In Shakespeare’s Henry V, Gower warns Fluellen not to take the pretender Pistol for the true soldier: “Why, ‘tis a gull, a fool, a rogue, that now and then goes to the wars, to grace himself at his return into London under the form of a soldier.[…] But you must learn to know such slanders of the age, or else you may be marvelously mistook.” (3.6.62-74) I make no claim to aspire to be Pistol; but after some 25 years in the friendly battles of the high-school classroom, I try to play the role of Gower for my students, colleagues, and fellow citizens.
I have spent my career thus far as a literature and history teacher with the Great Books – Shakespeare, yes, and Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Dickens, Shelley, Wilde, Newman, Hopkins, Tolkien, Dickinson, Twain, Melville, Zora Neal Hurston, Eliot, and, more recently, Cicero, Seneca, and Thomas More. At four different schools in three states and the District of Columbia, I’ve had the opportunity to read and discuss these authors’ works with students. It has been a great privilege to call it my profession. So few people have leisure to linger with such books.
Friendship Under Discussion
It has been a time spent getting to know my students, the authors (and their characters) and introducing them to each other—cultivating friendships—helping each to see the person in the other. With that in mind it’s easy to see why my favorite mode of teaching is the seminar–a friendly dialogue. I have found that I have learned much from the discussion—whether they be with 18-year olds (as most of my students have been) or 13 or 14 year olds or their parents (as occasionally has been my fortune)—and that my students have appreciated the active role they play in those discussions.
A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to help lead a seminar at a teacher’s workshop; we were discussing three of Emily Dickinson’s poems and had settled into a question of “The Brain within its Groove”—perhaps whether it was good or bad to be in a groove — whether a “groove” was a “rut”, whether “the floods” brought benefit or harm or both as they “scooped a Turnpike for Themselves”. The conversation was delightful, and my first impression of the poem was broadened by an insightful reading from one of my colleagues. But then that same colleague remarked, perhaps unaware of her overly-humble sincerity, “But Dickinson is a transcendentalist, so…” And with that, my friend Emily was placed in a box with a label, and there was no more need to ask each other or the poet what she was thinking.
A similar moment occurred in a later seminar led by the coordinator of the same workshop. Seneca was speaking in Epistle 88 of kindliness: “Kindliness forbids you to be over-bearing towards your associates, and it forbids you to be grasping. In words and in deeds and in feelings it shows itself gentle and courteous to all men. It counts no evil as another’s solely.” The discussion leader was asking whether liberal studies could cultivate such a virtue: such an empathy with another who suffers an evil. As we were discussing whether they did and how we might do so with our students, one of the participants noted Seneca was often called a “Stoic”. And so Seneca’s call to kindliness was dismissed: he apparently could not mean what his words were saying since we know that Stoics must only espouse a temperance that requires indifference to the world and others. These moments prompted in me a desire to stand up for friendship and for my friends, those at the table and those who wrote the books. I did my best to do so kindly in that discussion, and I began to think of how I might do so for a broader audience.
From Discussion to Drama
It is not the practice of seminar alone that makes me think of the role of friendship in teaching literature. It is also play – drama. Here the theatrical aspect of literature comes to the fore. In studying a play, we have an opportunity to see and be moved by the drama, to learn and imitate the craft of the playwright, but also, and very significantly, to engage in the formation of the player. About 17 years ago, a job change brought me to The Heights—a school that emphasizes recitation of great poetry in teaching literature. This was life-changing for me. As I assigned recitations to my students, I began to take them up myself. Little by little a store of Shakespeare, Hopkins, and Collins has taken up residence in my mind. And the formative influence of the recitation opened up another aspect of friendship to me. In order to recite well, we have to open our mind to another; we have to sacrifice the time to make his/her thoughts our own; and, not to be overlooked, we have to perform it well so that it might become a gift to the audience—one they can receive with ease and delight thanks to our labor in preparation. This was one step toward acting.
It was only another short step to grouping students together to enact Shakespearean scenes—here come Gower and Fluellen (armed with leek and awaiting Pistol’s entrance); here comes Pistol, and we see him forced to eat more than his words. It gives us another understanding of the Chorus’ words:
And so our scene to the battle must fly;
Where—O for pity!—we shall much disgrace
With four or five most ragged and vile foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mockeries be. (Henry V 4.P.48-53)
The smell of leek in a classroom (which can indeed make one “qualmish”) after the laughter that accompanied one classmate rebuking another, cudgeling him in jest – “in brawl ridiculous”, adds much to the study of Henry V. To practice each word, each gesture, and even the angle of each gesture with the audience in mind is a formative, practical endeavor. Always the other is in mind – the poet, the character, the castmate, the audience. This is a training in friendship. Perhaps with such practice the liberal arts can and do cultivate in us those virtues that Seneca enjoins on us – empathy and kindliness among them.
Recalled to the Classroom by Friendship
These experiences bring me back to the classroom each year. Friendship is the particular subject of my interest in returning. The literature teacher can bring this perspective of friendship to three audiences: to students—engaging Gower and Henry and Pistol as friends; to teachers and parents—engaging the poet as a moral philosopher and culture shaper; and to budding playwrights (of all of today’s sorts of plays)—engaging the images that “tell all the truth but tell it slant”—each a soul who can meet in Shakespeare and other writers (and today’s playwright) a poetic soul – one steeped in true images, encouraging us “to mind true things by what their mockeries be.”