The world of Shakespeare abounds with paradox and illusion. Inside the Bard’s scenes, nothing is what it seems, and misunderstanding, ill-founded conjecture and foolish human fancy often end in tragedy.
Unless they end in comedy.
With Shakespeare one never knows which way the story will turn. It is much the same with English Professor Michael Mack — and given his own comedic flare, it’s fitting that a lecture on one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies can still leave room for humor.
“This is a play about evil,” Mack emphasizes at the start of a lecture on Macbeth. The statement is decisive — but his students know to beware when Mack doth protest too much.
“Isn’t it fortunate that, in our lives, good is good, and bad is bad?” Mack’s rhetorical question is standard fare, as is his devil’s advocate technique. “And we know that Macbeth is bad — we can be pretty sure of that, can’t we?”
“When was the last time you were tempted with evil?” he continues mischievously. “Did you wake up this morning and say ‘Today, I’m going to be bad?’ No, no,” he ribs, a satirical glint in his eyes, “you are tempted by good things.”
A wave of knowing chuckles proves this mock exercise in rationalization is not far off the mark.
Mack, who has taught Shakespeare at CUA for 10 years, later insists the students are laughing at him, not with him. “Whenever I attempt to reach them where they live, I usually miss the mark grossly. They are amused by that immensely.” But he confides that those misses are often intentional. “While they’re laughing at me for not understanding their world, I’m suggesting, in a disarming way, that their world might not make as much sense as they think it does.”
He invites his students to entertain the paradox in Shakespeare, but there is a certain paradox to their professor as well. Thin, with well-groomed, dark hair, he’s not old, but he’s not young, either. On the outside, Mack wears the uniform of the classic stuffy English professor: the tweed blazer and tie or the turtleneck under a V-neck sweater. His dry, tongue-in-cheek manner works precisely because it is so unexpected: He is formal and professorial, yet he plays the comedian to his own straight man.
It might seem an uphill battle in today’s text-message world of communication to engage a room of college students in the antiquated, often confusing language of Shakespeare. But Mack’s ironic wit and continued attempts to “reach them where they live” have brought a decade’s worth of CUA students into the Bard’s fan club, and into a closer examination of how Shakespeare’s themes resonate in modern times.
Such commune with literature’s most famous playwright is increasingly rare in the nation’s universities. In fact, CUA is one of just 15 surveyed higher education institutions that require English majors to take a Shakespeare course. The survey, compiled by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, reviewed the requirements for English majors at 70 schools, including U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 ranked national universities and liberal arts colleges.
“A lot of my friends tell me that Shakespeare is overrated, or he’s irrelevant or that what he has to say doesn’t apply to us anymore,” says rising junior Craig Mariconti. “But Dr. Mack will relate the passages and context back to us. He’s thought provoking.”
“Professor Mack truly has a sincere interest in watching his students think for themselves,” says Meggie Monahan, an English major who graduated in May. She notes that Mack strives to give his students “permission to stop accepting things that are too easy.”
Not that they’d find many easy answers sifting through Macbeth or Hamlet. Shakespeare’s genius resides not just in his ability to create an interesting plot, but also in his mastery of double entendres, lining dialogue with paradox and making every word hold meaning.
Mack’s students know they shouldn’t expect a CliffsNotes breakdown from the Shakespeare scholar at the front of the room. That would be too easy.
“He refuses to give you the answers to your questions, which is probably my favorite thing about him as a professor,” Monahan says. “He definitely leaves you with the sense that he knows more than what he’s telling you.”
Mack does give students plenty of answers — they’re just usually in the form of more questions.
“What does it do to tell someone their future?” Mack asks the class, after reading a passage in which a group of witches tells Macbeth and his comrade, Banquo, what will happen to them. Mack pauses, one hand on the podium, the other tucked in his pocket, allowing students a moment to chew on that intellectual nugget before pressing them to make the connection — with another question.
“Was the devil lying when he said to Adam and Eve you shall be as gods?” he queries, likening Macbeth’s encounter with the witches to that iconic temptation scene. “If you really want to dupe someone, what should you do?”
“Tell them the truth,” several students offer, having found the answer with their own tongues.
Mack says that each play challenges the students differently: The tragedies introduce psychological complexities, such as the relationship between reason and desire; the comedies raise questions about the nature of imagination and whether love is
an objective reality or something that resides in the fancy.
It is the fostering of those complexities that has brought Monahan back to her second Shakespeare course at CUA, and her fourth class with Mack. “He’s just a really insightful man and he has a real passion for talking about common human experiences,” she says. In this way, Mack is the perfect conduit for Shakespeare, whose work provides a mirror of human nature to the reader, she adds.
As the mirror holder, Mack sees a certain transformation within each student over the course of the year, as each learns to navigate the complex terrain of the Bard’s work and look more closely at the reflection the plays provide. The course is broken up into two semesters, with nine plays read and examined in each, including such classics as Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice and, of course, Romeo and Juliet.
As the study of each play progresses, the students get progressively less Mack and more Shakespeare. “Less of the instructor’s wit and, thank goodness, more of Shakespeare’s wisdom,” says Mack.
The students are trained to pay attention to detail, recognizing a particular technique used by the author, such as foreshadowing, and its effect, he says. When they see one example, they start looking for others elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works.
“As they get more plays under their belt, they have greater confidence,” the professor says. “They know much better what they’re looking for and become better readers as the semester goes on.”
And even when they lack that feeling of confidence, chances are they’re grasping more than they think they are.
“He once told me, ‘If you leave feeling like you have no idea what’s going on, you’re probably closer to understanding what’s going on than you think,’ ” Monahan recalls.
Despite his expert knowledge of the text, Mack often embraces his students’ confusion. His show of solidarity provides the reassurance a Shakespeare neophyte needs to keep traveling those winding paths, when often, they lead right back to square one.
“So we’re here,” Mack announces, after several minutes spent deciphering a cryptic passage. His brow wrinkles slightly. “Where are we?”
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