I’ll cut to the chase–I didn’t care for Shakespeare in high school and I don’t really care for Shakespeare now. If that makes me a traitor to the language arts then so be it! I’ll walk the plank, and I will stand on the gallows…but don’t ask me to read Romeo and Juliet!
Okay, that might be dramatic, but that’s how I feel about Shakespeare when I consider the stylistic conventions of his era, which I guess are tedious and time-consuming for a modern audience. And, really, I don’t believe this is a hot take, but my opinion of his work strikes me now that I teach for a living and the thought of both discussing and teaching any of Shakespeare’s work is a drag.
I have often thought that there are just better ways to teach the difficulties of language and particular themes (Lord Tennyson’s Idles of the King, for instance, would be more interesting to high school students perhaps–or maybe just as boring). But I don’t know if any of this is necessarily true for each and every ELA room. So, today we are going to try and answer this question: should we teach Shakespeare in school anymore?
Those who are for teaching Shakespeare
Shakespeare is a literary heavyweight, and just bringing up his name strikes a chord with readers and writers (you can see eyes growing wide with affection at the very utterance of his name). So, with that in mind, it makes sense that he’s taught in school.
Genevieve White, writing for the British Council, stated that there are a variety of grievances when it comes to bringing “the Bard into the classroom,” but Shakespeare’s modern relevance far outweighs those complaints.
“Who hasn’t, like Juliet, fallen in love with the wrong person or, like King Lear, hurt the one they love the most? Open any newspaper and you’ll find proof of Shakespeare’s contemporary relevance.“
“In our world today, people do terrible things to achieve their ambition (as did Macbeth). Murders are committed (see the tragedies) and prejudice and inequality continue to thrive as they did in the lives of Othello, Katherine and Shylock.“
I think this is a good point to bring up because what I often ask myself is: what student is going to give a rip about these characters and conflicts? Well, if they can make an emotional connection to one of the many (many) themes that Shakespeare touches on in his writing then that speeds up the learning process and allows students to make keener inferences.
White also states that the rhetorical value of Lady Macbeth is enough to persuade students of Shakespeare’s importance.
“Teaching rhetorical devices through Shakespeare’s plays not only provides an introduction to the most compelling characters and plots in English literature, but also equips learners with the skills they will need to handle a range of everyday situations, from negotiating time off work to asking a favour of a friend.“
Of course, teaching students new skills is monumental, and teaching students skills that they can use throughout their education is also important, such as persuasive tactics and argumentative methods. Shakespeare’s plays, it could be argued, are an endless well of creative prompts and lessons.
Those who are against Teaching Shakespeare
Some detractors claim that Shakespeare has no place in the classroom because he was not meant to be read in the confines of four brick walls and behind a desk. Instead, Shakespeare is for the theatre and teachers aren’t supposed to be the arbiters of such discourse.
According to Guardian writer Mark Powell, “dramatic literature is a playground of opinions” and intention is often obfuscated in favor of discussion:
“The real answer is that we don’t know, but teachers are not encouraged to say just that: ‘I don’t know.’ Their own suppositions are often reported back in essays as facts. Plays aren’t meant to be taught like this. They are meant to be explored on their feet. Actors and audiences are supposed to argue over meaning, finding multiple ways of delivering word and deed.“
What is more, and in my own estimation, there are a lot of other works that children could be reading rather than the more abstruse (and obtuse) language found within a Shakespearean sonnet. Of Mice and Men by John Stenbeck could certainly pose as an alternative to Macbeth, while
Powell, Mark. “Kill Bill: Why We Must Take Shakespeare out of the Classroom.” The Guardian, 26 Mar. 2020, theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2014/mar/17/kill-bill-shakespeare-classroom-theatre.
White, Genevieve. “We Shouldn’t Teach Shakespeare to Learners of English: False.” British Council, 6 Mar. 2014, https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/we-shouldnt-teach-shakespeare-to-english-learners-false.