ON DEMAND: Moving In-Class Interactive Demonstrations Online: Staging Otherness in Shakespeare’s *Merchant of Venice* (5 mins)

  • Jennifer Linhart Wood George Mason University

Abstract

How can students create meaningful collaborative presentations in an online format? The abrupt shift to online learning in the wake of the pandemic left me wondering about this question, especially as one activity I have students in my “Shakespeare’s Globe” course complete is a live and interactive scene performance, designed to encourage thorough readings and engagement with Shakespeare’s language. As the title of my course suggests, “Shakespeare’s Globe” refers to both the performance space of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and to the globe, or world, as Shakespeare knew and/or imagined it. In reading plays that feature “global” locations—Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, and The Tempest—our class interrogates the depictions of racial, cultural, colorist, gendered, and religious othernesses, while also considering the staging options available to perform these episodes in both Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and in modern productions. Students choose the scene they wish to perform and are encouraged to bring props and costumes to class in order to both perform the scene for their classmates, and also to engage in multisensory ways with the text and prop-objects. While this seems straightforward enough in a face-to-face classroom, I would like to share ways that I guided and encouraged my students to approach this assignment after the move to an online classroom—along with some of my students’ innovative ideas. I will discuss how this assignment translated into an online learning environment and will provide brief examples of different approaches students took in their live demonstrations, using brief excerpts from the “casket tests” scenes from The Merchant of Venice as examples. In these scenes, the Prince of Morocco, the Prince of Aragon, and the Venetian Bassanio are all posed the riddles of the three chests or “caskets” from which they must choose in order to pass the test and win Portia’s hand in marriage. In performing these scenes, students read from the play-text directly (i.e., the point is not to memorize the lines), source and interact with props and music that are important to the scene, and work to inhabit the characters, especially characters coded as representative of cultural difference. Engaging with Shakespeare’s play in this way—as more than words on a page read silently to oneself—students gain facility with Shakespeare’s language; recognize literary devices like word-play, homonyms, and double entendres; consider options for staging and physical interaction; and through multi-sensory engagement—whether performing the scene directly or witnessing its performance over Blackboard Collaborate Ultra—students gain a deeper comprehension of the plays’ commentaries on otherness, which is a topic even more germane and important in light of recent events in the United States. In performing these scenes through inhabiting characters in multisensory ways, students will also gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between materials of performance and the cultural significance suggested by the gold, silver, and lead caskets—as well as how these casket tests relate to larger themes of inclusion, tolerance, colorism, and xenophobia explored throughout _The Merchant of Venice_. The key take-aways from this session include the importance of collaborative learning, the challenges of creating meaningful live performances and presentations in an online format, creative thinking and problem-solving, the importance of multi-sensory exposure during the learning process, and the importance of inhabiting different subject positions through active engagement.

Published
2020-07-31
Section
On Demand Pre-recorded Presentation