Say No To (Too Much) Shakespeare

In the Washington Post, high school English teacher Dana Dusbiber explains why she doesn’t want to teach Shakespeare any more:

I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.

The language issues alone are enough to convince me, along with the basic problem that Shakespeare’s plays are plays: You’re not supposed to read them, you’re supposed to watch actors perform them. When I was studying Shakespeare in high school, I had to read whole stretches of the plays out loud to myself to get a sense of what was going on. The writing is just not that accessible these days.

Naturally, Dusbiber’s argument brought a response from another high school English teacher, Matthew Truesdale:

Ms. Dusbiber is frustrated by the narrowness of the Western canon and by the expectation that high school students read Shakespeare.  But that expectation is not a new one.  Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet have been staples of any high school English curriculum for years upon years.

As Dusbiber pointed out, “We’ve always done it that way” is a pretty bad argument.

I prefer Othello, so I teach that.  But I don’t do it because I feel beholden to any set of expectations or standards–I do it because I want my students to have the experience of reading it…that’s it, and that’s all.

Okay…but why so much? I don’t know how much Shakespeare students have to study these days, but back when I went through high school it was ridiculous. That I can remember, we covered Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Ceasar, and I think Richard II. That’s an awful lot of time and effort just to have “the experience of reading it.”

I often tell my students that one of the main reasons to read a Shakespeare play is simply for the privilege of telling others you’ve read a Shakespeare play. In certain arenas, being able to carry on even a brief conversation about a plot point from King Lear is important and can give one credibility.

I could say the same of Star Wars or Spiderman or Firefly. An appropriate Mal Reynolds quote goes a lot further in my social circles than anything Hamlet said.

I also think it’s a neat little thing to see something in a movie, another book, or even (gasp!) real life, and think, “Hey—this reminds me of that scene in Hamlet when…”

I could say the same of pretty much any long-running television show, from Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Seinfeld, and those are a lot more accessible to modern students than Shakespeare’s plays.

(Speaking of which, is it crazy that Truesdale’s argument reminds me of the Tamarian language’s use of metaphor in the “Darmok” episode of ST:TNG?)

It’s usually at this point that someone brings up the fact that all these popular works include Shakespeare references, and that we’ll appreciate them more if we understand the references. I get that, but better television appreciation is a weak justification for setting a high school curriculum. Besides, nowadays we call these kinds of references “memes” and the kids can look them up online if they want to figure them out.

Eventually, Truesdale gets around to his main argument:

But my complaint Dusbiber’s post is this:  She argues that her students shouldn’t have to read Shakespeare because other literature “better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.”  She then goes on to write that it might be “appropriate to acknowledge him as a chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”

So what Shakespeare wrote 450 years ago is not applicable to her teaching today? Ethnically diverse students don’t foolishly fall in love and over-dramatize every facet of that experience? Or feel jealousy or rage? Or fall victim to discrimination? Or act desperately out of passion?

The idea that students should read Shakespeare to learn relevant lessons about the human condition is bonkers. Shakespeare may have been a very smart guy, but he lived in a relatively isolated and primitive civilization compared to the students that are supposed to learn from him. Shakespeare wrote his plays before Newton’s physics, Darwin’s evolution, Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. He wrote before the whole freakin’ Age of Enlightenment.

Truesdale anticipates this argument and responds:

To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as “NOW.”

I’m pretty much okay with that. Here in the modern world, we should use modern knowledge. That’s why I think Dusbiber’s alternative to Shakespeare is even worse:

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world?

If 400-year-old European texts have little to say to the modern student, stories from pre-literate cultures have even less. Although Dusbiber does have a point, one which Truesdale misses:

And yes– Shakespeare was in fact a white male. But look at the characters of Othello and Emila (among others), and you’ll see a humane, progressive, and even diverse portrayal of the complexities of race and gender.

I don’t recall the portrayal of Othello and Emilia, but somehow I doubt that Shakespeare’s depiction was as illuminating as, say, actual accounts of actual Africans. If we want students to learn about the lives of the Moors, they would probably find more accurate portrayals created by the Moors themselves.

Look, if we want students to learn about Shakespeare — to study his writing, characterization, dialogue, and story construction — then reading Shakespeare is an excellent idea. But to argue that Shakespeare is a great way to learn about the human condition is ludicrous. We already have stories by the thousands that are accessible to modern audiences in the form of novels, films, and television shows. And if we want something deeper than popular entertainment, the human condition is also the subject of actual fields of study about which we have real knowledge — psychology, anthropology, economics, criminology, law, linguistics, literature, neuroscience, and all their subdivisions and branches.

Of course, Shakespeare is a part of that. And I’m not saying that Shakespeare has nothing to teach us. But all of his good ideas have already been incorporated in everybody else’s ideas for hundreds of years. So while I don’t have a problem with teaching some Shakespeare, let’s keep it to a reasonable amount.

On the other hand, it is my firmly held opinion that nobody should ever force students to read Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. Thirty years later, and I’m still bitter.

7 Responses to Say No To (Too Much) Shakespeare

  1. Shakespeare was a genius of the English language, and genius is actually quite rare. The “exciting” literature that “speaks to ethnic diversity” that she has in mind is no doubt like the scribbling of monkeys in comparison. There may be more modern achievements, but they certainly won’t be more accessible to the dim and ignorant minds of high school students. I agree that Hardy is unnecessary; this is America, we have Melville!

  2. Trolling are we? What’s next, going to tell us no one should read Homer? Latin is dead let’s just forget it already? After all, who needs classics when we have Jurassic World?

    Anti-Intellectualism says “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” That’s pretty much America all over.

    I’ll just say this- every author you respect, respects Shakespeare. Maybe you’re the one that doesn’t get it.

  3. I may be trolling just a bit. But I do think the classics are subject to a bit too much adoration in some circles, and I think that as a consequence we force them on students too much.

    Maybe I’m prejudiced because my background is basically STEM, where we don’t have classic works in the usual sense. The ideas in Newton’s Principia were revolutionary, they form the basis of modern mechanics as taught in every high school and college physics class in the world. But physics students don’t have to learn anything about Newton’s life and we don’t make physics students read Principia, because the ideas in Newton’s books have been extracted and refined through the centuries into forms that are simpler to use, teach, and understand.

    If you want to study English literature, of course you have to study Shakespeare, and if you want to study the history of Western thought, of course you have to study the classics. But if you want to teach students about life and the human condition, I think there are probably better ways. Teach Shakespeare, but don’t pretend it’s more important than it is.

  4. As a guy whose first career was English Professor and whose field of study was medieval and renaissance lit – including Shakespeare, I’ve got something of a dog in this fight. Yet I’d rather not really engage in it.

    Shakespeare is worth study regardless of whether his plays teach us about human psychology better than Freud does or about the human condition (whatever that means) better than whoever does. (Insofar as they do those things, it’s not really that Shakespeare is a better teacher but a different sort – in the way that looking at a painting is different than listening to a lecture about a painting.)

    Really, the value is in the experience that’s given enormous pleasure to a great many. And if it’s tough (as it can be – certainly at first) that’s OK, too. Not all things of value are easy. There’s also way too much bad teaching – of Shakespeare and pretty much everything else.

    But really, what I wanted to respond to is the comment on the Mayor of Casterbridge.

    One of the sad facts of the traditional American H.S. English curricula, which I’m pleased to say has changed considerably in the last couple of decades – even if perhaps not enough – is that it tended to consist of the worst books by the best writers.

    The idea was uplift. Students were to derive lessons about goodness and decency and as often as possible to find generally happy endings – not the most common features of the best novels. And so we were forced to read Silas Marner (ugh) and The Return of the Native (gag). And on and on. When Eliot and Hardy wrote really good stuff.

    Oh, and there’s this. Homer and Vergil and Genesis and Dante and Shakespeare and Dickens and . . . may not teach you much about where we are. But they can show an awful lot about how we got here. And there’s that whole thing about learning from the past.

    • Teaching “how we got here” is a better argument for the classics than offered by either of the people I was responding to. I guess that also makes the argument for the Western canon, because however interesting African oral traditions may be, they haven’t had much influence on the development of western culture.

      Your comment about the American high school English curriculum consisting of “the worst books by the best writers” is interesting, and it makes sense, especially in my case. I went to a parochial high school, and they would have been all about teaching us uplifting lessons (with Christ-imagery everywhere). It doesn’t help that some of my English teachers weren’t very good: One of them was unable to write test questions clearly enough for us to figure out what she wanted without us asking her during the test — a depressing failure in someone who was supposed to teach us composition.

      Then there’s the basic problem that being forced to read something takes a lot of the enjoyment out if it… Sigh. I just never had a good time in these classes.

      • I hated the being forced to read x part. So I’d do the reading after the test. Discovered that some of the stuff was actually good. Of course, my grades weren’t especially good.

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