The Constitution has this in common with Shakespeare: Centuries go by, and it’s still entertaining.
Shakespeare entertains because the plays are agelessly alive with stories and language that echo and deepen our own lives. Long after Elizabethan contemporary playwrights, like Ben Johnson, are moldering on graduate school shelves, the Bard goes on Shaking it on stage.
And you get laughs still in the 21st century with some of the 400-year-old lines in Taming of the Shrew, which we were discussing on a panel in the Lander Library last week. (This is the sort of thing we do all the time on weeknights in Lander … come on over!) A baudy laugh, when Katherine, sparring and flirting with Petruchio, says, “If I be waspish, beware my sting” – and they riff back and forth about stingers, and where on a wasp’s body they’re located (“the tail”), leading to wordplay about the sting of a “tale” being on a waspish tongue – at which point Kate turns to leave and he asks if she would leave “with my tongue in your tale?”
The Constitution, on the other hand, doesn’t have them rolling in the aisles, but it sparks discussion the same way Shakespeare does, with words that still resonate 200 years after they were written. A few days after the Shakespeare panel in Lander, high school students from around Wyoming gathered in Laramie to talk passionately about the six pages of sheepskin parchment where the Founding Fathers laid down the rules of governance. (This is the sort of thing we do all the time on weeknights in Laramie…come on over!)
Inevitably, some of the debate is about whether the framers envisioned a “natural right” to carry a Kalashnikoff rifle into a Green River bar, but these young folks are also talking about Cicero, and the Iroquois Confederacy, and what James Madison was thinking in Federalist Paper No. 10 about the dangers of direct democracy.
This may not be how the world views Wyoming, not Shakespeare and debate about Constitutional history, not in rural towns with less than 100,000 people, certainly not in the same week. That’s part of the joy of it. People turned out to hear scholars and actors talk about Shakespeare on a week night, and some may have had to jump-start the pickup in a snowdrift. And a bunch of kids spent months studying and arguing and prepping to debate the arcana of government in front of judges and historians and even a few journalist inquisitors.
Let’s start with Shakespeare. Wyoming PBS, which used to cut me a paycheck, is airing a national series called “Shakespeare Uncovered,” in which actors like Morgan Freeman and Ethan Hawke talk about how you put on a Shakespeare play, illustrated with clips from movies and theater of historic interpretations by the likes of Richard Burton and Meryl Streep. You learn how the stage was set in Shakespeare’s day, hear famous speeches intoned in radically different styles (and meanings), and explore what Freeman and his crew had in mind when they put Taming of the Shrew in a western saloon and started firing guns (not Kalashnikoffs, though).
The episode on ‘Shrew ran about an hour on a big screen in the Carnegie Room, and then we had a little panel, including a professor from the Wyoming Catholic College who was formerly a theater critic in Dallas (Dr. Glenn Arbery), an online teacher in the Great Books program and sometime actress (Tami Kozinski) and the director of the Wyoming Shakespeare Company, with theater chops in California, New York, and London (Diane Springford).
Amazingly, the crowd stayed to listen to the chatter. This was a Wednesday, with work and school the next morning.
The talk jumped all around, from Shakespeare’s thievery of 16th Century “commedia dell’arte” tropes to somewhat more recent thievery in movies like “10 Things I Hate About You” (based on Taming of the Shrew). Springford, whose group sets up tents in parks all over Wyoming every summer for outdoor performances, talked about the sly language of Shakespeare, and how audiences in the rural West “get it.” As if on cue, a kid of about 10 got up and talked knowingly about what was really going on between Petruchio and Kate in the play we’d just been watching.
It was equally satisfying, a few days later, to listen to Wyoming high school kids go at it in the state finals of the “We, the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” competition. Teams from six schools gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn in Laramie, to debate what the Constitution really says about the powers of Congress, or how the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights protects us from government overreach (the Fourth? Hmmm… might have to look it up…).
This is not a battle of history know-it-alls or abstract political philosophers, though they must know their John Locke and what the Fourth Amendment says (give up? Protection against “unreasonable search and seizure”). They were also talking about the issues of the day, like same-sex marriage and immigration.
It’s as fiercely played as Friday night football, with deft moves and the occasional Hail Mary pass (“If I might quote Oliver Wendell Holmes…”). Matt Strannigan, the former principal at Cheyenne Central who now serves at the State Coordinator, tells me that now and then a new team will arrive with a protective coach insisting the kids shouldn’t be oppressed by too much competition… and then he’ll spot that teacher in the back, when the team qualifies, “arms stretched to the ceiling, pumping her fists and yelling.”
“We, the People” has been operating in Wyoming since 1987, and weathered some droughts of funding, particularly when the U.S. Congress cut the Education for Democracy Act four years ago (on the premise, perhaps, that the current Congress would rather citizens didn’t think too much about how government is supposed to function?). The judges – including several members of the Wyoming State Supreme Court – work for free. But there are expenses; teacher training programs and funding for the kids to travel to the competition. In recent years, the state has kicked in some funding – so have I (small change), and so can you.
Not every Wyoming school district chooses to join the program, and some have faced skeptical parents who wonder what political slant might be imparted. You can’t make the material completely neutral without deadening it, but I was impressed with the rigor of the contestants, sticking to history and solid legal scholarship and, when they ventured an opinion, showing their diversity. One student defended the Hobby Lobby argument that an employer can refuse to offer services that offend his or her religion; equally vociferous were the critics of gender inequality.
Wyoming’s per capita participation in the program is among the national leaders, and a team from Central won the Mountain/Plains states competition a few years back, and went on to compete well in the nationals.
So, Shakespeare and the Constitution, in-depth, in one week… The connection between these two events isn’t just that they happened in the snow-covered, unpopulated West, and I happened to be at both. The connection is that people turned out in cold weather, after a long day at the office or the classroom, to honor and discuss the meaning, and the power, of thought and expression. It was a reminder that words can shape and inspire and even rule us, if we grow up with a belief in community and culture and civics.
When I was covering the Legislature a few years ago, there was some tomfoolery about Wyoming preparing for the collapse of civilization by coining its own money and starting a Navy. Read the Constitution, solons: it expressly forbids (Article 1, Section 10) that any state “coin money” or have its own “ships of war” during peacetime.
I can’t wait until these kids are old enough to run for office.
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