#MeToo, Shakespeare...


7th graders are a frustrating mix: cute and innocent, still tooling around in a vestige of their child-like elementary school likenesses, yet beginning to experiment with peer groups, risk taking, and pushing boundaries. Each year, they transform before my eyes from meek, curious mice into bold go-getters (for better or worse). The trouble is, as they begin to stretch their legs and claim morsels of independence, they don't often apply critical thinking to their decision-making process.

It was the third week of my Shakespeare unit this year when a gaggle of students came up to me after class. They had worried, conflicted looks in their eyes--a look I know all too well. It was the look students get when they want to report something that has happened among their peers, but they don't want to be labeled the "snitch" or the "tattletale" of the group. They informed me that one student in my class was directing a group of young boys to form a circle around an unsuspecting 7th grade girl in the hallway. Then he was encouraging everyone in the circle to touch or grab any part of the surrounded girl they wanted. And no, they weren't asking her permission.

The situation exploded from there. Aside from having hallway security camera footage of this happening right near my classroom door, I had a handful of other students privately report similar stories of this student pushing boundaries. "He touches my legs under the table during science class," one student told me. "I was just standing in the lunch room, and he came up and touched me," another reported. In following up on this situation with counselors and deans, more and more students' stories were unearthed. It was a #MeToo movement unfolding right before my eyes.

I felt crushed. I felt furious. I felt powerless, in a strange way. Even though I had connected students with the necessary parties to sort through the situation and deliver appropriate consequences to each participant, I still couldn't believe this had happened to my own students. After all, it was first and foremost my job to protect my students in my classroom--especially in a city like Chicago, where my students' lives are constantly under threat of gun violence, domestic violence, etc. For most of them, school is the safest place they have access to.

The next week, I set aside my anger to the best of my ability and continued forward with my Shakespeare unit. Our close reading passage for the week was Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, which is set down here for your convenience:

     Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
     Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
     Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
     And summer’s lease hath all too short a date; 
5   Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
     And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
     And every fair from fair sometime declines,
     By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;
     But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
10 Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
     Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
     When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

There are many interpretations of this sonnet--and all of Shakespeare's sonnets. The first, and most obvious, is that it is simply a love poem. Petrarch would be proud, considering the poem's expression of "problematic desire" (often written in the form of unrequited love, though not in this case). Instead of lusting after the unattainable "Laura," however, the poet instead finds himself conflicted with the best comparison he can make for the object of his love. The second and perhaps most mind-blowing interpretation is that Shakespeare wrote it as a eulogy (perhaps for his deceased son, Hamnet?). Of course, that's the beauty of the sonnets--no matter how many times we read them and form new interpretations of them, they are just never quite what they seem.

For the sake of the interpretation I'll present here, we must assume that the speaker is wooing someone. My students assumed that the speaker was a straight man wooing a straight woman, and I allowed this heteronormative assumption to remain only because of the conflict my students had experienced the previous week.

The first thing I pointed out to my students is that this sonnet begins with a question. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" One of my most vocal students, a female, shouted, "YES!" as soon as I read the first line. We all laughed, but this opened up an important conversation: What was the lady's reply? The students reasoned that, if her answer to the poet's question was "No," the poet would not have continued writing the rest of the sonnet. Therefore, her answer must have been "Yes," and thus the poet continues. Just like that, we were discussing consent in the classroom. We discussed boundaries and how, while expressing your feelings is always positive, one must make sure the party you are expressing them to is willing and comfortable with the means in which you express yourself. The best way to make sure of this is simple: just ask.

Well Shakespeare, the first line of your sonnet directly led to an important discussion about consent, boundaries, respect, and relationship dynamics. Could the rest of the sonnet be just as poignant?

Let's look at line 7, which comes just before the conflict in the poem shifts from the speaker struggling to find something even better than summer to compare his love to, to his assurance that his love for her and all of her qualities is eternal. Line 7 reads, "And every fair from fair sometime declines." This line is tricky to decode for students and teachers alike. The word my students focused on was "declines."

One student remarked, "It's like when you decline a call on your cell phone. Like, you don't have to listen to it if you don't want to." Ding, ding, ding! Here we are again, seeing the speaker's respect and understanding for his love's decision to accept or decline his love. Even though she is voiceless in the sonnet, she is truly in the driver's seat in the relationship. The speaker knows that women may love you one day and cast you off the next. He does not argue this. He is not offended by this. He states it as a fact.

Here we have further proof that the lady in question has chosen him. She can certainly change her mind at any point, but the fact that she remains firm in her consent opens up the "eternal" section in the second half of the poem. It's almost like saying that respecting a woman's right to accept or decline your advances can open a relationship up to deeper levels of love, devotion, and admiration than would otherwise never be possible.

That, my friends, is how you woo a woman.*

*=Heteronormative, again. Situationally appropriate. Sorry.

As you can imagine, that's about all we got through in that particular day of close reading. Any more, and I'm sure my students would have been overwhelmed or frustrated. But oh, what an unexpected opportunity! A simple sonnet opened up meaningful discourse about the ways in which we approach, respond, and respect one another. Thanks, Shakespeare.

What do you think? Are there any other lines or ideas within this sonnet that could have applied to this teachable moment? Or any other Shakespearean text that can provide an entry point into a situation as complex as those addressed by the #MeToo movement? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks for reading!

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