Reflection, Standardized Testing, & Shakespeare

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Let’s revisit our discussion regarding the common ground shared between test prep and The Bard.

My personal favorite of William Shakespeare’s work is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of his less frequently viewed. Richard II is the first installment of the Henriad. These plays (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) act as complex living documents, ones which mold, reform and invigorate historical events in service of establishing and interrogating the foundations of a national identity – testing the grounds on which power and legitimacy are formed, stolen, repurposed, and passed down.

But as much as they serve as valuable accounts of historical narrative, these works are first and foremost plays, and their ability to embody historical decision making through the intricate psychological state of the individual is a large part of what imbues resonance and immediacy long after these historical chapters have concluded.

The Henriad’s initial chapter centers on Richard II, the monarch whose naiveté and potential misrule ultimately catalyzes unrest, rebellion, and the dethroning of Richard as King. I want to turn our attention to the concluding act of the play:

“I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented.”

- Richard II, ACT V, Scene I

Richard has been usurped, jailed in isolation and with judgment on the horizon. The text above contains the initial moments of Richard’s final speech, the end of the road after a journey replete with blind faith in his own right and ability to rule and an inability to reckon with rapidly changing circumstances and responsibilities. Finally, when the stakes can be no higher – and when he has exhausted every resource at his disposal – he embraces the basest of human capabilities – reflection. Here (in Beckettian existential fashion), he reduces his circumstances to their most base elements – the mind and the soul – to create a microcosm in which he is able to control the elements that are mortally controlling him. He goes on to populate his little world with the forces at play, distilling the actions taken in a way that allows for him to scale the invisible mass of powers beyond him into an actionable, comprehensive playing field.

Though our stakes are not as grave on standardized testing, the lesson unquestionably carries. When faced with the daunting constraints of any problem section of the ACT or SAT, whether it be related to timing or content, it is easy to relent one’s agency to the seemingly insurmountable immediate challenges. Return to the same situations with the same responses time and again, and you’ll find yourself careening forward down an inevitable path. Instead, take the time to analyze the elements at play – identify your patterns of behavior and make an honest appraisal of the current state of affairs. Not only does this intentional self-interrogation allow you to pinpoint your weaknesses toward the ends of improvement, but it also highlights the many strengths at your disposal. On what can you lean, and on what must you improve? You are in control, and the tools are already present and at your disposal – you just have to take the time to survey the elements at play, with honestly and with purpose.

Photo credit: Marty Rea as Richard II in Druid Theatre Company's production of  Richard II.

Photo credit: Marty Rea as Richard II in Druid Theatre Company's production of Richard II.

None of this is to say that had Shakespeare’s Richard could have avoided his ultimate end with an earlier-onset period of reflection… after all, historical fact is interpretable but ultimately immutable. But that is why we continue to return these histories: the events themselves remain unchanging, but our perspective on them is constantly shifting. Relationships with text can be as alive as any other, rife with discoveries expansive and personal. These insights are ready for the taking, should we chose to take the time and effort to honestly see ourselves within them and them within us.