Last week, the Huffington Post put out a blog post titled “Why Do We Force Students to Read Shakespeare?” in which the author tries to tease out the absurd answers to the question, before proposing a lessoning of Shakespeare’s influence over the high school curriculum. I cannot say that Rajat Bhageria introduces any new arguments against the teaching of Shakespeare, and those who came to Shakespeare’s defense in the comment section carried the typical arsenal. Shakespeare’s works are nearly 500 years old stands in opposition to the fact that he is “the best.” Shakespeare takes time and focus away from contemporary literature and texts – but his works are far more relevant. Is the language inaccessible and thus students glide through the plays with minimal understanding and retention, or do Shakespeare’s plays promote a strong understanding of literary topes and encourage critical thinking? These are the main exhibits that prop up the question that has been debated for decades.
However, I think the question itself is a valuable one, and that there is a reason why it is constantly revisited. Shakespeare does take up a large focus of many high school English classes. When I was in high school, Shakespeare was always the constant: every year we knew we would be reading his works. I believe that for anyone who is invested in the teaching of English literature – from those who design the curricula, to those who teach it, and of course the students who are meant to benefit from it – the question must be considered.
It is a big question, and I don’t believe that I could provide many insights beyond what Bhageria writes, and I do not have any desire to contribute to or rebut the article. Instead, while reflecting on what I read, I focused on a subsection of the big question. Shakespeare is taught in many high schools, but which plays, and how is that decision reached? Answering this may provide a different approach to the question of “why at all?”
In the early and mid-20th century, Julius Caesar was commonly read in high school. Marjorie Gardner, in Shakespeare After All, writes that:
One reason for this may have been the concurrent study of Latin.
Julius Caesar is one of the few Shakespeare plays that contain no sex, not a single bawdy quibble.
So we see that the selection of which play to study may have had a practical reason: the creation of a holistic education by tying two subjects together. The decision may have also been influenced by the social and political climate of the day. Romeo and Juliet was later made a staple of early secondary school education when it was decided that the idea of love and sex was one that students can be exposed to. The inclusion of Romeo and Juliet also demonstrates a desire to make Shakespeare relevant, allowing students to see how their adolescent feelings are not unique to their generation.
One of the reasons why Bhageria’s questions continues to reappear is because matters have plateaued in regards to which plays are read. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet continue to remain the primary texts, while others sometimes make an appearance based on a teacher’s whim. As those with an interest in Shakespeare in Education, we should strive to look beyond the familiar and seek out new opportunities for relevancy.
There are many reasons to not teach Timon of Athens. It is an inferior play, or an unfinished play. It substitutes misanthropic rants for dramatic action. It places a focus on prostitutes and venereal disease, which may not be appropriate in the high school classroom. But I mention it as a placeholder for an overlooked work with a valuable resonance for today’s students. Timon of Athens demonstrates the folly and destructive power of overspending, as well as money’s corrupting influence. At a time when an understanding of financial management is so important to young people and often overlooked in high schools, Shakespeare can fulfill the same mandate that it did when complimenting the study of Latin.
Bhageria is right in that times do change and students change with them, and must be exposed to literature that has some bearing in their reality. If we are brave enough to look, we can find all the relevancy we seek in Shakespeare, without having to expel him from class or defend him on the grounds of “as it was so shall it be.”
So, in 2015, let us continue to ask the question “why do we teach Shakespeare,” and let us try our hardest ot not dismiss either side with archaic assaults.