, "Teachers wrestle with the problem of introducing students to Shakespeare...Some are overawed at the problem of communicating to their students the greatness that they can see in Shakespeare's works. Some are themselves not sure what is so great about Shakespeare. And some do not even like Shakespeare. But all have got to teach him, because, after all, he's Shakespeare."
Dr. Cohen is the founding Executive Director of the American Shakespeare Center, as well as a professor at Mary Baldwin College, in Staunton, Virginia. He believes that the reverence in which Shakespeare is held in our culture and in the teaching of literature, in particular, has become an obstacle in the way students could experience the plays as vital, immediate works of art. Teaching generations of students has made him acutely aware of the resistance they can put up when their elders have decided (absent any consultation with them) that Shakespeare will ravish them with the beauty of his language, improve them morally or initiate them into the canon of Western thought. However, he has never lost faith that students can connect directly and intimately with the plays if they can be brought to interact with them in an immediate and dynamic way.
The first section of the book is a general review of what approaches to Shakespeare have worked in Cohen's experience, and what pitfalls he has learned to avoid. He identifies what he calls the "Seven Deadly Preconceptions" about the works (the language is too difficult; they are to be read for their plots or as philosophical narratives; they define a "high culture" that has little relation to their lives) and suggests strategies to anticipate and deal with the skepticism that many young people may bring to their first encounter with the Bard. Students often feel the burden of expectations; they are to stand in awe of the greatness of a writer many are predisposed to regard as difficult, grandiose, or irrelevant to their concerns—assumptions that are no less stubbornly held for being uninformed. Cohen lists ten "Don'ts" of teaching Shakespeare (don't assign research papers; don't read long excerpts in class) and balances them with ten helpful "Do's" (stress staging; organize group readings; stress character in your students' own terms). He devotes two entire chapters to strategies for countering the two most common complaints he has faced from students: that Shakespeare's "too hard" and that he's "boring or irrelevant."
From my own perspective as a theatre actor and director who specializes in Shakespeare and has also taught the plays at the college level, much of Cohen's approach is refreshing. He urges teachers to involve students in acting out scenes, asking and answering their own questions about what motivates characters, what kind of people they are, why and how they choose to express themselves. His techniques stress the vitality of Shakespeare in performance, emphasizing the openness of the works to alternative interpretations. Playing down the idea of definitive meanings, he embraces what Keats called Shakespeare's "negative capability," which is his refusal to force his audience toward a single interpretation—the same quality which appeals to theatre practitioners who engage with the plays in production. Cohen's emphasis on an understanding that the plays were written as popular entertainment can demystify the process and render it more accessible, and he returns again and again to the basic principle: "Stage it, stage it, stage it."
Although he is aware of the limitations of exposing students to entire plays in film or videotape form—"Once upon a time I welcomed the advent of audio-visual Shakespeare as the solution to all the problems of teaching Shakespeare. Now I see it as one of the problems"—he believes that under the instructor's guidance, short excerpts, set in contrast with corresponding excerpts from other versions, can illuminate the vitality of variant interpretations. And he urges teachers to personalize their own experience with the works for their students, being honest with them about what doesn't work for them, as well as what does. A generalized loftiness has little appeal; seeing one's teacher as a human being who can be baffled, frustrated or nonplussed by the work, as well as exalted or stirred, may make it easier for pupils to sort out their own complicated feelings about what they're reading.
The second part of ShakesFear and How to Cure It, nearly two-thirds of the volume's total length, consists in treatments of twenty-two plays, with general commentary, critiques of available movie versions, suggestions of scenes for alternative readings, and what Cohen calls "ploys," which are unconventional strategies for creating immediacy and relevance as students encounter the plays in the classroom. The "ploys" are the most successful feature in the book, including imaginative approaches that break the mold of conventional teaching methods to get students thinking about character, language and action in new ways. A few examples include having students stage Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet in its 20-minute and 90-second versions; a "Dear Abby" letter-writing exercise in which students assume the characters of Hermia, Lysander or Helena; a classroom-generated storm for the heath scenes in Lear; a "Gong Show" competition based on the Salic Law speech from Henry V. The reader is left with the feeling that Cohen's students have been unusually fortunate to study Shakespeare with a teacher whose unconventional approach, born in a sincere love of the plays, seeks to keep them accessible, relevant and inclusive.