Our older son is home from college—his first year of art school, studying animation—and at the dinner table, while listening to us grill his little brother about his English class’ coverage of “Romeo and Juliet,” he asked this little gem of a question:
“Why does everyone have to read Shakespeare in school, anyway?”
This is a young man who is an avid reader and a vacuum cleaner of a learner: he hoovers up information from a wide variety of sources on a wide variety of topics, artistic, scientific, and historical. He wasn’t asking this question because he hated Shakespeare, or hated reading, or hated school. He was asking it because he genuinely did not know why Shakespeare mattered, or mattered more than anyone or anything else—why his works are still in the curriculum, hundreds of years after their writing.
Consider this, O English teachers. Consider the fate of the young people who should be your ideal students: engaged, curious, compliant, responsive—willing to do the work and able to do it well, but utterly ignorant of why they should be doing it.
I find it appalling, but not surprising. I’ve seen evidence in many schools, in many states, of teachers who dutifully “cover their content” and “deliver their lessons” without every pausing to make the case for why that content and those lessons matter. Their students are a captive audience; why bother convincing them to stay when they can’t leave? At most, they try to jazz up their lessons to make them fun and engaging and entertaining, hoping to hold the attention of their charges—but implicit in that action is the belief that the material itself isn’t (and can’t ever be, on its own merits) fun, engaging, or entertaining.
Why should we ask students in 2019 to read Shakespeare? Here are a few reasons that come to mind:
His plays and poems are worth it, wholly on their own merits. That’s why they’ve lasted. They’re just good. Listen, I am completely on-board with the idea that we should be broadening the canon to include voices and works that were historically kept out. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw away things that have entertained, moved, and taught people for hundreds of years. The good stuff is the good stuff for a reason. If you’ve ever taught “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet” successfully to high school students, you know how engaged and excited they can be. “Hamlet” still has a lot to say, and says it better than most modern authors can.
Is it harder to read now than it was 400 years ago? Sure. That’s why we have teachers.
By the way, many of our great -great grandparents grew up in homes with only two books: the bible and a collected Shakespeare. That’s how thousands, perhaps millions of Americans learned to read English. Without schools, without teachers, without computers, and without a decent recording or performance to guide them. Guess what? If they could do it, our kids can do it.
His stories are so widely and deeply known (rivalled only by the stories of Greek mythology) that they have been adapted or referenced in countless modern stories, plays, and movies. Can you enjoy “The Lion King” without knowing that it’s basically “Hamlet on the Veldt?” Sure, you can. But if you can see Hamlet within Simba, you get the double pleasure of seeing how the modern cartoon uses, twists, and plays off the source material. “Hakuna Matata” is not “To Be or Not to Be,” but it’s interesting to compare how each one functions in the plot and affects the main character. How many English teachers include this in their teaching of a Shakespeare play—not just the play itself, but all of the tendrils snaking out from it into more modern literature and culture?
Outside of his plots and characters, his language, along with the language of the King James Bible, has been source material for pretty much every educated author, thinker, and politician up until, say, the 1970s. To fully understand and appreciated what people wrote, you need to recognize the allusions and references they’re making. How many teachers include this in their teaching of a Shakespeare play—not just a summary of the plot, but a capture of the lines, images, and ideas that have affected more modern literature and culture?
Understanding this allusions and references gives reading depth and dimension—it makes reading a conversation, not only between you and the author, but between the author and his or her own historical and literary influences. You are no longer simply reading words on a piece of paper; you’re reading words etched on glass, with another piece of etched glass visible behind it, and perhaps another one behind that. You are part of the long chain of civilized discourse—an endless, Talmudic discussion stretching all the way back to the Greeks, or even further.
Is all of this elitist and old-fashioned? Yes, probably so. I don’t care. When I was teaching, and later, as a parent, I wanted my kids to know their way around Western culture, so they could go to any college, any workplace, or any party, and feel like they belonged there. What they did with their education once they got where they were going was entirely up to them—accept it whole, reject it entirely, engage in a life-long debate with it—that was the decision I wanted them to be able to make. But you can’t make a decision about something if you don’t have that something and know what it is.
Maybe that’s not your reason for teaching Shakespeare….or the free silver movement…or cell mitosis. That’s totally fine with me. As long as you know what your reasons are, and you share them with your students. “It’s next on the pacing plan” is not reason enough for them, and it shouldn’t be reason enough for us.