Teaching Shakespeare to Judith: Gender Politics in Distance/Online Teaching

Michael Best


As the quintessential non-marginalized writer, Shakespeare remains remarkably popular in undergraduate teaching. The challenge, especially for an instructor who is white, male, and not young, is to make his works accessible to students who are, for the most part female, young, and increasingly of mixed ethnic origins. No amount of stress on the kinds of decentering criticism that have made the field of Shakespeare such an entertaining gladiatorial sport in recent years will shake the feeling of most students, especially those who are still feeling their way towards a critical voice, that Shakespeare—and his pedagogical interpreters—is not to be challenged. That there will be students in undergraduate classes who are inexperienced, and correspondingly likely to be intimidated by the authoritative professorial voice is certain.

Inexperience is not, of course, gender-specific. But there are some important studies that have shown that in a normal classroom the proportion of male voices will tend to outweigh the female, even when the class is made up predominantly of women. It is a major challenge in any classroom to give proportionately equal voice to men and women; this paper will look at the way that online components of two semester courses on Shakespeare allow both male and female students to examine gender issues in Shakespeare’s plays, with less explicit direction from the instructor, and a corresponding freedom in their exploration of the text and of questions of gender politics. I will also argue that online discussion provides an atmosphere that encourages a more equally balanced debate between male and female students, and that the greater distance of the authority figure makes for a franker interchange on issues connected with gender in the plays under study.

The structure of the courses

The two semester courses I have designed as ‘Individual Studies’ combine traditional media—print and optional face-to-face interaction—with a variety of multimedia and electronic resources: most importantly for this paper, the course involves a non-mediated listserv as an electronic discussion group, and an extensive Internet site on the Renaissance context of the plays. Students are also expected to use electronic transcriptions of the original quarto and Folio texts, a ‘blocking’ program that allows them to become ‘directors’ of a selected scene from one of the plays, and exercises in searching for and accessing the increasing resources on the Internet.

It will be clear from this summary that the courses are not taught purely online. On the contrary, students consistently rate the old-fashioned printed Course Guide as the single most useful resource they have access to. Print is a powerful and flexible technology: for each play, the Course Guide provides background readings, an extensive commentary, a ‘self-test’ that they can use to see how well they have understood the play, and so on. Paper is still more readily annotated and transported than an electronic text.

A major justification for online teaching is that it can provide alternatives to conventional modes to instruction, not that it can—or should—replace them. For this reason, our Department offers parallel courses on Shakespeare either in normal lecture format, or on line, and the students can take one of the pair on one mode, the other in the other mode. Naturally, I would like to believe that students choose my courses because they have all kinds of stimulating resources using computers and multimedia, but in their evaluations of the classes, over two-thirds of students indicate that they chose the online courses simply because they can schedule them more conveniently. I end up with a high proportion of students from our Theatre Department, because their schedules of rehearsal mean that it is difficult for them to attend regular lectures, and I find that there are many students who are working part-time, or who have family duties.

On the same principle that the electronic medium is best when it provides choices, the courses offer both an online discussion group (the focus of this paper) and an hour per week of face-to-face tutorials. The inclusion of both online and classroom discussion has provided me with a useful yardstick for measuring the difference between the two modes of discourse.


In any interaction with the teacher—on or offline—a kind of filter is engaged as students count or discount the presumed predilections of the teacher: in my case gender, age, and my slight otherness as Australian, means that they can distance themselves from what I say. In many ways this distancing is positive, since it may lead them to interrogate my comments on the plays. In other ways, however, it may lead to a less effective exploration of the text, since students will be less likely to challenge me in class, and correspondingly less likely to have the opportunity to look for alternative readings of the text.

The tutorials are voluntary, with the inevitable result that towards the end of term the numbers diminish to an intimate few. The classroom situation evokes the usual group of those who talk and those who don’t, and there is a rapid drop-out from the students who expect a lecture (for which they don’t have to have done the reading) rather than a discussion group. Even in the relatively small face-to-face discussion groups the course provides, students tend to speak to the instructor rather than to engage in debate laterally across the classroom—and even a careful positioning of chairs, or the subversive tactic of sitting in a non-central position has little effect on changing this behaviour. One of the reasons for the reluctance of many students to engage directly in discussion is the wide range of student preparedness in the class: those who are relatively new to Shakespeare are unlikely to risk comments without time to refer to the text or Course Guide. Typically, the class will be dominated by a few articulate students, often male, and not always well informed.

Online discussion

In evaluating the course, students have often commented on the difference between classroom interaction and online discussion. In preparation for this lecture I circulated a request that I quote the students’ writing (changing names), and the result was that there was an interesting meta-discussion about the experience of contributing to discussion online. Here is one typical response, where Nicole points out both the advantage and the disadvantage of the medium:

I also wanted to make a few comments for your paper comparing online discussions to classroom discussions; I find that online discussions are beneficial because it is easier for a non-confident person to participate in the discussions and it gives the participants time to ponder the other’s comments before responding which in my case has expanded my thoughts on certain subjects. It is also very convenient for the obvious reason of being available 24 hours a day. The only disadvantages that I have found are that sometimes a healthy, heated debate between people in a classroom can be very satisfying, and that sometimes people write independently of each other.
(Nicole, 09 Mar 2000)

There is clearly a sense from many students that they feel more comfortable with time to consider their response, and that they enjoy the protection of a kind of semi-anonymity. To be sure, the postings do give clues as to those who are contributing. The email address includes a name, which usually indicates gender, and sometimes cultural or racial background; and the email identifications students choose for themselves often signal something about them (‘<bunny@uvic.ca>’ is a cute example, while the formal ‘G. E. Blackett’ is more authoritarian). The time students have to consider a reply is especially useful for those whose background in Shakespeare or English studies is limited—some students will inevitably feel intimidated in a classroom situation, and fail to ask basic questions they need answered; in the online forum such students frequently offer opinions, or ask questions, with apologetic qualifying phrases ('just my 2 cents’ worth,’ ‘just a thought,’ and so on). Not surprisingly, there is a considerable range of quality in the postings, as of course there is in classroom discussion.

Of the many options for synchronous or asynchronous online conversation, I have so far chosen one of the oldest and most conservative, the listserv. Students now have email accounts as a matter of course, and the listserv can as readily send mail to Hotmail or Yahoo as to an address at the University of Victoria. The course is thus integrated into their normal social interaction on the Internet. The listserv is not moderated, so students have immediate access to it, and my contributions are exactly on a par with their own. (As this paper is about to be published, I am experimenting with the asynchronous capabilities of a ‘Web Board’ for the course instead of the listserv; now that students are increasingly comfortable with various kinds of computer discussion groups, they are less sympathetic to having their email crowded with messages, and more likely to spend time online browsing and contributing to the threaded discussions of a web-based discussion group).

Like the tutorials, the online discussion tends to dwindle as the term progresses. The combined effect of a drop in class attendance and online participation is one of the great traps of online instruction: isolation, and the consequent temptations to fatal procrastination. In an attempt to reduce this isolation, this year I have been experimenting by providing an incentive to take part in the online discussion: regular participation earns a mark to a maximum of 10%—a significant component but not essential for passing the course. The nature of the participation is spelled out: regular contribution (one per week) gains 7%, and the remaining 3% is added for postings that indicate careful thought, or provide stimulus to further valuable discussion.

In the Course Guide, I have a careful section that discusses the rhetoric of email: there is to be no ‘flaming,’ but the postings are not to be considered in any sense formal, so that finger fumbles need not be corrected, and references to the text don’t have to be accurately quoted. I’m compulsive about accuracy of expression in my own emails, but on the first few i force myself to use some lower case where upper case is normal, so that the students have some evidence for believing me. The point is to make the electronic discussion as informal as possible, and to refrain from the suggestion that the postings will be ‘marked’ in some way, so that students, again, would be intimidated.

The instructor’s role in the discussion

For similar reasons, I have found that it is important to keep a balance between keeping a low profile (so that students don’t feel that their discussion is being too critically examined) and adopting a too-distant role that leaves them feeling that there is no direction in the course. My tactics include the following:

  • prodding the discussion with questions (often related to those in the Course Guide), especially as the course moves to a new play;
  • waiting patiently for others to respond to a half- thought idea, or one that involves a clear misreading of the text—then if necessary making a generalized observation, not referring to the original posting directly.
  • responding immediately when there is a request for data of some kind that students would expect from an ‘authority’ in the field (a useful article or book; matters of fact concerning the play or the meaning of a word, for example);
  • sending personal emails of encouragement to students who have made especially thoughtful postings;
  • if necessary, sending a personal email to someone whose language is in danger of becoming intemperate;
  • circulating items of current interest generated elsewhere (I subscribe to the SHAKSPER discussion group and sometimes forward a good posting from that list);
  • posting occasional summary notes on the discussion.

An example of discussion on gender issues: Ophelia

The course, on Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies, includes readings that raise gender issues, but these are part of the background reading for the tragedies that are studied towards the end of the course. It is perhaps a sign of the importance of gender issues to current students that the online discussion blossomed with a vigorous and varied debate on the role of women in Hamlet, a play that is studied before the readings on feminist critical approaches. What follows is a kind of case history, a selected narrative from many postings. My intention is to illustrate the way that student interaction can more freely range over gender issues than is likely to be the case in a classroom, however benignly the patriarchal figure of the instructor attempts to open up the discussion.

As is often the case, early postings concerned reactions to filmed performances of the play. The course pack includes audiotaped performances of some of the plays, together with discussions between the actors, the director, and the academic advisor on some issues. In addition, I recommend the use of video, especially for those students who are still unfamiliar with the language, and there is one assignment where students have the option of critically comparing two videotaped performances of one play.

Extensive discussion of the ‘Mel Gibson’ (Zeffirelli) Hamlet initially focussed on some students’ distaste for the sexual overtones in the ‘closet’ scene with Gertrude in this production. Then one student brought up the subject of Ophelia in the play, and film. The discussion developed into two extensive threads, one on Ophelia, the other on Gertrude: as is frequently the case, students are most familiar with the conventions of discussing character, and only later venture into more theoretical or adventurous territory. Some students defended Gertrude as making an intelligent remarriage for reasons of state, dismissing Hamlet’s (and the Ghost’s) emphasis on incest as male paranoia. In this thread I did intrude; while the cheerful dismissal of apparently male concerns is refreshing, I reminded the students of the passage in the Course Guide that explores the resonance of the question of incest with the marital adventures of Henry VIII. Subsequently, a student posted a good comment on the breaking of the incest taboo, citing René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred.

The thread on Ophelia was especially interesting in the way that students challenged each other, cumulatively learning in the process. The exchange started with a comment on subtext and performance.

On another note, an actress friend of mine was explaining to me how often actresses will come up with some subtext to justify Ophelia’s madness. She had decided, when she played the part, that Ophelia was pregnant. I find it interesting to concider how a little subtext can really change how a part is played.
(Fiona, Wed, 9 Feb 2000)

The first response, on the same day, was interesting in that it encapsulated a very traditional view of the part (Ophelia as helpless victim) with reference again to performance—and to an interpretation of that performance that differs widely from my own. Typically for early postings, the text that is referred to is one of performance, and there is little checking of Shakespeare’s actual text. The respondent was male.

Re: Ophelia in the Mel Gibson film of Hamlet:
I thought the part was played really well by Helena Bonham-Carter, but I am biased because she is my favourite actress and that version of Hamlet is one of my favourite movies. I thought that they got Ophelia’s character right, she was a sweet young girl caught between Hamlet’s mad behaviour, her father’s hatred of Hamlet, the politics of the time saying that she could not marry Hamlet, and her own love of Hamlet - it all tore her apart. She was an innocent victim in a way, a girl who just couldn’t take all the pressures and confusion that bore down on her through no fault of her own.
(Trevor, Wed, 9 Feb 2000)

A further posting the same day introduced a new question, one that clearly influences audiences in performance if not on paper: the age of the character. The respondent, this time female, agreed with the previous posting, though my own initial reaction to it had been that it was a very traditionally male point of view.

I agree with Trevor about how Helena Bonham-Carter portrayed Ophelia. I thought that she really embodied what I expected Ophelia to be. I envisioned her as I was reading the play as a young, naive girl, in love but confused by her own emotions and feelings and being torn between these new feelings and her *duty* to obey her father. Side question - how old is Ophelia supposed to be?? Anyone know?
(Shawna, Wed, 9 Feb 2000)

Unfortunately, perhaps, the question about Ophelia’s imagined age drops out of sight in the succeeding postings. At this point I intervened, hoping to keep the pot simmering, and raising the possibility of seeing the character as somewhat less insipid than the first postings suggested. I hoped to steer the inquiry into an area where gender roles would be questioned rather than assumed.

Some interesting postings on Ophelia. In the Course Pack I ask two questions:
Is it possible to see in her madness, not so much a sweet, pathetic figure, but one who has no options, and only in madness is able to express real strength and deep passion?
Can her death be seen as tragic or is it merely sad?
(Michael Best, 11 Feb 2000)

The second question is rather devious. The background readings in the course to this point have concentrated on the context of politics and power, the drama before Shakespeare, and some information about ghosts and the supernatural; it is not until later in the course that students are specifically given readings on different concepts of tragedy. My hope, of course, is that some students will ask what I mean by ‘tragic.’

After a couple of days of reflection, the student who began the exchange returned to the topic, generally agreeing with the postings, but for the first time looking more deeply into questions of gender roles and power relations.

I also enjoy Ophelia’s madness, but because I feel it makes her more tragic. . . . I see her broken heart, her sorrow, her passion as the force behind her insanity. She is torn and broken by her need to please all the men in her life. For the majority of the play she acts demurely. It is only in her insanity that we as the audience see what is going on beneath her calm surface. Her insanity shows us that there is other levels to her character. As a piece of theatre I find it more interesting, and more dynamic, if she is active in her own insanity, rather than passive and pathetic. This passionate, real insanity is also a good foil for Hamlet’s feigned craziness, is it not?
(Fiona, Sat, 12 Feb 2000)

Later that day, another student contributed a long posting, with some careful citing of the text to support her position. She has clearly taken the companion course on Shakespeare’s comedies and has a sophisticated approach to gender roles. She does not, however, pick up the cues from the earlier postings that stressed the effect of performance.

This is the first opportunity I’ve had to add my two cents! I agree that the female characters in Hamlet are very weak. Ophelia is a prime example. . . She is able to give it up with ease when her father tells her to have nothing more to do with Hamlet. Her only reply to being told she can no longer see the one she loves is, ‘I shall obey, my lord.’ This is an abnormal response in Shakespeare. Usually parental opposition causes the young lovers to have more determination to be together. . . Ophelia takes orders from whomever is around her at the time. When she tells Laertes that what he told her is, ‘in my memory lock’d, and you yourself shall keep the key of it’ , she is not being truthful. A moment later we see her telling her father what they were talking about. Her character is so weak that although she says and may believe at the time that she can keep a secret or choose her own course in life, as the reader we know that this is not possible.
(Jennifer, Thu, 12 Feb 2000)

Jennifer continues, raising an issue that has a clear relevance to gender issues in the play, and she has given some thought to the difference between pathos and tragedy:

Shakespeare’s important female characters have no mother. This is true of Cordelia, Imogen, Desdemona, Portia, Jessica, Viola, Olivia, Hero, Rosalind, Celia and Miranda. The effect of this is that they have no women to turn to in a time of crises. . . Ophelia is of a different nature than any of these characters, she is weaker, yet the effect is the same. When Ophelia loses her mind the Queen, who formerly paid her compliments, will have nothing to do with her. Although Ophelia suffers more than some of the characters above, she does not draw our sympathy in the same way. We pity her pathetic end; she cannot create the tragic impression of a great figure in the suffering she endures.

As is often the case with the most thoughtful postings, she concludes with a question.

Is Ophelia’s weakness a result of her time? Can we expect someone of her situation to behave any differently? Anyone?

In due course I posted a list of suggested readings to assist students who were interested in pursuing the question of Renaissance attitudes to women in general. Another effective posting on the same day defended Ophelia, comparing her madness to Hamlet’s, and specifically invoking the vocabulary of gender criticism.

Ophelia may back down from Hamlet’s anger, and does in the end take her own life, but in no way does that make her a ‘weak’ character. What one should consider is that often suicide is a way of taking control of oneself, a final way to actually have control of something that no one else can touch. Her remark to her brother, telling him not to take the easy road and preach to her about taking the difficult path is a strong one. I am in no way saying ophelia is an early icon for feminism, as she does relent and become subservient in instances, but we should really stop before labelling her weak. Her brother is dead set on murdering the man she loves, who she has already lost emotionally, and he has killed her father. No wonder she retreats into the depths of her own mind. What makes that weaker than Hamlet’s (real or staged because we do not know) own decent into madness?
(Tara, 12 Feb 2000)

Some days later, as the class was preparing to move on to the next play for discussion, I submitted a longer posting, summarizing some of the issues, and suggesting some critical strategies. I commented on the tendency to discuss Ophelia as a person rather than a series of clues towards a characterization, and on the temptation to see issues as binaries rather than more complex intersections. I also wanted to question cultural assumptions that were embedded in some of the postings. Only the part of my comment that dealt with the discussion about Ophelia’s weakness or strength is included here. (Footnote: my comment was made before the events of September 11 2001; it has acquired unexpected resonance since.)

Was Ophelia weak or strong?
Response #1. Again, that pesky ‘or.’ But can a character be both weak *and* strong? Why not? A simple characterization will produce the strong hero or strong woman or whatever; a more complex characterization will show how a person can in some circumstances be strong, in others weak (as Hamlet is sometimes very decisive, as when he chooses to follow the ghost when his friends try to hold him back, at other times indecisive).
Response #2. But there’s another question behind this question. How do we determine what is weak? Is it weak to deny oneself love at the demand of a father (certainly the assumption in our modern, western culture), or does it demand strength of character to do what is perceived right when it conflicts with one’s desires? Let me put a modern case. Is a woman in a Moslem culture weak if she follows the demands of a culture that we may perceive oppressive? Shouldn’t she rebel if she has strength? But what if she deeply believes her religion, and works hard at repressing her desires because she believes them to be wrong? In Renaissance England, the Ophelias would have heard obedience preached from every pulpit—the self same obedience that the husband owed to the monarch and the state, the wife owed the husband. If she chose to follow her religion, she would be in the position of having to suppress her desires for independence. . . .
More food for thought...
(Michael Best, 19 Feb 2000)

It would be pleasing to leave the interchange there, neatly summed up and tidied, but there was one belated (and slightly obscure) posting that was a reminder that not everyone was convinced.

I think the notion that the roots of madness are very obscure speaks particularly well to the character of Ophelia, whose madness comes from a malignant obscurity in the world of the court. Specifically, I think the madness/death of Ophelia is one of the most sublime moments in literature. She is an excercise in classical feminity and hysteria(in my eye a word more apt than ‘breakdown’) - but to ask of weakness or strength is an attempt to negotiate responsibiblity and Ophelia has none...
(George, 22 Feb 2000)


The ideal for online teaching is to provide additional choices for students. An online discussion may for some students feel rather like ‘speaking with a megaphone into a darkened theatre’ (Leslie, 26 Oct 1998), but for many it provides a level of comfort that encourages fuller participation. The incentive of a mark for participation ensures that all students, regardless of gender, will contribute. The added distance from the voice of authority the medium permits can also become a positive dynamic within the discussion, since it allows students more freedom in expressing views that might otherwise be repressed for fear that they were ‘incorrect’ in some form. In particular, the online discussion has the potential to allow a more equal contribution from women than is the norm in face-to-face classrooms: In my own classes, men make up 21% of the two classes, and thus far have made up 23% of all postings to the two listservs. Electronic communications may still achieve something less than the ideal of splendid democracy hailed by some of the hypertext theorists of the last decade, but the listservs for the courses I offer do seem to bring an opportunity for a more equal voice for the Judiths in my classes.

Associated Sites

1. Course home page: <http://www.engl.uvic.ca/Faculty/Best/ISShakespeare/Index.html>.

2. Sample research projects from past students: <http://www.engl.uvic.ca/Faculty/MBHomePage/ISShakespeare/Resources/>.

3. Internet Shakespeare Editions transcriptions of original texts: <http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Annex/DraftTxt/>.

4. Internet site on Shakespeare’s Life and Times: <http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/SLT/>.

5. The important question of the value accorded electronic materials in research and teaching is addressed on this site: <http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Foyer/CompRecog.html>.


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