Befriending William

William Shakespeare is the English world’s greatest poet and playwright. Though he lived in the 16th century, his works have shaped the way students everywhere use the English language in declamation and think of drama as a literary form. His plays and sonnets are taught in high school and, whether or not they are correctly understood, every other line of English verse students get to memorize usually comes from Shakespeare. Yet, in many Filipino classroom settings, Shakespeare remains as distant as literature itself, and as intimidating as mathematics. Who is Shakespeare and why study him?

These are the questions that the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) set out to answer in its most recent offering, simply titled “William.” My wife and I caught the afternoon presentation last Saturday, and I have to say I have rarely been impressed and delighted by a play like this. The audience of mostly high school and college students screamed and laughed and wept as the actors sang and danced and recited Shakespeare in a way never before seen on stage. On an almost bare set, as it might well have been in Shakespeare’s time, it was the lines, sometimes delivered in sparkling rap and hip-hop, that took center stage. Here is a sampler from the opening scene:

“Sino ba si William/ Ba’t ang hirap niyang basahin

Para lang pumasa/ Mga dula’y halos lamunin

Di ma-gets kung anong pinagsasabi niya

Nalunod sa talinhaga ng kaniyang salita

O William please lang magpakilala ka sa’min

Mula sa langit ibulong mo sa akin

Alam mo bang hanggang dito sa sa’min sa Pinas

Kinikilala ang iyong talino’t tatas”

The situation of a group of Filipino high school kids in their junior year struggling to put together a meaningful report on Shakespeare speaks to every student who has ever had to face an alienating subject. As presentation day nears, they are gripped by panic. They seek refuge in rote memory, uttering words that carry no meaning and evoke no feeling. The depth of their despair is matched only by the soaring rhetoric in which their English teacher, Ms Martinez, expresses her awe of Shakespeare. At the drop of a hat, she recites memorable lines from the Bard with a fervor that only widens the gap between her idol and her students. But her passion to share Shakespeare with her class, of which she is also the adviser, prods her to connect to her students at the level of their personal problems.

Shakespeare is there, she tells them, not to teach you how to speak English with the right accent, but to show you how to think properly and how to carry your thoughts effectively across long and complex sentences. This can only happen, she said, if you make William your friend, someone you can turn to for help as you try to sort out and refine your own feelings and beliefs.  But first you have to understand what he’s trying to say. Although he was writing for the common people of his time, the themes he dealt with are timeless and universal: mercy, justice, prejudice, young love, loyalty to family, poor judgment, indecisiveness, etc. The values he communicates may sometimes seem inappropriate to our time, but, if that is so, then friendship requires that we say what we think of his views. Our admiration and appreciation of his genius should not prevent us from disagreeing with him.

That Shakespeare comes to us in a foreign language of course doubles the problem of understanding him. Translating him into our own language may not always make him less formidable, but talking about William in an idiom familiar to us in daily life permits us to relate him to our circumstances. This is what the brilliant tandem of Maribel Legarda, the director, and Ron Capinding, the playwright, has done for the young Filipinos of our time. They and the entire Peta ensemble of actors and crew that worked on this project have allowed this present generation to appropriate Shakespeare, and this they signify precisely by introducing him by his first name.

But what makes “William,” the play, particularly fascinating for me, as a teacher, is how it is able to articulate in a light and entertaining way the typical gaps between knowledge and life, between learning and living, and what we need to do to bridge them. This estrangement in many ways echoes the separation between the school and the community, and between ideas and practical problems. It is the sad story of formal education that schooling is often reduced to a series of rituals aimed at eliciting conformity and memorization rather than reflective understanding and criticism.

Knowledge cloaked in ritual encourages blind veneration and fear rather than understanding.  The more distant it is from concrete life, the more value it seems to carry. Those who acquire it after long years of study are rewarded by titles and credentials that often signify possession of something mystical rather than something useful. This is learning’s greatest challenge—how to break the aura of enchantment that surrounds knowledge so that it becomes accessible as human wisdom. Peta shows us how.

(“William” is on its final run at the Peta Theater Center this weekend and next, Sept. 23-25.  Peta may be reached through tel. 410-0821 and 725-6244, and by e-mail: petatheater@gmail. com)

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