I was invited by the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome for a conference on Educating Young People in Love and Friendship through the Classics.
To approach the topic of Love and Friendship in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, I worked with about about 20 students in the production of a short film over the course of several months. The aim of the video was to introduce the play and its themes, but, upon reflection, what the project revealed is how well my students internalized the drama’s teaching and content.
Students in my Shakespeare class were first asked to complete a questionnaire designed to show which character from the play they were most like. The quiz was called “Much Ado About You,” and through it students came to terms with which character they were most like in situations that oftentimes seemed familiar to them, like dating or how to deal with slander and gossip.
After the completion of questionnaire, students filmed interviews. In these segments, with breathtaking honesty, each explained why they answered the questions as they did. Instead of completely personal and confessional moments, though, students explained their answers in terms of the play’s action, what they admired, and the play’s central characters, the people in the play that particularly spoke to them. In articulating their own feelings about the play’s action, they came to grips with their sense of what the drama taught about love and friendship.
A second component of the film was role play. Students formed two parallel lines and delivered the arguments of Beatrice and Benedick against one another about what they should do after Claudio slanders Hero. The language of verbal contest and dispute in 4.1 helped students recognize and internalize the play’s tension between love and friendship. As my paper for the proceedings of this conferences showed, Much Ado represents men as best of friends with one another; women are lovers, but not friends. In fact, women, as lovers, are also potential threats to male friendship. To heighten this dilemma, the scene I selected for role play captured the moment when Benedick must choose between his love for Beatrice and his friendship with Claudio.
After role playing the debate and performing the scene, students recognized that Beatrice’s candor and loyalty to her cousin risked losing the man she loved. Likewise, Benedick’s belief in Hero’s ultimate innocence caused him to break from his male friendships. Both characters take huge risks and both have to do so because of an inner sense of right and wrong, what we might call conscience.
To iterate and further internalize the play’s teaching, I asked the students to compose a song with the title “Much Ado About Love and Friendship.” The process of musical composition and song became a sort of memory hook for the lessons they took from our study of Much Ado. In this way, the play’s central theme and teaching became the students own, unique manner of learning. Just as a song can become stuck in one’s memory, my students heard the refrain that Much Ado is about love and friendship.
To conclude the video, I asked students to play an improv game. Each would complete the sentence, “I love Much Ado because” in their own words. The point was to fashion a single sentence that captured something important about the play to them. My only rule was that they blurt out the first thing that popped into their heads. For some it was a character; for others, a moment in the plot; for others, a defining line that stayed with them. What became clear is how deeply the play impacted each of them.
The conference in Rome posed the question of how young people might learn from classical literature about the themes of love and friendship. I would like to suggest that what is most important is not the content of classical literature but how a student may or should approach such texts.
I approached Much Ado through what educators call “maker-centered learning.” When students are asked to participate in, explore, or tinker with dramatic texts, they will not only retain their agency but also are empowered to unlock the plays for themselves. The production of a video, the composition of a song, and the use of role play and improv games invited my students to “make” Shakespeare—to perform his language but in their terms.
Alongside this pedagogy of making things is what Pope Benedict referred to as the pedagogy of desire, a philosophical mentorship of our basic human desires for love and friendship. To “make” Much Ado about Nothing is to teach oneself how to desire love and friendship. Just as actors know that they need directors and voice coaches in order to aid them in the playing of a part, students need mentors of desire, poets like Shakespeare, who may help them perform the role of their lives.