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Shakespeare by Phone

By Michael Platt
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #10, 1995.

Teaching Shakespeare using conference calls
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Dr. Michael Platt

You don’t need to buy a computer and a modem to participate in distance learning programs. We all use a more common, and less costly, educational vehicle every day . . . the telephone.

As discussed in last issue, Professor Michael Platt teaches a Shakespeare class for the University of Wyoming. The class “meets” once a week through the telephone, in a format similar to a party-line or conference call. Here’s how it works.

Although the phone connections are sometimes difficult—interruptions, screeches, volume control, fuzziness—once the right equipment is provided, the connections are steady and reliable.

On average, such a class has 10 students per section, but up to 20 students could join easily.

All written assignments and exams are submitted through the mail. The students are required to submit journals on each new reading of Shakespeare each week. In these journals, the students record any ideas, reactions to readings, and questions they might have. Dr. Platt reviews the journal entries, uses them to bring up discussion topics and draw students in the conversation, and returns them with comments, but no grades.

Paper topics often emerge from the journal. These can be discussed over the phone with Dr. Platt, and, when completed, can be submitted by mail. Dr. Platt is more lenient with papers than journals, saying that they should be done at leisure, around the student’s schedule.

The midterm and final exams are either sent to the students to be completed on the honor system (“When you have three hours to sit down, then do it and send it back”) or sent to a school nearby each student to be administered by a volunteer faculty member. The exams consist of “comprehensive questions that ask you to review, survey, and gather together all your reading of Shakespeare.”

Dr. Platt also requires the memorization of 100 lines of Shakespearean text. The student recites the lines to a volunteer faculty member at a local college who “grades” the memorization and sends the results to Dr. Platt. “One hundred lines is what my students have done for 25 years. If this were the 19th century, it would probably be 500 or 600 lines. Which lines you pick is entirely up to you. Pick ones that you would later enjoy bringing out at a party or whatever situation you might think appropriate.”

Student submissions are also sent back by mail. Students can then review Dr. Platt’s comments and ask any questions in the next telephone session.

Generally, the class meetings start with administrative questions and answers, clearing up any confusion with scheduling or assignments. Some obvious disorder is caused by the distance.

After the initial question and answer session, class progresses to reading discussion. Dr. Platt begins either with questions about specific themes, or with a scene. Instead of lecturing, Dr. Platt stirs, nudges, and leads the students to discover insights of their own, on their own.

Students can ask or answer questions at any time. Because the class is conducted over the phone, Dr. Platt’s questions are often answered with silence. The students find it easy to ignore or bypass questions. Dr. Platt will eventually call on someone (he has a student list) or will answer the question himself and move on. “If the silence is filled with thought, there is no reason for anyone to be embarrassed,” he says.

Key scenes of the play are sometimes acted out. The students are assigned parts and read aloud to the rest of the class. This is followed by discussion of the scene.

As promised, we have transcribed a portion of one of Dr. Platt’s typical teleconference sessions. Class began with Dr. Platt taking questions from the students and clearing up some administrative issues before getting into the day’s discussion:

Platt: I’d like you to write up your journals before you go see the movie [Henry V] and then, if you wish to add whatever reflections the movie prompts in you, that will be our assignment for next week. Meanwhile I’m going to write up some questions, partly from what you sent, and send them back out with the journals on Monday. These would be due with ample time. Again, journals are to be done religiously before the reading of the play and the sharing of any ideas, but on the papers we can be a little more lenient and fit around your schedules.
  Now, let’s then turn to the second part of Henry IV. We were saying last time that if the timing of young Hal, the redemption that he speaks of in his first soliloquy, were right, there probably wouldn’t be a second part to Henry IV. Hal would have let his father be killed by Douglas, and he would have instantly become the king. This would have completed his managed reformation. But, it doesn’t happen this way. Obviously, there are some things in history plays that cannot be changed. Shakespeare can’t have, after Henry I, the introduction of King Jerome I. He also can’t have Henry IV not taking over from Richard II. But on another level, one wonders if Shakespeare could have represented Henry IV reigning fairly gloriously, without the trouble of rebellion. One wonders if Shakespeare couldn’t have chosen to have skipped part two entirely.
With that introduction, let me ask you, what does Henry IV Part II add to our understanding of kingship, of the growth or plans of Hal?

Student: I saw this as a coming of age of the prince [Hal]. He was looking at eventually gaining the crown. With that crown comes a lot of torment and responsibility which has been laid out by his father. I think that’s what the whole play talks about.

Platt: So, you don’t feel the same feelings of responsibility in the previous play?

Student: I found a lot more feeling from the king in this play. A lot of reflection of his past.

Platt: I can mention, can I not, that in your journal you reaffirmed your allegiance to Richard II, yet you said that you had more sympathy for Henry IV now that you see him burdened and sad.

Student: That’s how I felt. I got to thinking a lot about kings, the responsibility of being king, and the sadness of Henry IV.

Platt: So, one might have thought at the end of Richard II, ‘Hey, it’s pretty neat to be the King.’ But now, that’s less true. Would you all agree that Part II makes the burdens of kingship seem more weighty and therefore less desirable?

Student: Well, I thought the attainment of kingship leads to ease, and ease weakens people.

Platt: I was just talking to a fellow worker about the disappearance of farmers in America. He, knowing that I’d recently been reading Little House in the Big Woods, pointed to the episode where Pa gets the thresher. Not everybody’s keen on this new machine, but Pa says he is at the end. Something can succeed so well, and give us such luxury and ease that we succumb to it. That seems to be a general truth.
  But, I wonder how much ease we see so far from Henry IV. It might be much more deleterious to be a king’s son that a king. That is, you might grow up at greater ease. Your dad has the responsibility, you have the ease. One day you will have the responsibility. Your dad will give it to you, but he cannot pass on the hard path that may have disciplined him on the way to the crown. It is natural for parents to want to make things easier for their children, but it is seldom good for them.
  In Part One, we saw Prince Hal spending his college years with Professor Falstaff, the original Doctor of Secular Humanism. Once again, in Part Two, we see Hal at ease with Falstaff. How does the ease that Hal shares with Falstaff differ from the ease he felt in Part One?

Student: I don’t think Hal enjoys it as much. When he wants to see Falstaff he hides and watches him rather than be with him.

Platt: Is there additional evidence?

Student: Yes. He is getting tired of all the old people around him. He’s coming to the place in his life where he wants his own opinions, and he wants to be rid of these old ideas.

Platt: So you sense a restlessness in him. Of course, his father can sense this restlessness in him. But, let’s ask the question another way. Is Falstaff the same in this play?

Student: Is anybody the same or different at any time? Aren’t we always changing?

Platt: Yes. So we have to distinguish or discriminate. You’re right to bring up the example of ourselves. We can look at a picture of ourselves in the forth grade and think, “That’s me.” Yet, we know all sorts of things that have changed. So, in what ways has Falstaff changed or what are the differences?

Student: He talks about how at this point in his life he doesn’t need people watching over him. He needs rewards. Maybe he feels his mortality more?

Platt: That’s my thought, yes. In Part One, there was a fullness and pleasure in his actions. And now he feels much more mortal. Is that sense increased by any new or additional characters?

Student: The Chief Justice irritates him, makes him feel like he is constantly being judged and that his time is short.

Platt: Right. The Chief Justice comes in and he is judging. And it’s but a short step to say, is it not, that the Chief Justice’s presence, judging him, reminds Falstaff of the judgment soon to follow his mortality? What other new characters add to the flavor of things?

Student: Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet give Falstaff a reason to settle down. Not that he really wants to, but he already has the Chief Justice breathing down his neck. Maybe he thinks that once Hal becomes king he can retire.

Platt: Right. Of course, we learn more about his entanglements with these characters throughout the play. The filthy shirts and other things he gets off them, so to speak. Off Mistress Quickly he gets something humorously, for ignorance of word meanings turns one of her statements into an hilarious declaration, an innocent declaration of guilt. Are there any other characters who add to the mixture?

Student: Poins does. He says things to Falstaff all the time that point to his age.

Platt: Right. Suddenly Falstaff has white whiskers. So Poins talks about beards, black beards. That’s another good example. It’s with him that we get one of the greatest lines from Shakespeare, “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.”
  But back to mortality. Everybody seems to be winding down, going slower, less capable. In pursuing this theme of the mix of things, are there important people that have been subtracted to change the mix? . . .

So before we all rush to sign up with the virtual classroom and e-mail, let’s hear it for that great 20th-century invention, the telephone!

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