History of King Lear book cover

WSU faculty and students create an interdisciplinary resource for studying

"Dividing the Kingdoms" is an online resource designed by the faculty, students and staff of Wayne State University. The aim of this resource is to assist in teaching Shakespeare to undergraduate students through various approaches or methodologies. "Dividing the Kingdoms" primarily focuses on "King Lear," but also assists in the teaching of other Shakespearean and early modern works. Each module includes introduction videos to a specific methodology, in-class activities, assignments and a service-learning project. The project was coordinated by Professor Jamie Goodrich and took nearly three years to complete.

"Dividing the Kingdoms" was funded by a 2016 Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates microgrant sponsored by Folger Shakespeare Library and the National Endowment for Humanities. Earlier in the year WSU, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Public Library participated in a tour of the “First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare” which took place in 2016 in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This tour brought a rare edition of First Folio, which was published in 1623 to all fifty states. WSU was one of 21 institutions to be chosen for the microgrant.

Goodrich assembled faculty specializing in literature, film and theatre as well as a librarian from WSU. The staff and faculty members discussed the different ways in which they taught Shakespeare and thus wanted to design a resource that would highlight the various approaches that can be taken in order to read and teach Shakespeare. Goodrich describes "Dividing the Kingdoms" as “an interdisciplinary website that aims to revitalize the teaching of Shakespeare at the college level by offering six different methodologies for instructors to use with King Lear and other plays: adaptation, cultural studies, digital humanities, performance, philosophy and text.”

The first module introduces adaptation as an approach to Shakespeare. It looks at how different interpretations or adaptions have been made and examines how "King Lear" has been interpreted over time and in different societies. Furthermore, this module demonstrates how various adaptations can allow the audience to gain a better understanding of the original text.

The next module applies the lens of cultural studies to inspect how the culture and time period of "King Lear" influenced the play as well as how present-day culture and historical events can impact how current audiences view King Lear. Additionally, students look at Lear through various lenses, such as feminism or gender studies, to better understand certain themes.

Performance is another methodology used in this project. Performance brings a unique characteristic to the understanding of Shakespeare’s plays because it becomes visual and encourages the students to understand how to read the lines, so as to understand the emotions Shakespeare conveys. This module also includes several videos with Larry Yando, a well-known actor of Shakespeare’s plays.

The fourth module explores "King Lear" through philosophy. The idea behind this method is to learn how Shakespeare thinks and approaches difficult life questions. This module allows students to recognize these concepts in Shakespeare and how they can apply them toward their own understanding and thoughts of these topics.

The fifth module is Text. This module examines the different versions of "King Lear," particularly between the 1608 Quarto and 1623 Folio. Students compare in this model the two early versions of the text and ask questions about what the different texts mean. They will learn, according to the website, “that every edition of Lear is really an interpretation of the play.”

The final module centers on the digital humanities. The purpose of this module is to use certain tools to analyze a text in a different manner. This module coincides with the Digital Text section, which includes several digitized works. The digital humanities can be used “to teach students how they could use the digitized texts to perform textual analysis through tools and visualizations such as data mining, word clouds and annotation.” 

Additionally, Dividing the Kingdoms includes another resource called “Going Beyond Lear” which shows “how the modules’ methodologies can be applied to other Shakespearean texts.” Thus, each module has a set of exercises pertaining to Lear as well as another of Shakespeare’s works.

Goodrich has taught Shakespeare using Dividing the Kingdoms in some capacity four times and at varying course levels. She has found that students enjoy learning from various approaches as it allows them to look at Shakespeare in ways they may not have before. She also noted that the service-learning component has been especially successful. At the end of the semester, students are able to teach middle schoolers about Shakespeare in lieu of a final exam. “When you teach something, you end up learning the material on a very deep level and my students have been excited to really hone their understanding of Shakespeare and communicate their excitement about his work to others.” 

Since Goodrich regularly teaches courses on Shakespeare, she has found that “courses based on this resource are never dull because students are always finding new perspectives for thinking about the material and the assignments challenge students to engage with Shakespeare in creative ways beyond standard papers.” For example, students have applied these methodologies in order to compose ballads, edit scenes of the text and turn Lear into a fairytale. "Dividing the Kingdoms" along with utilizing local Shakespeare-related resources at the DIA, DPL and WSU Special Collections results in “an English class like no other--one that is "distinctively Wayne State" and that pushes students beyond their comfort zones in productive and exciting ways.”

Goodrich noted that Dividing the Kingdoms was an exciting and stimulating project because it brought together faculty, staff and students from across the university, connecting us through our shared interest in Shakespeare. WSU is a research university and ideally, its faculty members' research should inform their teaching. "Dividing the Kingdoms" gave us an opportunity to create pedagogical resources that did just that, bringing our scholarly perspectives into the classroom in fresh and invigorating ways. For that reason, I am very proud to have been involved in this project.”

Be sure to check out "Dividing the Kingdoms."

By Nicole Saez