Shakespeare: To Teach or Not to Teach

shakespeare photo I have seen an op-ed published in The Washington Post come across my Facebook feed two or three times now, so even though I knew I wouldn’t agree with it, I decided to read it. You can read the original article here: “Why I don’t want to assign Shakespeare anymore (even though he’s in the Common Core)” and a pretty good rebuttal here: “Why it is ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare in school.”

A few thoughts occurred to me as I read the articles. First, Shakespeare may indeed be guilty of being a dead white male, but his writing does include a profound understanding of humanity that I would argue has not changed as much as we might think. Shakespeare deals with matters of family, race, religion, politics, and love. If he were not Shakespeare, truthfully, many of his plays would be challenged (if not banned) in classrooms because of the themes they explore. Othello was taught when it was not legal for people of different races to marry in some parts of this country. It’s a little scary how often the plot of Macbeth seems to be borrowed by those who wield power. What about the fact that inmates studying Hamlet saw themselves in its characters? Jack Hitt, who covered Prison Performing Arts’ work in “Act V,” an episode of This American Life, quoted inmate Derek “Big Hutch” Hutchinson,

Once Hutch got on this riff he kept going. “Denmark’s a prison,” Hamlet tells Rosencrantz in Act Two. And Hutch says you could do a version of the play that takes this central metaphor literally. All the characters in the play are types he sees in the yard every day. The Claudiuses, who’ll do anything for the emblems of power—money, drugs, high-end tennis shoes, Poloniuses who kiss up to the powerful, Rosencrantz and Guildensterns—rats, he called them—spies who run to the administration with information.

James Word, cast as Laertes in the production that Hitt profiles, says, “I am Laertes. I am. I am.” He found himself in the performance of Laertes, and he concluded,

[I]t was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. It was like the day my daughter was born. And it made me want to be better. Not just in acting. I mean, it just opened up a whole world for me. Like man, if I apply myself, I can pretty much do whatever I want.

I have seen students connect just as powerfully to Shakespeare as Derek Hutchinson and James Word did. They see themselves in the characters. We all do.

My hunch is that Dana Dusbiber, author of the original article, hasn’t discovered performance-based teaching methods yet, and I would love it if the Folger reached out to her and invited her to participate in a Teaching Shakespeare Institute. I know I sound a bit like an evangelist for the Folger, but honestly, their TSI is some of the best and most transformative PD I have ever experienced, and I hear that from everyone else who has done it, too. The best way to get students to understand and even to like Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, with his language coming out of their mouths. They will figure out what is happening and what words mean when they need to perform. Students want to read Shakespeare. It might seem counterintuitive to make that argument, given the challenges that Shakespeare presents, but my experience has been that students enjoy the challenge, and when they meet it, they feel the accomplishment.

Another argument Dusbiber makes reduces teaching Shakespeare to an either/or proposition—we do not have to chuck Shakespeare in order to be inclusive of diverse authors. He does not speak only to those who lived in his own time or else he would not have endured. Ben Jonson couldn’t have known how prescient he would be when he wrote that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time.”

When speaking about the language Shakespeare used in Hamlet, Chris Harris, who was profiled in the episode of “Act V” I mentioned before, said,

The sea-gown scarf’d about me is the fog. I’m out at night. And it’s the flow of the words. Up from my cabin, sea-gown scarf’d about me, groped I in the dark to find out them. Shakespeare really put some work in this. And this is the only play I’ve really studied from him. But he really is good.

I just don’t believe the argument that Shakespeare doesn’t speak to us today. I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. I have seen teenagers connect to Shakespeare when they connected to nothing else. This school year, in fact, I had a student who absolutely loved reading Macbeth, and he was more engaged in the study of that play than in anything else we did all year.

Another argument in the article, made more by Valerie Strauss than by Dusbiber, is that English majors don’t study Shakespeare as much in college these days. I really don’t understand why that argument is made. Is “you will see it in college” the only reason to study anything? We are preparing students for life, and I think Shakespeare is excellent preparation for many of the issues we will confront in life. At some point, we may feel like King Lear, at the mercy of loved ones who disregard us. Many of us have felt like Romeo and Juliet, desperate to cling to a first love. That is life, and that is the business of Shakespeare—to portray us as we are. The argument about college is trotted out quite a lot, from assessment methods to using lecture in instruction. College is four years. Students need to learn to read, write, and think for life. I have seen the argument of what is or is not done in college given too much weight, particularly from people who don’t really seem to know exactly what is done in college now—just what they remember was done when they went to college.

But of course, that argument is beside the point because the article Strauss linked doesn’t even say that English majors are not studying Shakespeare (despite the deceptive headline). What the article does say is that entire courses on just the Bard are not often required. Big difference. I happened to have taken a Shakespeare course in college, and it was lousy (unfortunately). It is possible to teach Shakespeare in a way that turns people off, and I suspect that may be what happened in the case of Dusbiber.

One argument Dusbiber makes is true: no, we should not keep doing something because it has “always been done that way.” That is why I think performance-based teaching of Shakespeare is so crucial. It is not teaching Shakespeare the same old way. I am guilty of being one of the white teachers Dusbiber decries who will “ALWAYS teach Shakespeare.” The author of the rebuttal, Matthew Truesdale, introduces an interesting metaphor of literature as both a mirror and a window. I love it. I have often made the argument that we read to understand who we are as people, and that literature is a mirror that reflects who we are, but Truesdale is right. It’s a window, too, and an excellent way to learn about what we are not and what we could be in addition to what we are.

Should we include diverse voices in the classroom? Absolutely. Should students be choosing more of their reading? Yes. I don’t think that doing either of these things means that Shakespeare must go, however. It’s long past time for us to think about our approach to teaching Shakespeare, though.

If nothing else, these op-eds have inspired me to get going on planning my King Lear unit for my AP course. And I just got out of school for the summer.

Related posts: