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.