Tuesday, January 13, 2009

No, You’re Schmoopie


Something about the URL caught my eye.  This is just one of many “no fear” type of sites that summarize the plays, but I particularly liked their style.  It’s very introductory, but that’s my thing – I’d much rather introduce kids to a light and fluffy version of the story to hook them, and then show them the real thing later.  It’s tough to strike a balance between “trust me, this is fun, look at all the jokes and comedy” and “No, seriously, you are reading what many people consider to be the greatest literature ever written, genuflect whenever you turn the page.”  But I thought from a quick skim that this site did a fair job at it.

Note what I said, though – kids.  Younguns.  What I hate and have always hated is when older kids (nay, adults) use sites like this as their one and only exposure to Shakespeare, figuring that if they just get the plot and characters then it’ll be enough to pass the test or hold a conversation at a party.  That’s the logic I use with my children.  My 4yr old knows plot and character, don’t be getting all proud of yourself.

What if you’re an adult with no exposure to Shakespeare?  That troubles me, but I realize it’s a legit question.  Any adult that comes up to me and says, “I’ve never read Shakespeare before, where should I start?” automatically wins points for *wanting* to learn, when they don’t have to.  Those are not the folks who are going to say “Ok, cool, I read the Cliff Notes now I’m all set.”  I’m perfectly happy to direct those folks to a summary/paraphrasing of the work, with the strong suggestion that they see the show and read the original as well.


Preston said...

I checked it out and found it interesting. It's very easy to use. I admit that my knowledge of Shakespeare is limited. I am currently in a production of Measure for Measure so I am learning more about Shakespeare on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

Hi from Shmoop. Thanks for checking us out and for the nice write-up!

We gear Shmoop's study guides toward a high school to college-aged audience. That said, we hear from learners of all ages (book clubs, history geeks, etc.) who enjoy our fun and fresh take on these subjects.

Our content is written primarily by Ph.D. and Masters students from Berkeley and Stanford (many of whom teach these subjects at the undergraduate level).

We keep it conversational and fun as a way to draw folks in. Hopefully, our intellectual rigor and passion for these subjects shine through as you read in to our content.

Anyhow, thanks for the review. We're planning to add even more Shakespeare, so please check back in and let us know what you think!

Brady from Shmoop HQ

amusings_bnl said...

Hey Brady -- good luck with the project. I was going to use shmoop to help my son learn more about the Winters Tale, which he'll be doing this summer. he's 12 and i think your guide would work for him. but you don't have that up yet.

duane -- my father in law actually decided this year before seeing Romeo & Juliet and Henry V to get the sparknotes. he was able to follow both plays very well. he "got" it when he saw it, whereas last year when he saw midsummer he was lost beyond all reason.

basic plot/outline guides like the shmoop and sparknotes are very helpful to get the feet wet before seeing a play... but using them in place of the actual work... lame. my father in law may not ever go READ henry V... but at least now he understands the significance of "we few, we happy few..."

Jack Morgan said...

My parents didn't get why I was so into theater and thought that Shakespearean memorizations were important. Now I bring them to productions, and they've totally turned around. They no longer think that cheat-guides like these are necessary and understand why Shakespeare is so freakin good.

The truth is guides have never been necessary. At any age. Kids don't need them, and adults don't need them. college students need them to pretend like they've read the plays they were "supposed" to.

I went to Berkeley, and many of my friends went to Stanford. It makes me sad they are working on summary sites instead of going to theaters.

Meanwhile, theaters are having to beg for money in order to make it through this economic disaster big businesses are getting bailed out of. The American Shakespeare Center has a facebook cause to raise money.

I'm not against summary sites. Even I forget who said what in which play. But it shouldn't be your first stop; the playhouse should.

Blackfriars Playhouse is a great first stop, I must say, but any theater will do in a jam.

Duane said...

I appreciate the sentiment Jack, even if I do disagree a bit. I think that one big huge problem with live theatre is quite simply that if you miss something, you can't pause and go back. You can in a book, you can on a video, you can if somebody else is telling you the story (stop and ask them a question). This is a big deal. Attention spans are not always perfect. The more you miss, the harder it is to continue. Without the ability to fill in some of the gaps (short of going to see it all again from the beginning), it can end up being impossible.

For more detailed answer check out this post from a different forum on a related topic:


Jack Morgan said...

But that's treating Shakespeare like homework. There's no need to understand every single word. It's not a math equation.

Theater is a break from the real world. People couldn't pause "I Love Lucy" and still loved it. There's no way they understood every word of every episode, or even got all the jokes. "Family Guy" uses references from a million different pop culture memes, and no one gets all of them. There's no need to go through Shakes and get all of them before heading out to a theater. Who said you're supposed to "get" everything?

Shakespeare isn't challenging; it's fun. The more we create guides for people, the more it looks like homework. People try to do this to all forms of entertainment. The truth is this:
You don't need to know who the "real" Macbeth or Theseus were. You don't need to know what Lucy "really" thought about Ricky. You don't need to know who the quarterback of either team is. No study's necessary unless you plan on getting paid for giving a speech someplace.

Schmoopie is kind of a nice site, though. Clean.

Duane said...

I think you're right, you don't need to know who the real Macbeth was to appreciate the story. But I think your examples are not on target, as you *will* get about 98% of I Love Lucy. I never said you need to get all or everything. But at least Lucy is speaking a language you understand. For the most part, Shakespeare's characters are not speaking in a way that the unprepared listener can handle. They're using grammatical structures that are not known today. They're using archaic words sometimes. And so on.

It's true that if you turned off the sound for I Love Lucy you could get the basic idea of what's going on through the various characters - working husband, wife with a kooky scheme, best friend, etc... - but that's all you'll ever get is the basic idea, until you turn the sound back on. It's the same with Shakespeare - you can see the play all you want and try to figure it out from the facial expressions and tone of voice, but until you get some other way of understanding some of the core details about what's going on, then really all you've done is treated yourself to a visual No Fear Shakespeare, because you didn't get anything out of it that a one paragraph summary wouldn't have told you. Probably less content, though you might have enjoyed it more.

Got kids, Jack? Got a 4yr old? Go take her/him to see Henry V, then come back and have the child repeat the story. I did that this summer. They can spend 10 minutes saying "Why is that man mad at those other men?" which indeed shows that they can figure things out by facial expression and tone of voice, but 45 minutes and 200 questions later you think they're still having fun, or you think they're completely lost and just wondering when it'll be over?

Jack Morgan said...

Kids love Shakespeare. Having kids repeat the story of anything is an exercise in futility. Why would you want them to after a play?

What we should be amazed with is how much the unprepared audience understands and how little of that understanding was necessary to the enjoyment of the production. I supposed if I knew I was going to be asked questions regarding anything I would study up on it. I don't know what kind of cars were used in Transporter 3 or why the man was mad at the other men, but I still enjoyed it.

We go into most arts unprepared. Some people pretend to know what Jackson Pollack painting mean, and anyone with a keyboard can go to Wikipedia to find out things about his paintings, but preparing me for them should/does not affect my enjoyment of them. Shakespeare is no different.

Universities are filled with people trying to explain things that need no explaining. No one needs telling why to enjoy anything.

I don't have kids. But kids don't know anything more or less about Shakespeare's language than the average uninitiated adult. And most of Shakespeare's original audience would have been in the dark for a lot of the stuff we find puzzling at first glance, too. But kids enjoy it, which is the point and the only thing to get.

I might not take a kid to see Henry V, though. AMND or CoE, though; those would be great.

Duane said...

I think you are making more of an argument here than I am offering. I'm not saying that everybody needs to run around quizzing each other to validate experiences. But on the other hand how do you know that the child who just sat through Romeo and Juliet wasn't simply thinking about soup the whole time?

Kids might well love Midsummer, true. They also love Teletubbies and Barney. At some point I think I'd like Shakespeare to rise above his competition, just a smidge.

Another word for enjoyment, the way you are using it, is "ignorance". I dunno what is, but me like! I can agree with the general idea of not letting deeper understanding be an obstacle to enjoyment, but you seem to be arguing that deeper understanding has no value, and that I disagree with. Perhaps the better word is "appreciation" rather than "enjoyment". That's where we can start to ponder the why question. Kids don't know from appreciation, they don't say "I appreciate that Teletubbies are available to me on Sunday mornings." Adults can. Adults can make the connection between "For the last 2 hours I was entertained" and "Because of what I experienced for the last 2 hours, my life is different." See what I mean?

Go see King Lear. You might hate it. It is very long, pretty boring at parts, and awfully violent and depressing. But it might also be the greatest piece of literature in the English language. So when somebody walks out saying "I didn't enjoy that" it does indeed make me feel bad that they've missed the deeper understanding, and wonder that if perhaps they didn't just walk in cold, they might have been able to better appreciate it.

Jack Morgan said...

Many Shakespeareans, presumably because they enjoy Shakespeare so much, want to push the importance they feel toward the works on other people.

Shakespeare is the greatest writer the world has ever known. Having said that is just to say that he produced the most enjoyable works in any canon anywhere. People have been told for hundreds of years to understand Shakespeare through study, which makes a lot of people think they have to do more to enjoy the plays than they do to have to enjoy Teletubbies. Teletubbies are no more or less life-changing or important than Shakespeare. I know that Sesame St., though I don't watch it anymore, was life-changing for me.

Shakespeare seems to get better the older I get. I love it for different reasons now than I did when I was a young person. Or do I? Who knows? I think I like I Love Lucy for different reasons than I did when I was younger, too. Maybe. That's something I struggle with in my own research.

When critical minds are confronted with the unbelievable or unexplainable, they work to explain and believe. I would like to understand why so many people like Shakespeare despite it being sold to them as homework for grownups. I read and study and research in order to do so, creating more homework. Scholars are always trying to tell people why and how to enjoy things rather than just seeking to know why and how.

It seems the more I know, the more I like Shakespeare and all other art forms. That appreciation does have a value to me and maybe to others.

My only argument is that going in "cold" is better than anything else. Unexpected things become magical ones in the hands of good productions. When the magic occurs, the critical mind will search for answers. If not, they at least had a good time in the humble cockpit, which is all Shakespeare wanted. Why should we want more? What value does pushing for more have?

Duane said...

>Teletubbies are no more or less
>life-changing or important than


*cricket chirp*


Ok, I'm speechless.

Jack Morgan said...

Maybe that's the problem.
Mr. Rogers and Sesame St. and even Teletubbies are important.

As a culture we value Shakespeare over kids shows and all other forms of entertainment for the most part. The question then is why. Just because we care more about Shakespeare as a culture doesn't mean that we care more for it or that it's more important or life-changing.

I like Shakespeare more than Teletubbies, but I am uninitiated when it comes to the latter. Who am I to say that one is more important or life-changing than the other? I am certain that child television programming has a great effect on a life. Most people will never read a play or see a production of one. How important can Shakespeare really be?

My goal is to help people enjoy the play. Shakespeare and the audience does the rest.

I just watched a little teletubbies. I don't get it. It's a little funny. Surely kids find it hilarious. Is there a scholarly site out there to help me understand it better?

catkins said...

Jack, there really is a difference between diversion and entertainment and between simple entertainment and artistry. One might be entertained by two hours without being moved. Now, you may ask whether there is any value in being moved, and I say yes! I find it a more thriiling experience. It's not that it's more highbrow, or that it makes me a better person (although if it makes me think more about the human condition, it just might) but most importantly it is more satisfying. If you read Ron Rosenbaum's "The Shakespeare Wars" he waxes poetic about it. I think he goes overboard--as if your life would be the driest desert without Shakespeare--but I love the sense of wonder and joy he exudes when you read about the thrill he gets from a great performance.
I think all Duane is saying is that to achieve that thrill, sometimes it helps to have a little background before seeing a play. I agree with you that with a superb performance that can often be unnecessary. But I also agree with Duane that a little help can go a long way, especially since many productions fall short of the superb.
Personally, I am a big fan of reading the plays themselves. The most difficult problem there is that there are as many difficiencies in published editions as there are in live productions. However, since I have published my couple of articles on Shakespeare, I have been getting an occasional copy of a play from various publishers and I have to say I am very impressed by the Signet Classics edition. They are very lightly emended and contain notes at the bottom of the pages only for explanations of difficult words or phrases. They use a nice system of marking the spot in the text that is being glossed so you can tell when you are going to get help. There are no long-winded editorial excursions about subjects unrelated to understanding the text. These are texts designed to get you through the play from to beginning to end being able to understand what you are reading. I think they are great and it's what I would recommend to someone who seriously wanted to know about a play before seeing it in production.
I know, Duane, you are right. Most people would not want to spend the time reading the entire play before a performance. They should probably go to Schmoop.com.
Oh, and Duane, if you saw a performance of Lear and thought it was long and boring in parts, shame on the director! I saw the RSC with Ian McKellan at the Brooklyn Academy of Music perform it and it was thrilling from beginning to end!

Jack Morgan said...

There is no need to read a play, study anything about it or its history, or even to know anything about the play to enjoy or appreciate it.

Sometimes studying the things we love can be fun. I like reading Shakespeare, too. I usually don't read whole plays at a time. If that's what you like to do, more power! The only thing I'm saying is that telling other people that they have to read a play in order to appreciate it is criminal. I am arrogant about a great many things, but I would never presume to tell someone that they don't know enough to enjoy or appreciate a play.

It is precisely because people are told that they need to do homework before seeing Shakespeare that they think they don't understand anything. Most people do get Shakespeare. Most people even like Shakespeare.

Jackie Chan's movies are filled with moves and stunts that have histories and names. I don't need to know them to like his movies. If a kung-fu enthusiast told me that I needed to know them and that I wasn't appreciating the film like he/she was, I would feel offended and maybe even a little stupid about it. It might even turn me off to kung-fu movies.

If you love Shakespeare, you'll love the plays and not tell other people that they should like them. They aren't challenging, and they aren't high-brow, and they require no effort before or after the production. Shakespeare is an experience, not really a subject. Only freaks like me want to study it. One need not be as freaky as I am to love theater in general and Shakespeare in particular.