A Trip down Memory Lane
I remember the first time I read Shakespeare. I was a freshman in High School and one day our teacher passed out “Romeo and Juliet”, assigned us parts, and told us to read the play out loud.
I had difficulty understanding the play because the English was archaic – no one spoke that way anymore. It took effort just to figure out what was going on. And when I had finished, all I could think of was “what’s the point?”.
Fast forward to my 30s. I was browsing a bookstore and saw Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and decided to give him a 2nd chance.
I still struggled to understand it, but I liked it. I was surprised to find myself relating to this play about royalty, and really liked his way with words. I found he could put things in an intuitive way, things that I would have difficulty articulating. I finally began to understand why people loved Shakespeare.
So, was I glad that I was forced to read Shakespeare in school?
I don’t know.
Why Read Literature?
Ask any educator why students should read literature, and you’ll get a whole host of responses. A common one is that literature has universal messages that relate to the human condition.
It doesn’t matter when or where you live, you’ll face the same fundamental experiences like love, setbacks, interpersonal conflict and inner strife.
Classic literature illustrates these themes, perhaps more eloquently than do other works. Or perhaps we see them more clearly because the setting of classic works is so different from our own. For instance, if I read a contemporary novel and relate to the main character, I may not think much of it. But if I can relate to a character in a story written 200 years ago and 3,000 miles away, then maybe I realize there’s something deep and profound that we share. That realization may give me a greater sense of perspective than the contemporary novel.
Given how Shakespeare is considered a master of explaining the human condition, he benefits from that explanation.
The Problem with Shakespeare
Maybe the above is true, but this doesn’t mean that Shakespeare should still be taught. I think teaching Shakespeare in school is fundamentally flawed for several reasons, a few of which are:
- The language barrier
- The inability to relate to the material at that age
- The disregard of other authors
- Why are you READING a PLAY?!?!?!?
- Students are tested on rote memorization
Let’s talk about each of these in turn
The Language Barrier
Shakespeare is written in an archaic form of English. This form has numerous minor differences from modern English, plus it occasionally uses words or idioms with which we’re entirely unfamiliar. These differences add up.
Here are some lines from “Hamlet” along with their contemporary translation, courtesy of No Fear Shakespeare. This gives a sense of how different Shakespeare’s language is from the language we speak today:
Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
No, who are you? Stop and identify yourself.
You come most carefully upon your hour.
You’ve come right on time.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus, The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
If you happen to see Horatio and Marcellus, who are supposed to stand guard with me tonight, tell them to hurry.
Not only are some phrases entirely different, but in the case of “rival” seem to mean almost the opposite of what they mean today!
The power of literature lies in its ability to express the universal through the particular. Yet how can students see these universal truths when they’re struggling just to parse the surface meanings?
The Inability to Relate to the Material at that Age
Looking beyond specific circumstances to find the universal truths they embody presupposes a level of maturity and life experiences. The more we experiences we have under our belt, the better able we are to realize the many universal truths that play out in various arenas. However, most teens wouldn’t have that level of maturity or life experiences. Sure, you get the occasional precocious teen who “gets it”, but that’s the exception, not the rule.
Besides, maybe the student has better sources to connect with the universal experience?
The Disregard of Other Authors
There’s a reason teens are more likely to read Young Adult novels than Shakespeare or other classic literature. The Young Adult novels speak directly to them with characters and language they readily understand. Why not use those works as a vehicle for learning about the human condition?
Yet for many educators, Shakespeare is the beginning and end of good literature. Even if that were true, we have to take accessibility into account, and once we do, it’s clear he is not the best vehicle for this.
Why are you READING a PLAY?!?!?!?
Shakespeare was the screenwriter of his time. His medium was not the page, it was the stage. He wrote on paper because it was a necessary evil, a requirement due to the limited technology of his time. If he had better tech, we’d be watching his plays rather than reading them.
And the people of his time DID watch his plays. They went to the theater and saw various theater troupes perform his work. They didn’t read his manuscripts.
But this is not how students consume Shakespeare today. For instance, in my case, we only watched “Romeo and Juliet” AFTER we had finished the pointless exercise of reading the play. Watching the play was clearly an afterthought, whereas it should have been the only way we encountered the material.
Educators are obstinately clinging to the medium of the written page, when it’s clearly the wrong way to go and has nothing to recommend it. They’re not even clinging to literature, they’re clinging to an outdated technology!
Students are Tested on Rote Memorization
The following critique applies to our educational system in general, but it’s especially felt in the humanities education. Why are we reading Shakespeare? If it’s for our enrichment, we have to ask what this enrichment means and how we can measure it.
For instance, take math. Math is considered a tool that people can use to help them out in daily life. So students get tested on their ability to apply the tool to solve problems.
However, literature is not like that. Enrichment is not a process, so how do you test it? You can’t just ask questions about plot points or archetypes – that just measures rote memorization. But this is exactly how students are tested on the material.
Enrichment is how a work moves and changes you.
But how do you test this?
If we really want to enrich (rather than alienate) our students, we need a way to measure enrichment, to know if we’ve succeeded or not. This will then give us hard data we can use to refine our process.
If enrichment improves the quality of life, then maybe we can measure the improvement in life quality for those who learned Shakespeare? For instance, if students can gain comfort and perspective from reading literature, we’d expect to see a few things (after controlling for other variables):
- A greater consumption of good literature
- Greater levels of happiness
- Less negativity from setbacks
- Faster recovery from setbacks
Another metric we can use is the ability to detect abstractions. After all, the ability to appreciate literature is the ability to see abstractions – a more general pattern lurking within a concrete story. So perhaps we can test for the following (again, controlling for other variables):
- How often can the student spot a pattern among a set of data
- How quickly can the student spot a pattern among a set of data
- How many patterns can the student spot in a set of data
Dressing up the Emperor
So why is Shakespeare taught today? Well, perhaps the answer can be found in a pot-roast:
Once upon a time, a daughter was watching her father make a pot roast. He started by cutting off the ends of the roast.
“Why are you cutting off the ends?” she asked.
“Because it tastes better that way,” he replied.
The daughter was puzzled, and asked “How does it make it taste better?”
The father paused for a few moments, then got flustered. “It just does. Look, your grandmother always removed the ends, and her pot roasts were amazing. Obviously it has to make it taste better or she wouldn’t do it.” he replied.
The daughter wasn’t buying it, but knew better than to push the point. However, the next time the grandmother visited, she spoke with her.
“Grandma, why does cutting the ends off of a pot roast make it taste better?” she asked.
“It doesn’t. Who told you that silly bit of nonsense?” her grandmother replied.
“Dad. He said you always cut the ends off the pot roast to make it taste better.”
Her grandmother broke out into laughter for several seconds. Then, after wiping the tears from her eyes, said “The only reason I cut the ends off the pot roast was to get it to fit into my small pan!”
The father never questioned his received information; he simply assumed it had a purpose, and blindly continued the tradition. He was so convinced that this was a good idea that he even defended it without knowing why.
Perhaps this is the same kind of thinking that has led to the teaching of Shakespeare to this day?
Shakespeare is great. But it’s debatable if he’s the greatest. It’s also debatable if he’s appropriate for younger students. It’s also an open question if teaching them Shakespeare is harmful.
It’s high time we confronted this question. Perhaps the result will be a literature program that alienates fewer students.