Teachable moments from Shakespeare and Trump
One night — it must have been 25 years ago — after my husband, Richard, and I had gone to bed, we got a distress call from our daughter, Lucy, from her college dorm.
She had a paper due on “Macbeth” the following morning and asked us if we could help her out. She’d left the paper to the last moment and would fail her English class if she didn’t turn in a paper. She told us she didn’t have a clue what should be her theme.
Of course, we said “yes.” We’d always helped our children with homework as long as they realized that these parental assists were to be teachable moments. This was different. Our usually conscientious, studious daughter had such anxiety in her voice that we realized we’d probably be dictating the paper to her as she typed. We felt we had no choice.
Richard quickly went down to the den to get Charles Lamb’s “Tales From Shakespeare,” which had gotten him through British boarding school and Oxford. Lucy got out her “Cliff Notes.”
I put my writer’s mind in gear to come up with a theme for her.
These days, the word “tragedy” gets thrown around a lot. I wonder how many people really know what a tragedy is — in the Shakespearian sense?
For those parents, even grandparents, who have been called on to home-school their children or, at the very least, fill in for teachers during COVID-19 and witnessed what took place Jan. 6 in our Capitol, this would be a time to introduce the Bard.
Teachers have a unique chance now to teach what is Donald Trump’s “fatal flaw” and why that event was a tragedy. Whether these teachers support former President Trump or not, It’s a subject waiting to be fine-tuned for teachable moments.
For those of my generation who grew up and were educated in the middle of the last century, knowing William Shakespeare’s works was required to graduate from high school and college. A person wasn’t considered educated unless they’d read the Bard.
Lucy’s generation of college students was the last to be required to study Shakespeare. Most American academia has lowered the curtain on William Shakespeare four and a half centuries after his birth.
Harvard and UC Berkeley are among the few top-rated American universities that still feel that Shakespeare is “central to the development of English literature,” as wrote Sandra Guy in the Chicago Sun Times on April 23, 2015 to celebrate the Bard’s believed birthday.
Michael Poliakoff, vice president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote at the same time, “Some schools offer courses on vampires, cyborgs and popular films and TV shows to fulfill English majors’ study requirements.”
Today’s teachers, whoever they may be, could point out to students that “Moby Dick,” “Harry Potter” and “The Lion King” have elements of Shakespeare’s works in them. They could ask their students to hunt for the tragic heroes, male as well as female, in Shakespeare’s four greatest tragedies, “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Macbeth” would be a good place to start.
The tragedy has a plethora of tragic characters with fatal flaws: persons of both genders of high rank, who violate laws and pose a threat to society; an abundance of ambition and pride and an inability to recognize one’s own shortcomings.
It will be debated for years which of these characteristics make Mr. Trump a tragic character of our time.
It will be argued that if COVID-19 had not appeared, Donald Trump would have probably been re-elected even with his fatal flaws. History books could arguably have him as a savior of a democracy that, just four years ago, recognized that it needed a Donald Trump.
Let’s not forget Nancy Pelosi in a cast of possible tragic characters. Is she a Lady Macbeth? For the record, we might also look at the Clintons.
Mercutio uttering, “A plague on both your houses,” about the feuding Capulets and Montagues in “Romeo and Juliet,” could be cited as another teachable moment as we witness the two houses of Congress try to score points, while citizens, who elected them, experience hell.
The word “plague” could be used to teach children about past plagues and how COVID-19 is the first intentionally unleashed on earth by the totalitarian regime of China, and all the havoc that has ensued.
We were living in Manhattan on 9/11. I remember my mother visiting us and asking me to take her for a tour of the city she knew growing up. She especially wanted to stop in front of her alma mater, The Julia Richman School, on the Upper East Side.
Above the school’s door is carved “Knowledge Is Power” or as Shakespeare wrote in “Henry VI”: “Ignorance is the curse of God; Knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”
I do not know if my mother knew the saying that she often uttered came from Shakespeare’s pen. I certainly didn’t. I’d like to think that, for my mother, that was a teachable moment for her grown daughter.
Calla Jones Corner
The author lives in Montecito.