Much Ado About Masks

A Statement of Teaching

  • [They put on their masks.]…

    BENEDICT: I pray you, what is he?
    BEATRICE: Why, he is the Prince's jester, a very dull fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him, and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy, for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in the fleet; I would he had boarded me.
    Much Ado About Nothing William Shakespeare
During Lord Leonato's celebratory masque welcoming the prince of Aragon and his troops, drink gets the best of both the household and the soldiers. A battle of wits between one of the men, Benedict, and Leona's niece, Beatrice, sizzles amidst the partygoers. In this passage, Beatrice seems at odds with herself, mocking the droll soldier while at the same time expressing sexual desire for him. But we knew Shakespeare's tactics by now; we knew them well. We had considered Kenneth Branagh's and Joss Whedon's approaches to the scene on film. We had been to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and huddled over a first folio to consider the ways in which he dealt with gender, together considering the difference between theatre and reading audiences. We had attended John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, comparing its grotesque adaptation of the masque scene to the only surviving quarto in the Library. Thus, we suspected that Beatrice's slip is no accident. What does it mean that she both derides Benedict and openly desires to be "boarded" by him? Collectively, we wondered: does Beatrice know that he is the masked man she dresses? And furthermore, to what extent do masks underscore the ways in which identity and desire are performative?
During the recent spring semester, I designed and taught an introductory course for English majors entitled "Shakespeare, Text, Performance." We first discussed Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in a unit on disguises, which included quick-changes, stage pillars, and masks. Initially, we used the play to think about movement, blocking, and sight-lines. This evolved into conversations abut the different models of love, or at least procreative suitability, the play suggested in both dialogue and stage directions. The relationship between the metatheatrics of disguise and historicized models of love and kinship continued to bubble up throughout the semester—from its implications for governance in Henry V to miscegenation anxieties in Othello.
As the disguise unit suggests, I encourage students to posit the range of ways a text could have been (and be) received. For example, to examine the famous battle speeches in Henry V, we contemplated Elizabeth I's Tilbury speech and its many film interpretations. Using an outline of a Renaissance stage, students sketched how they would block Hal's speech to suggest historical, national, or characterizing effects. They considered questions such as, should this be a direct address to the audience, transforming playgoers into soldiers, or would additional actors be hired to fill that role? Students reported in end-of-term evaluations that they had "better explication skills [and] knowledge of theatre as a whole." They not only felt
equipped to approach but "loved the final paper about choosing [their] own conceit." Considering the polysemy of a text enables students to witness their own capacity for shaping questions and meaning.
At Illinois, I've taught a wide range of courses, from the Shakespeare seminar for majors mentioned above to surveys of British literature, film, and writing-intensive composition classes. No matter the context, I work with students to develop close reading skills, to recognize textual nuance, and to consider modes of reception. In survey courses, a MadLib-style worksheet where students fill in the names of neighbors reveals the didactic underpinnings of the Medieval play Mankind. Short stories and novels in the magical realist vein, such as Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude, underscore the porous border between fiction and non-fiction in genre seminars. In composition courses, students are exposed to plagiarism controversies, from Shepard Fairey and GirlTalk to John Milton's Areopagitica, in order to consider how citation practices are culturally and historically contingent. I have routinely been names to the campus-wide list of Teachers Ranked as Excellent because students find my courses enliven texts across mediums and are able to make creative claims with the texts, not just about them.
Curation has become an important framework for me in designing final projects. For example, isn an introductory film course for non-majors, students were trained to use a specialized web platform, Omeka, with the support of Digital Humanities librarians. They collected items that responded to or developed from a documentary of their choice, ranging from over-fishing legislation to photographs of blue line tattoos memorializing police officers fallen in the line of duty. At smelt's end, they developed web-based museum collections that told a story about the impact of the film, including item descriptions and a final "docent guide" essay. These essays included analyses of film techniques alongside primary objects to make a claim about the film's continuing exigency. One of the librarians has developed an article using this course module as a case study. Like the sketching activity, curation gets students to think more critically, read more attentively, communicate more precisely, and articulate evocative questions with and about texts.
As the Omeka curricular example demonstrates, technology is an invaluable tool for providing students opportunities to develop thoughtful claims through the arrangement of evidence. To support these tactics in my peers, I co-authored a handbook of best practices for engaging with undergraduates one-on-one in their writing, attending particularly to possible digital supplements. I find technology is also powerful for presenting claims to others. I teach presentation skills to my first-year composition students—specifically in how to design with Prezi, storyboard notes, and avoid "death by PowerPoint." I have also given similar graduate-level brown bag workshops and participated in Digital Humanities conference roundtables on digital pedagogy strategies. For introductory composition and fiction courses, I run an eco-friendly classroom wherein all course texts, supplemental readings, assignments, optional videos and podcasts, handouts, and peer-review activities are houses online. Both how to debate, perform, and defend a particular rhetorical position and an awareness of the changing lives of texts extend throughout the course.
By the end of that semester, my Shakespeare students remained divided on whether Beatrice knew her listener to be Benedict. Spring was finally here so we had taken out last discussion day out under the trees of the quadrangle. At a stalemate, one student suggested we consider what masks as a stage technology enabled: when a character wore one, did it in fact reveal more about them than it hid? I mentioned Oscar Wilde's axiom, "A mask tells us more than a face"; the class then began suggesting celebrities, locations, and prop ideas for a production of Much Ado that took Wilde's observation as its inspiration. The role of thoughtful, detail-oriented, and informed critics was now a mask that they had come to fully adopt.

Updated October 2017.