David Smith, chair of Milton’s English department for 11 years and faculty member from 1981 through 2015, describes his recently published book, Be a Teacher, as “a memoir in 10 ideas.” David crafts the irresistible essays in his book with artfully rendered scenes, lively and idiosyncratic characters, unfailing wit and unfettered honesty. From his exploration of ideas about teaching and learning as they evolved over decades of experience, Milton Magazine excerpts:
Shakespeare was my own first literary love affair (not counting Hornblower and the space operas of Heinlein and Bradbury), and whenever I start teaching a play it is like renewing an old, old relationship, one that can be set aside and picked up again without a missed beat. Like most relationships, though, it is more complicated than it at first seems — or, at least, it has a history. The pure linguistic intoxication that I felt when I imbibed Richard II in the spring of 1958 is still with me, but many of the plays seem to have shifted shape over time. Today I can scarcely believe how much slack I once cut King Lear, how ready I was to accept his self-serving claim to be a man “more sinned against than sinning,” and how I idealized the priggish daughter who is so hung up on telling the truth that she provokes a deadly familial war. When I watch Paul Schofield, in the Peter Brook movie, heave over a table in Goneril’s refectory and send the plates and cutlery flying, I think that Schofield and Brook (and the Fool) have got it right: it’s too bad this tantruming toddler became old before he became wise. Why ever did I choose to overlook such egregious bad behavior?
The play that has changed the most for me, however, is that ultimate canonical work, Hamlet, with which I became obsessed as a junior in college. I identified with the Prince, who seemed to me like a more romantic and more eloquent version of Holden Caulfield. I relished both his scathing tirades and his flippant repartee. Unlucky in love myself (or so I imagined despite having experienced nothing but the most rarefied crushes), I felt the full anguish of his rejection by Ophelia. His melancholy was an intoxicant, his anger a rush of righteousness. I scorned the distance that my teachers insisted was the proper stance toward a character in a literary work. When Olivier, sword in hand, leapt from a stone staircase to dispatch his uncle, I leapt with him. The existential laugh that Burton gave at the end, as he sank down on the vacant throne to let the poison do its work, seemed to come from my own mouth. That my goggle-eyed hero-worship of a character in a 350-year-old play might seem odd to the girl I took to the Burton film did not occur to me — or, if it did, demoted her in my mind to just one more pretty but uncomprehending Ophelia, who might better head straight for a nunnery than go on another date with me.
I first taught the play the year I was a Fellow at Andover. By way of mentoring, the chairman asked me to teach it not to my own students but to those of one of the senior department members, who would watch and offer suggestions. The teacher had little rapport with his class and was happy to sit back and let me do what I could, which was, by comparison with the enormous weight of meaning that Hamlet had for me, not much. By this time I had most of the text memorized, and I had spent an entire Christmas vacation gleaning nuggets of commentary from the variorum edition and inscribing them in the margins of my book. I was prepared to be both guru and drudge, but neither role seemed to have much effect. I talked and talked. When they talked — and they did so rarely — none of the students expressed anything like my affinity for the Prince. Their papers were dutiful but uninspired. After the last meeting, my would-be mentor complimented me on my knowledge of the play but had nothing to say about the non-event of my teaching it. His mentoring, like most I received in those figure-it-out-for-yourself days, was a non-event piled on a non-event. Mostly, he seemed dispirited at the prospect of having to take the class back on his own narrow shoulders.
My students today are often fascinated by Hamlet the play, though they have their doubts about Hamlet the character. I show them the 38 pages of notes that one website coughs up on possible meanings of the phrase “smote the sledded pollax on the ice” and we share a laugh at the expense of X-treme literary scholarship. Then we get down to gauging the extent of our sympathy with the Prince. I am smart enough by this time to get out of the way and let the room fill up with the questions that Shakespeare’s words naturally evoke. If a consensus emerges, it is rarely in favor of Hamlet. True, he’s surrounded by insensitive adults and unsympathetic (and even treacherous) peers. True, he has some reason to believe that his uncle poured poison in his father’s ear — and he knows that the drunken old goat has married his mother. But Hamlet talks too much and thinks too much. He’s a habitual procrastinator — probably never turned his papers in on time back there in Wittenberg. If he wants revenge, he should get on with it and not let things fester. Worst of all, like Holden, he’s too cynical, too ready to write off the world and all its juicy opportunities.
I’d like my students to like Hamlet a little more than they usually do. His philosophical questioning is appropriate to the age group, and so is his weltschmerz. But I can’t help admiring their refusal to be swept along by the conventional assumption that he is a hero, and I have to love their reflexive faith that life must be more than a pestilent congregation of vapors. As for me, my identification with the Prince has weakened considerably over the years, and I even begin to feel a certain fellow feeling for Claudius. He is no better than he should be — indeed, a good deal worse — but he has been around the block often enough to understand that we must try to make our peace with living in a fallen state. This perspective, too, is a useful one for young and old to consider.