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 to town, drink gets the best of both the household and the soldiers. A battle of wits between one of the men, Benedict, and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, sizzles amidst the partygoers. In the above passage, Beatrice seems at odds with herself, mocking the droll solider while at the same time expressing sexual desire for him. But we knew Shakespeare’s tactics by now; we knew them well. As a class, we had been discussing his life and times, and the theatrical marketplace in which he worked. We had considered Kenneth Branagh’s and Joss Whedon’s approaches to this scene on film. We had been to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and huddled over the First Folio to consider differences between theatre and reading audiences. We had attended a campus production of the play alongside a performance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comparing their adaptations of Shakespeare’s masque scene to the only surviving quarto in the Library. Thus, the group suspected Beatrice’s slip is no accident. What does it mean that she derides Benedict yet openly desires to be “boarded” by him? Collectively, we wondered: Does Beatrice know that he is the masked man she addresses? And furthermore, to what extent do masks underscore the ways in which identity and desire are performative?
Last spring, I taught an introductory core course, entitled “Shakespeare, Text, Performance.” We first discussed Shakespeare’s Much Ado 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 about 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 a range of ways a text could have been (and be) received and interpreted. For example, to examine the famous battle speeches in Henry V, we contemplated Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech and its 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 consider questions such as whether this direct address should be 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 enables students to witness their own capacity for shaping questions and meaning.
I have taught a wide range of classes, from the Shakespeare seminar for majors mentioned above to surveys of British and Postcolonial literature and film. More recently, I have developed our curriculum to align with best practices in the discipline, reconceiving both first-year composition and the junior-level thesis research and preparation courses. 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 Milton’s Areopagitica, to consider how citation practices are culturally and historically contingent. I have routinely been named 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 is an important framework for me in designing project-based assessments. For example, in 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 tattoos memorializing police officers fallen in the line of duty. At semester’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, Digital Humanities pedagogy underpins my teaching, especially when it comes to Critical Race Theory. For example, I regularly teach First-Year Seminar (FYS) courses, designed to introduce first-semester freshman to cornerstone skills of critical-thinking, writing, and debate at the college level. Twice I have run the course with an emphasis on public writing and hashtag activism. “#OthelloSyllabus: Cyprus, Ferguson, Forest Grove” uses Othello to springboard students into developing cultural competencies at the intersections of gender and race. They read, analyze, and discuss a wide range of engagements with Black culture, from Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet about the first Black actor to perform Othello to the award-winning film Get Out, through “twessays” or Twitter essays. The course culminates in a play devised, designed, and performed live through Twitter over a three-day period. A testament to the success of employing digital strategies to sponsor conversation about privilege and difference, I have been invited to give talks on its pedagogical implications.
By the end of that last spring, my introductory Shakespeare students remained divided as to whether Beatrice knew her listener to be Benedict. With the good weather, we had taken our last discussion out under the trees. 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 rapidly 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, productively adopt.

Updated November 2018.