I’ve found, in the course of more than a decade teaching Shakespeare, that AP Lit students still balk on occasion (more than) when it comes to consistently reading the textual notes. Some feel the effort it takes to read the text and then to read the notes is simply too confusing. They complain, “It takes me away from the reading. I get lost.” Others admit that, though they see the necessity of doing so, the effort of reading the notes is just too ponderous. Frankly, boring. They admit they’re lazy; they’d rather not do the work and sometimes suggest that they ‘get it’ without them (!)
At this point, my tried and true lecture (written about here before) rears its ugly head: “Guys, I need the notes. Scholars need the notes. Top scholars need the notes. I’m sorry: you definitely need the notes. The whole point of reading Shakespeare is to read Shakespeare, not just get the gist.”
On a more oddly positive, though wrongheaded, note, one memorable student once suggested that she actually felt a bit of shame in the practice — that to read those notes was “like cheating” — as if not to inherently understand every blessed word in the play was somehow tantamount to intellectual inferiority. My less than sensitive reply? “What, did you just step out of your time machine from Elizabethan England? How could you be expected to understand 16th-century London street slang?”
As we know, in the Folger Shakespeare Library editions, the notes are positioned on the left-side page facing the text: all one has to do is keep a steady finger on one’s place in the play and move one’s eyes back and forth, kind of like watching a game of Pong (for those of you old enough to remember). In some editions, there are footnotes, in some endnotes, both editorial choices, in my opinion, not as spatially helpful for high-schoolers as what we find in the Folgers. (Plus, sometimes we’re treated to wonderful woodcuts and other pieces of visual art to help us make further sense of a particular obscure reference — see illustration).
Yes, this can be difficult — especially when the notes start piling up like Tetriminos (look up that video game reference!), when your grip on an already challenging scene starts loosening — to hang in there and keep reminding yourself to slow down, take a breath, retain your focus. But that’s precisely the point. Training students to do exactly this, whether it’s with Hamlet, Great Expectations, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, is to train them to pay mindful attention to a text, a skill set that, once mastered, unlocks limitless educational possibilities. When misguided, struggling students default to the ‘strategy’ of hurrying up, the old ‘skim/scan,’ their impatience and frustration engenders more of the same… in both student and teacher.
We educators know full well that a great work of literature must be read with this patient degree of attention (indeed, the great Vladimir Nabokov once wrote something to the effect that one never, actually, reads a great work of literature, one can only re-read it). However — to complete a triad of 80′s video game allusions — our real task is to effect this realization in our charges, rather like the realization that Frogger experiences, having safely hopped across the busy freeway, congratulating himself on his slow and steady, ultimately successful progress. He knows now he couldn’t have done it with a headlong plunge into traffic. That risky maneuver can only end with one splattered on the road.