This semester, I approached my Composition students with a new assignment that they themselves had a hand in creating and making possible. As part of the Intro to Writing About Literature course, I teach drama, fiction, and poetry. Each genre presents its own challenges but drama, in particular, is difficult to get into when students assume the characters are just standing and talking to each other. Moreover, students new to reading drama often skip reading the stage directions, which means they also miss out on important plot points, or what isn’t directed. For instance, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Kate supposedly gives her hand to Petruchio to consent to the marriage, but there is no stage direction indicating that this definitely happens. To ameliorate this I show them clips of Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Elizabeth Taylor as Kate. The humorous scenes between Taylor and Richard Burton (Petruchio) make the play come to life, and it also helps to translate Shakespearean humor to a modern audience.
To really keep the momentum going as we transition into Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, I asked students this semester to write their own scripts finishing the story of Christopher Sly. Productions often leave out the Induction of the play, but it provides a crucial lens for understanding Kate’s character–the systematic patriarchy she exists within and struggles against, and also the potential for a real or pretended “shift” in her character at the end. The play is made more complicated when in the Induction, we’re told (and Sly is told), “And twenty more such names and men as these,/Which never were, nor no man ever saw” (Ind.2.96-7). We question who is real or to be believed; Kate’s shift in character is just as questionable. To suddenly take a hint from Hortensio, to “Say as [Petruchio] says, or [they] shall never go” to the wedding (4.5.13), Kate’s shift into the sweet and doting wife is difficult to believe–for a modern reader and even for some of the other characters on stage next to her. Because we never find out what happens to Christopher Sly, whose character provides only initial framework for reading the play, we are left to wonder at Kate’s long final speech. Students who volunteered for extra credit (and we did have to work as a class to make the reward incentive enough to volunteer), wrote their own “Act 6” or “Expulsion” scenes.
As a class, we came up with what the extra credit should be, and after scripts were submitted to me I uploaded them to our shared DropBox folder with the names removed. In the next class, students voted for best script, and I put them into acting troupes with each writer to work out how they would perform them on our “Whatever Happened to Christopher Sly?” Day. There was also extra credit for best performance, which gave them incentive enough to really collaborate and bring in props. There were deadly weapons in the form of selfie sticks, cut-out paper pigs, one giant cheese costume, and a pair of high heels, among other props. It was a hilarious and wonderful day of class, where the purpose behind stage directions and performance (as well as making a play relevant to current questions on their minds about relationships, servants and classism, and homosexual love disguised in heteronormative costumes) really took hold for performers and audience members alike.
Most importantly, the effects of this creative assignment showed in their papers. Students knew that it was likely in a small acting troupe that actors playing parts in the Induction might also play roles in the play itself. Then, what if the actor playing Sly were Petruchio in the play, and the Page (disguised as a Lady) played Kate? Then, we might see Kate’s final speech as a disguise and take Petruchio for the real shrew (which makes for pretty great comedy). After not only paying attention to what could have happened to Sly, but also what Sly’s role in the Induction potentially does to readings of the play, student papers demonstrated a profound understanding of how the play-within-a-play is shaped by its framework, down to the tapestries on the wall in the Lord’s house.
I highly recommend spending a day of class doing an activity like this, and also involving students in the process of calculating what kind of extra credit is fair for out of class and in-class work. You might also ask students to come up with criteria for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place scripts and productions. This assignment helped students understand the expectations and work behind forming assignments and also gave them a hand in their own work for that day of class. Collaborative work like this brought to life the most quiet students in the class.