Friday, February 6, 2015

Bereft of the Bard

İrfan Şahinbaş, Berna Moran, Talât Halman, Engin Uzmen, Himmet Umunç – just four of the illustrious scholars whose contributions in print and in the classroom helped to establish Shakespeare as a major force in Turkey.  To this list we might add other translators and scholars from various generations including Orhan Burian, Sabahattin Eyüboğlu and more recently Bülent Bozkurt.

Of this list, only one person (Umunç) is actually teaching, while Bozkurt retired to live in İstanbul after a stint at Bilkent University.  The other illustrious academics have all passed away, leaving a legacy of translations and critical works paying testament to their invaluable contributions.

But where are their replacements from the younger generation?  I only ask this question in light of one major university’s search for a scholar to teach the Shakespeare courses in its undergraduate program in English Literature.  Perhaps the vacancy has been filled, but it seems sad to think that such a situation should even arise, given Shakespeare’s central importance in any foreign literature curriculum.

Why should this happen?  Partly the reason has to do with a lack of long-term planning by university heads of department.  In the days when the older professors regularly taught Shakespeare, it wasn’t though necessary to give their courses to younger academics.  I was perhaps an exception to the rule; when I started at Hacettepe University in 1990, I was given the second year Shakespeare course, even though Uzmen was still very much a part of the faculty.  It was down to his generosity that I had the chance to teach the Bard for the first time.  In other institutions, however, would-be scholars had to put up with language-based courses during their early days; by the time the older professors had moved away, the younger scholars had moved on to pastures new, either professionally or institutionally.

Another way of addressing the shortage has been to give Shakespeare courses to non-specialists, in the belief that practice makes perfect; the more you learn “on the job,” so to speak, the more proficient you will become.  But Shakespeare is not easy; good teaching cannot simply be acquired by grabbing a text and summarizing the speeches in modern English.  Teachers have to have an understanding of his stagecraft as well as his thematic preoccupations.  Recently I received a submission to a journal which focused on one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and managed to go through an entire argument without focusing on the main character.  From what I read, it seemed doubtful whether the writer understood the techniques Shakespeare had used to create his comedy.  I do not blame the writer, but rather feel sorry for the educational system that shaped his or her judgment.  If the quality of writing remains as poor as this submission, then the future of Shakespeare scholarship and teaching n Turkey looks bleak indeed.

While appreciating the difficulties facing heads of department in both the private and public sectors, as they try to cope with the task of allocating courses for increasing numbers of students, often with very few teachers at their disposal, I do think that there are ways in which this issue could be addressed.  Perhaps the focus of attention should move away from close textual analysis – the bread and butter of most literary study – and concentrate instead on issues of theatrical and/or cinematic presentation.  In that way teachers could draw on the expertise of other scholars in theater or film studies, as well as make more creative use of films in their pedagogy.  Rather than just showing “a film of the play,” as has been the case in the past, students might be encouraged to look at how frame compositions embody some of Shakespeare’s ideas.  Likewise, by asking students to rehearse and perform extracts from Shakespeare – in English or in Turkish – they can perhaps understand how his plays work as theatrical constructs.  Another strategy drawn from cultural studies might be to focus on the cultural construction of “Shakespeare” as a totem for Englishness, and how that construction has been redefined throughout various periods of Turkish history.  This could also mesh with more formal aspects of how his plays should be translated.

In sum, what really needs to be done is to rethink Shakespeare’s place in the humanities – not just as a subject for literary study, but rather as an object for cross-disciplinary analysis.  Not only will that help to draw on the expertise of specialists from other subject areas, but it might help relieve the pressure on already harassed literature departments, trying to allocate too many courses with too few human resources.

Whatever remedies might be adopted, it’s important to ensure that Shakespeare can be enjoyed by future generations of learners as well as theatergoers.  The responsibility, as they say, lies with today’s teachers.  I hope they manage to heed the warning signs.

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