Shakespeare in Romanian secondary schools


How is Shakespeare taught in Romanian secondary schools?

There is the strong tradition of extolling the "bard" and the "golden age" he belonged to. Shakespeare is a universal genius whose work transcends time and place, and the Elizabethan period he lived in (no mention is ever made of the Jacobean one) is a beautifully harmonious one since all previous conflicts were resolved.

In a schoolbook issued in 1995 Shakespeare is described as "the greatest English poet and an undisputed world figure in literature"; he "was a great humanist", a "close observer of the people of his time"; he was "familiar with the traditions of English folklore and showed deep concern for his people". (Bunaciu and bardolatry combine with and reinforce residues of the dogmatic Marxist-Leninist approach to Shakespeare of the fifties.

Just as antiquated is the approach to Shakespeare promoted in the commercially highly successful guides to English literature for the admission exams to the university, guides that were issued in the mid nineties by two well-known university professors (Andrei Bantas and Pia Branzeu) and which have been re-edited and re-printed four times. (Bantas, 1993, 2000) A collection of quotations extracted from histories of English Literature written mostly in the sixties (Marin Day, David Daiches as well as Legouis and Cazamian are particularly privileged) or culled from dictionaries of English literature manage to create a most strident version of bardolatry. Shakespeare is unparalleled in world literature since "the rare gifts which have been bestowed diversely on the greatest playwrights of all nations had merged and combined into the genius of Shakespeare" (66). His craftsmanship and genius are given a variety of essentializing and naturalizing definitions: he is "a child of nature", "vying with nature in creative power"; he reveals "an essential reality that has kept his plays vivid over three centuries"(67). The divine quality of his work and the mystery of his genius exert an irresistible spell upon us. Shakespeare is beyond rationality, "we submit to the poet's caprice without questioning". Any critical distance to the plays, any interrogating move on behalf of the students would simply be sacrilegious.

Needless to add that there is no attempt at a historicized, contextualized understanding of Shakespeare's plays. They are presented in general and simplified terms: "the tragedies written between 1601 and 1608 are all pervaded with the same gloom: the world is pictured as full of evil forces" (65) The book does include a nuanced close reading of Antony's speech in Julius Caesar. This could be looked upon as an example of high quality Romanian scholarship produced sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. The meanings that are skillfully teased out from Antony's speech are not, however, located in either Shakespeare's or the Romanian reader's transhistorical space. The close reading does not in the least challenge the introductory presentation of Shakespeare as a universal and transcendent genius.

The third book I am going to discuss -English My Love-is the first of a new series of textbooks for high-school students issued under the influence of the courses on how to teach literature that the British Council organized in the nineties. While the book reinforces the conventional view about the Elizabethan age- "Many people feel that the reign of Elizabeth I is the most glamorous, the most exciting period in English history. This is why it is called The Elizabethan Age or The Golden Age" (92)- it does make an effort at including Shakespeare in some kind of context, albeit only a literary one. Short excerpts from Kyd, Marlowe and Jonson are provided as a backdrop to Shakespeare. Apart from these excerpts the much trumpeted emphasis on context the new series of textbooks is supposed to introduce is basically decorative: it amounts to hardly more than beautiful pictures of Tudor castles, a painting of the Earl of Southampton or cursory information about the Shakespearean stage. Once again the student is supposed to be under a spell, to cherish and revere the bard and his age and never to question or doubt.

History in as far as it means struggle for power is not in evidence in the new textbook. Nor is there any difference between the historical past and our post-communist present: the pastness of Shakespeare's age is largely a matter of costumes. The critical approach to the texts is just as traditional: most of the emphasis is placed on imagery (such as the imagery of light and darkness in Romeo and Juliet).

English My Love does introduce more fashionable concepts such as the one of identity but it tames it at the same time by including it under the heading of "themes". Juliet's difficult speech "What's in a name?" is dispatched with the following instruction: "Discuss with your partner the famous balcony scene and find the lines relevant to the theme of identity" (159). No explanatory comment spells out either the novelty to Romanian students of such a concept or the contradictions inherent in the Shakespearean construction of identity.

Paradoxically the Shakespeare that students construct from the various textbooks does not differ in any essential way from the Eminescu they are taught in school. The two figures get conflated and the categories and attitudes that students are taught to apply to the Romanian national bard are transferred or displaced on the other "transnational" bard. Such approaches pave the way for more aggressive moves of appropriating or even co-opting Shakespeare to secure nationalism.

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Comments to: Mãdãlina NICOLAESCU
Last update: August 2002
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