The Shakespearean Digital Aside

I remember studying Shakespeare in college and coming across this line in Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t” (Act II, sc. 2). Polonius says this in response to Hamlet’s comment about old men, which isn’t very flattering if you’re an old man. Or a young one, either, since it’s just a matter of time before young ones become old ones. Trust me on this. The point is that Shakespeare has Polonius say it in an aside.

I have always liked asides. Aside: Feel free to use that as a pickup line at a Shakespeare conference. I like them for two reasons: (1) they pause the flow of things so that the reader or audience gets inside the mind of the character, and (2) they engage us in a way that makes us feel as if we are not just part of the play but part of the playwright. We have the inside track on what’s really going on, thus fulfilling our voyeuristic fantasies. Well, mine, anyway.

In a college production of Richard III, I created my own aside when the king failed to show, stage left, leaving me all alone, stage right. “T’is but a dream,” I said in extemporaneous, Elizabethan English, sending the director into a full-scale panic in the wings. But that, as they say, is another story.

Here’s the point. Aside: I tell students to have a point, so I should have one, too. I have spent more time this semester nagging students (undergraduate underclassmen, mainly), either to put their cell phones away, or take their texting into the hall. I have done this repeatedly and gone through the usual speeches about respect, self-respect, the rules, the syllabus, their participation grade, and their careers. I have even stopped mid sentence and stood in the middle of the room, staring at the offender until everyone else in the room stares at the offender. Shame can be a wonderful thing.

None of this is working. I have been treating symptoms, not the problem. So, you might ask, what is the problem? Enter Polonius, stage right. Now, I could be all wet on this and just as befuddled as the old men in Hamlet’s description, but it occurred to me that what students are doing constitutes a kind of aside. I am not so out of it as to believe that they are texting their friends about Kantian business ethics or the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but it is possible that it gives them a way to reach beyond the lecture, Power Point, class. What if the appeal of texting is not only as a distraction but as a way to engage without having to engage? They can make fun of the shirt I am wearing without having to confront me. With a secret audience, no less.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not excusing digital distraction. I am trying to neutralize it. You might tell me to engage them more. That works–to an extent. When they plan the lecture, conduct the lesson, design the quiz, they are more engaged. But they still text and surf the Internet, even if less so. The key is that they do it in snippets, as if getting their fix of digital aside. I also know I can only go so far. Once I make it “official” (a popular undergraduate word) by putting their tweets or comments on the screen at the front of the class, I’m back to square one.

In contrast to “educators,” I really don’t think it’s my job to engage or motivate students. Yet, that is how I spend a fair amount of my time. Is this the result of too much stimulation? Online, passive learning? Institutional education from kindergarten through high school that has made them students rather than learners? It could be any of these things. It could also be that business students are required to take an ethics course. I get that.

But these digital asides are not helping them. An aside can take you behind the scenes into the mind of a character, but you’ve still got to see the breadth and depth of the entire play to understand what’s going on. They remain quips, beau mots, witticisms that go careening around the stage like loose racquetballs. In marketing terms, they are sizzle but not steak.

You’ve got to take a step or two back if you want “to catch the conscience of the king” (Act II, sc. 2).

You want a piece of me? See Robert Brancatelli. For “William Shakespeare: Hamlet” image, go to Greatest Audiobooks. Note to self: Spending Palm Sunday in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

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