College & UniversityEducation

When We’ve Gone Too Far | O! What Learning Is!

By April 29, 2015 3 Comments

As last week was Shakespeare’s birthday week, The Bard himself took centre stage in many different artistic and cultural events, venues, and communities. It’s a great week for people (myself included) who are really passionate about Shakespeare to flaunt their passion. Bardolotry can be forgiven, and the excess praising of English’s greatest writer seemed justified.

But we must come back to reality.

Most of my posts in this section focus around the question of “why do we teach Shakespeare in schools?” as well as exploring how we teach Shakespeare in schools. I hope that I have presented this question from a different angle each time as to not sound incessantly repetitive. But I do believe in the importance of the question, and I believe in the conversation (even if it is one sided – although I fully welcome and would love any comments on the matter).

The question of “why Shakespeare?” is also one that remains prevalent in education-related news, which I take as further justification.

All of this stems from an article I read last week, “So long, Shakespeare: Most colleges don’t require courses on the Bard, report says.” There was something immediately irksome about the content of this article. It was certainly not the fact that colleges don’t require Shakespeare courses. And it was not the author’s misinterpretation of the word wherefore in the famous Romeo and Juliet quote. I think what baffles me is that this is an issue at all.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) conducted a survey to determine how many of the US’s top universities offer a course solely focused on Shakespeare: the result is that only 4 out of 52 do. Why is this such an issue?

“Although it’s surely important for college students to study a wide array of literature from every part of the world, it is frankly ridiculous to be graduating future English teachers who have little more than a high school knowledge of Shakespeare,” said ACTA President Anne Neal. “It’s no wonder that the public is rapidly losing faith in our colleges and universities.”

I think my passion for Shakespeare is well documented, but equating the decline of Shakespeare to the public thinking that higher education has gone to the dogs had me thinking I was reading a satirical article. And yet here is ACTA’s website: it’s all too real.

to the dogs

Furthermore, the notion that the only point of completing a degree in English is to teach it is a terrible shadow looming over academia. I love teaching because I love education. I happen to teach English because that is my greatest passion. I did not study English and then, thinking that teaching was my only option, decide that I must pursue it. Given the state of schools in Canada, that is a dangerous plan, and one that very few – if any – make.

So why shouldn’t someone be able to study English and not delve deep into Shakespeare? Northrop Frye notes Shakespeare as one of the pillars when he sets up his theory as archetype, but even Shakespeare draws from the Bible and classical mythology. Why should English majors not have to take a course in ancient mythology? I believe it can be said that any novel written in or after the 18th century owes itself to John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding – how often is that studied in colleges? The study of English language is vast, and the beauty of pursuing it in post-secondary education is that you have a more invested interest in it than the majority forced to study it in high school. Studying Shakespeare in high school is great because of how accessible he is, language barrier aside. But please, let us not take part in the witch hunt against those who find other aspects and periods of English literature more worth their pursuit than Shakespeare.

I am perfectly happy to extol the virtues of Shakespeare’s works during his birthday week, but to ACTA and similar groups: Milton is just as worthy of praise.

Alex Benarzi

Author Alex Benarzi

I am a teacher, actor, writer, and passionate about everything Shakespeare. I currently live in Toronto, Ontario, but that might be changing in the near future as I pack up my books and head off on a new adventure.

More posts by Alex Benarzi

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Dana Gower says:

    It’s hard to be critical of someone who obviously is a fan of Shakespeare, but that makes your argument even more upsetting, especially when it ends with “Milton is just as worthy of praise.” Milton was extraordinary. And that is the very refutation of your argument.

    “On Shakespear” was Milton’s first published poem, appearing anonymously in the second folio of plays by Shakespeare (1632). There it bears the title, “An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W.SHAKESPEARE” but has no attribution. Gordon Campbell reckons that Milton’s contribution was solicited for the second folio (1632) commendations because one from his father had appeared in the first folio (1623), and the request represented a significant show of gratitude towards the Milton family. John Milton senior had been a trustee of Blackfriars Theatre, famed as the winter quarters (after 1608) of the King’s Men, the company of actors for whom Shakespeare served as chief playwright and also as a performer (Campbell, “Shakespeare and the Youth of Milton” in Milton Quarterly 33.4 (1999). The first-folio commendation appears as “To the memorie of M. W.Shake-speare.” on leaf A6. In 1632, the younger John Milton was just commencing M.A. and had a small but promising reputation as a versifier if not yet a poet.

    Every poet — probably every writer in the English language — since Shakespeare owes a debt to him. Milton’s father realized this. Milton realized this. There are many, many arguments for studying Shakespeare, but why are any even needed? How could anyone be educated in English literature without an understanding of Shakespeare’s works?

    • Alex Benarzi says:

      Dear son of memory, great heir of Fame,
      What need’st thou such weak witnes of thy name?

      As Milton so eloquently put, Shakespeare doesn’t need an army to defend him.

      I appreicate your comments and your knoweldge on the matter. My article was not meant to pit Milton against Shakesepare – I chose him as Shakespeare’s closest successor (and I do beleive that as great as Shakespeare is, Paradise Lost is the single greatest poem in the English language.)

      The further you move away from Shakespeare in time, the “less relevant” he becomes in understanding literature (and I write that with some hesitation.) But for one who wants to study post-Industrial Revolution English lit, aside from a few references, he or she will not miss out by not knowing Shakespeare extensively. And why shouldn’t someone be able to focus on the area and texts that they want? The web of intertextuality is wonderful, but requires specific dedication if you want to untangle it.

      The truth is that some people who study English don’t like/have any interest in Shakespeare, and I don’t beleive it is our (collective) place to look down on them for it. Hopefully this clears things up a bit – I don’t mean to be defensive.

  • Dana Gower says:

    Why was my comment not printed? This column ends with the statement that “Milton is just as worthy of praise,” and I pointed out that Milton’s father extolled Shakespeare in an introduction to the First Folio and that Milton, himself, praised Shakespeare (in his first published poem) in the Second folio. I think my comment should have been accepted.

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