We’ve cancelled six Dr. Seuss titles. Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird appear to be on the block. But, if we’re on a bend to reform our approach to teaching the English language, there are bigger fish to fry. Shakespeare is the curriculum’s Moby Dick. We need a harpoon. More than any other experience, the yearly dissection of Shakespeare turns kids off literature.
I speak as a writer, teacher, and lifelong fan. My mom took me to see Twelfth Night when I was five. It was 1956, the last year that the Stratford Festival performed in a tent; Christopher Plummer played Sir Andrew Aguecheek. I went every year after that, my forehead tingling every time I heard the preshow trumpet fanfare. Before age twelve, I’d read and reread Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807) a million times. And summer jobs variously included festival usher, dresser, and spear carrier.
So, no, I’m not saying Shakespeare should be beached in his entirety. But, at the moment, as Cassius says in Julius Caesar, “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus,” taking up a quarter to a third of each year’s high school English course. You’d think no other playwright existed—why, barely another author.
This has serious consequences for what ought to be the primary function of high school study: developing a love of reading that will last a lifetime. This is next to impossible when your major contact with literature is a guy from the 1500s who wrote with a quill in what might as well be a second language. And when your teachers aren’t theatre people who can bring the works from page to stage, for which they were intended and where they shine.
Shakespeare began to be studied in high schools in 1870. The language still required translation, but at least the Victorians were used to long sentences. They were also steeped in the Bible and the Greek and Roman literatures necessary to understand Shakespeare’s allusions. Even in my day, we’d been taught the ancients’ myths.
Today’s students aren’t so much studying Shakespeare as learning to do linguistic and cultural archaeology. Or autopsies. Shakespeare is used for purposes of literary “dissection” and “analysis.” That means spotting metaphors and similes, like those kindergarten puzzle games where you find the bananas hiding in the picture. It’s like pulling the wings off flies to see how they work. Or studying a joke to understand why it’s funny.
Sure, it’s good for students to learn those literary terms and others, like iambic pentameter. General knowledge is useful if you don’t want to look like a dummy; it also helps connect ideas from disparate sources. But the truth is, terms in a subject area matter only for the people in that field. I drive a car, but damned if I can remember the physics that make it run.
Besides, literature doesn’t exist for its symbols and imagery, nor are they the reason authors write. What’s important is character and story and the discussions around the meanings that grow out of them. In that respect, Shakespeare is singularly unfit for purpose. There’s too much baggage.
For purposes of analysis, it would be far better to teach one of his sonnets. For instance, “Sonnet 18”—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—is perfect for demonstrating metaphor, symbol, iambic pentameter, and a major, if now rarely used, poetic structure. For those of you with gauzy memories, read those fourteen lines and imagine you’re a teenager today. Bright students will be excited, which is terrific. For those who are lost, it’s an hour, not a month, in the dentist’s chair.
That said, although I think Shakespeare’s plays should be curtailed, students shouldn’t totally miss out. Managing a work is something they can be proud of, and it gives them a taste of one of the finest writers in the language. But I’d save it for their senior year, when they have more under their belts. And I’d present it as performance rather than as text.
I’d start with a film version to get students into the story and characters. After that, they can examine the text of a few major scenes, comparing the page to what they’ve seen. That will teach them how imagination can fill out dialogue, creating performances in their minds. Have them stage a few scenes for fun, living the words on their feet. Saying the words in their own voices will make them less strange. From there, it’s easy to discuss what matters—the people and their choices. That’s an experience they can remember in a good way.
Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth are the best bets. Macbeth has murder, witches, ghosts; it’s short; and it’s a great way to understand gang psychology and how one bad decision can spiral out of control. There’s a terrific 2015 version starring Michael Fassbinder and Marion Cotillard. For fun, show it alongside Men of Respect, a scene-for-scene retelling set in the world of New York’s mafia and starring John Turturro, Rod Steiger, Dennis Farina, Peter Boyle, and Stanley Tucci.
Romeo and Juliet is also thematically relevant to teens entering the world of dating. Baz Luhrmann’s thrilling modern-day take stars a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Franco Zeffirelli’s classic version still holds up, but it’s maybe dated; still, show them the Mercutio/Tybalt duel—the best, most inventive staging of this scene ever. And, of course, West Side Story is a great modern analogue: the original Oscar-winning adaptation and the upcoming Steven Spielberg version are/will be easily available.
Cutting Shakespeare to size benefits students in other ways. In most school systems, he’s our first and only experience of drama. Is it any wonder that no one outside theatre reads plays? Seeing character names followed by a colon has become a trigger warning that the text after the colon is impenetrable. This is bizarre considering the popularity of stories told through dialogue. Graphic novels essentially replace the colon with a speech bubble. And bestselling novels feature long stretches of nonstop conversation to tell their stories.
More importantly, opening space in the English classroom allows Shakespeare to be seen in the context of other plays and playwrights. This is important for understanding how literary forms change over the ages. And the additional authors enable kids to access a broader range of themes and stories with more immediate relevance to their lives.
Literature’s two greatest benefits are to help us develop empathy for people unlike ourselves and to help us think about the issues we face separate from real-life pressures. They’re of special importance in a multicultural world, showing both that themes are universal and that perspectives on those themes are unique to circumstance. Shakespeare’s imagination may be unparalleled, but he doesn’t speak for everyone.
Nor is his the only voice with merit. Older classics about parent/child relationships include Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and David French’s Of the Fields, Lately. But there are also newer works, more diverse in theme and culture. Check out Fierce (Scirocco Drama, 2020), an anthology edited by Canadian theatre maven Glenda MacFarlane. It includes Judith Thompson’s Who Killed Snow White?, about teen sexual abuse uploaded to the internet; Dave Deveau’s Out in the Open, about a gay kid; Tanisha Taitt’s Admissions, about partner abuse; Michael Kras’s The Team, about bullies; and Ali Joy Richardson’s tragicomedy A Bear Awake in Winter, about two traumatized teens about to collide.
Frankly, this fight is stupid. The English canon is so vast that even a university English major will read barely a fraction of it. We should focus on the books most likely to spur kids’ love of the written word. Shakespeare may be our finest writer, but what schools do in his name is a crime.
Reprinted with permission from The Line.