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You can't ignore Iago - and he won't go away

How do you deal with those loaded, uncomfortable moments in Shakespeare's plays? Mervyn Lebor considers different approaches.

Certain Shakespeare plays at A-level are inherently difficult to teach depending on who happens to be in the group. Oedipal depressives may not last the course on Hamlet. Scots with seething or thwarted ambitions could find delving the recesses of Macbeth's mind for five whole weeks not particularly therapeutic. In adult evening classes there is little time to nurture or even explore each student's personal hang-ups, let alone the teacher's.

I felt pretty awkward when a blind student in a wheelchair enrolled for King Lear. How was I going to deal with lines such as "turn out that eyeless villain" and Gloucester's subsequent sightless wanderings? It was all very well talking about "spiritual seeing" as a compensation, but was this fictional suffering going to cause actual pain to one of my students? So as not to give him a shock, I decided to warn the student before the lesson. I weakly mumbled something about the theme of "visual impairment". "I want to hear what everyone has to say about blindness," he replied. Despite my trepidation before "out vile jelly", this student made himself an important resource in class discussion, and his presence was a visible reminder to the rest of us about the reality of what going blind might mean. It had been more my problem than his.

In the Othello sessions the next year, Rodney was the only black student in a class of 15 pupils. The local geographical area was better known for its ethnic polarisation than for integration. There was no time for preliminary discussion. We were straight in with a reading of the play backed by Bob Hoskins' BBC performance of Iago's hate-filled slurs of "the Moor" and racist "thick lips". I began the discussion with a version of the typical A-level question: "This is a play partly about race and racism. Some critics view it as a racist play. What evidence can you see for either of these claims?" Silence.

Then all the students started to work in pairs, formulating answers on paper and afterwards responding orally. Rodney didn't speak. He didn't turn up to the following session, so I phoned him and asked: "What would make it easier for you to be in this group?" He said he didn't want to discuss matters of race in an alien environment.

I said I'd had a similar experience at university. In a packed lecture theatre of 100 per cent white if not WASP stock, I was the only Jew doing English literature that year. At that time very little was published about cultural or ethnic difference. The lecturer outlined, not unkindly, the background to The Merchant of Venice. Maybe it was literally the academic "objectification" of Jewish culture - ie making Jews objects - that made me feel so uncomfortable for almost an hour, if not far longer.

Rodney returned to the Othello class, which I now taught including explanations, video clips from Laurence Fishburne's version and a mass of handouts. However, opportunities for multi-cultural interchange were minimal. At a later session, one of the students said: "We are nice people, you know. We're not all Iagos." Rodney replied: "So why do you assume that I might be an Othello?" But his tone was humorous. In one tense moment the polarisation had broken down. Studying literature had become a deeply humanising activity.

Is there a "correct" approach to teaching Shakespeare when either our students or ourselves are implicated in character, plot or themes? Or are these issues the same regardless of who happens to be in the class? Does it make a difference if male teachers explain feminist perspectives to mixed or separate groups of women or men? Or what about the enraged reaction of the countless females studying an author who, for well-known reasons, failed to represent their gender in significant numbers? What does happen when teachers meet groups or individual students who are "resistant" to certain critical perspectives for "politically correct" or "incorrect" reasons on grounds of gender, ethnicity, class, age or disability? At A-level, the criteria would be a student's ability to sustain coherent arguments backing whichever perspective was consistent with the language and drama of the text.

Can certain texts be selected for certain groups? For example, at our college it has been decided to teach Romeo and Juliet at GCSE on the assumption that because most students on the course are of Asian background, they will be able to relate to the play's syndrome of arranged marriages and blood feuds. These stereotypes seem unhelpful, especially when you remember that breaking these taboos in the play ends in suicide, "failure" and tragic death.

So what are the possible methods for dealing with those loaded, uncomfortable moments? Possibly the answer should be no different from the usual responses in other social scenarios where someone doesn't fit the majority's norms. In class, however, the lecturer's authority should determine the direction of discussion. The lecturer could pretend it's not an issue and teach as if there were no difference of identities in the class. A lecturer might, as in equal opportunities documents, attempt to sanitise the cruel injustices of language, characters and plot or gloss over the more extreme, anti-social elements of the text. Although teaching at A-level should mean developing students' critical skills, there may be attitudes among the students in the class that are succoured by sexist or racist Shakespearian speeches. Despite endless teaching to the contrary, simplistic-minded students can take these attitudes as "Shakespeare's view" and, therefore, beyond reproach. These students may achieve low marks at A-level but, through them, the legacy of the groundlings can live on.

Just as audiences have notoriously identified with the racist attitudes of the Venetians in both The Merchant of Venice and Othello, so it is often difficult and arguably undesirable to control a student's or reader's response to the darker feelings these plays unleash. The problem is that these texts have been highly influential in historically determining cultural attitudes. That these are fictional representations makes their power on the imagination all the stronger.

Teaching and study must involve highlighting difficulties. Within the boundaries of the curriculum, exploring the awkwardness of the text, no matter the identity of those present, is a key to understanding.

Sensitivity is important, but among the many agendas of literary criticism is included challenging the problematic aspects of these works and the preconceptions of their audiences.

Mervyn Lebor is lecturer in literature in further and higher education in West Yorkshire.

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