The Case Against Shakespeare

From The Walrus:

WE’VE CANCELLED six Dr. Seuss titles. Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird appear to be on the block. But, if we’re on a bend to reform our approach to teaching the English language, there are bigger fish to fry. Shakespeare is the curriculum’s Moby Dick. We need a harpoon. More than any other experience, the yearly dissection of Shakespeare turns kids off literature.

I speak as a writer, teacher, and lifelong fan. My mom took me to see Twelfth Night when I was five. It was 1956, the last year that the Stratford Festival performed in a tent; Christopher Plummer played Sir Andrew Aguecheek. I went every year after that, my forehead tingling every time I heard the preshow trumpet fanfare. Before age twelve, I’d read and reread Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807) a million times. And summer jobs variously included festival usher, dresser, and spear carrier.

So, no, I’m not saying Shakespeare should be beached in his entirety. But, at the moment, as Cassius says in Julius Caesar, “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus,” taking up a quarter to a third of each year’s high school English course. You’d think no other playwright existed—why, barely another author.

This has serious consequences for what ought to be the primary function of high school study: developing a love of reading that will last a lifetime. This is next to impossible when your major contact with literature is a guy from the 1500s who wrote with a quill in what might as well be a second language. And when your teachers aren’t theatre people who can bring the works from page to stage, for which they were intended and where they shine.

. . . .

Today’s students aren’t so much studying Shakespeare as learning to do linguistic and cultural archaeology. Or autopsies. Shakespeare is used for purposes of literary “dissection” and “analysis.” That means spotting metaphors and similes, like those kindergarten puzzle games where you find the bananas hiding in the picture. It’s like pulling the wings off flies to see how they work. Or studying a joke to understand why it’s funny.

. . . .

For purposes of analysis, it would be far better to teach one of his sonnets. For instance, “Sonnet 18”—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—is perfect for demonstrating metaphor, symbol, iambic pentameter, and a major, if now rarely used, poetic structure. For those of you with gauzy memories, read those fourteen lines and imagine you’re a teenager today. Bright students will be excited, which is terrific. For those who are lost, it’s an hour, not a month, in the dentist’s chair.

. . . .

I’d start with a film version to get students into the story and characters. After that, they can examine the text of a few major scenes, comparing the page to what they’ve seen. That will teach them how imagination can fill out dialogue, creating performances in their minds. Have them stage a few scenes for fun, living the words on their feet. Saying the words in their own voices will make them less strange. From there, it’s easy to discuss what matters—the people and their choices. That’s an experience they can remember in a good way.

Link to the rest at The Walrus

PG is of two minds about the OP.

He thinks the idea of starting with a film version of a Shakespeare play is a good idea. (A better idea would be for the class to attend a well-done stage production of a Shakespeare play, but those are pretty difficult to locate in wide swaths of the United States. PG hopes the situation is better in Britain.)

For PG, Shakespeare was one of the most skilled creators who has ever existed of characters who manifest timeless examples of human nature at its best and worst. That he did so in language that is now archaic is undoubtedly a hurdle, but one which can be dealt with.

PG is a fan of literary analysis, even detailed literary analysis. Since his high school was terrible, PG didn’t engage in any serious literary analysis until he entered college. It was great for him and excellent preparation for analyzing legal documents and other sorts of documents during his adulthood. It also helped him to integrate words and more structured thinking into the intuitive observations he was making about a wide range of people and topics.

Literary analysis helped PG to understand how written expression works, what the skeleton looks like in a body which is well-formed and one which is misshapen. It exercises the language part of the brain in the same way that algebra exercises another part of the brain.

When applied to the complex characters of Shakespeare, analysis can lead to understanding of types of people, good and evil, wise and foolish, who may be rare to non-existent for a high school student, but which show a range of humanity much broader than she or he has yet encountered.

While we can go through life without encountering a great many challenges soluble with algebraic reasoning, language use, undertanding and reasoning is important for almost anyone, at least to some extent.

But PG could be wrong. (Disclosure: PG and math parted ways as early as practicable.)

10 thoughts on “The Case Against Shakespeare”

  1. The trouble with doing literary analysis in high school is that you are taught to do it by English teachers, who generally don’t know how themselves. Learning any subject from someone who doesn’t know it is liable to be a waste of time.

    (English professors, who ought to know how and sometimes do, often would rather force you to do a particular kind of ideological analysis – Marxist, Freudian, Postmodernist, Critical Theory, pick your poison – which tells you nothing about the work, and nothing you didn’t already suspect about the prof’s politics. But that is a different pitfall.)

    • Agreed, Tom.

      Fortunately, I learned literary analysis from people who were very skilled at that art.

      However, even having a high school teacher point out that a book/story might be talking about or implying something much different than the story itself includes is at least a start.

  2. The OP misses the cause: Shakespeare’s English isn’t ours. In many senses, it’s a foreign language…

    …and the American reputation for not learning foreign languages early, or at all, is well-deserved.

    Perhaps Shakespearean English isn’t as foreign as, say, the Russian of Lady Macbeth, but it’s foreign enough to those with little or no familiarity with speech not typically found on yesterday’s podcast/TV show that — at the speed Shakespeare often needs to be delivered, because it’s not “written poetry to be savored over tea and repeated readings” so much as “metered speech to aid marginally-literate actors’ recall” — it might as well be. It’s an additional barrier to understanding that requires, and is worth, a little extra effort. (That the extra effort goes untrained and uncompensated by efficiency-oriented school systems seeking more-finely-tuned “objective” metrics is for another time.)

      • It’s the same principle as Beowulf. Leaving aside the very real language difficulties, one just doesn’t follow along on the page the same way. All of which makes creating an objectively defensible grade for the class impossible! If you really want to frighten yourself, take a look at the recommended discussion questions in a teacher’s edition for a tenth-grade language arts class… but not after dark, not alone in a dark house on a dark moor with the wind whistling through the trees and an echo of wolves in the distance… I can almost hear the creepy music…

        Here and now, and for about the last century, it’s been waaaaaaaaaaaay too easy to presume “It’s written down, so that’s how it was meant to be, and how it was meant to be understood/studied, and everybody could and would do it that way.” Frankly, that’s one of the reasons that there are no satisfactory filmed productions of The Tempest — let alone good ones: Directors, adapters-to-screen, and actors get lost in the sequencing and the written aspect and lose too much else. That’s just one example; the miserable miscastings of almost all productions of Romeo & Juliet, skewing far too old because contemporary “child actors” read their lines, is another.

        • A lot of the really old stuff was meant to be chanted, not even declaimed.
          We need a time machine so we can film “Homer” earning his supper.

          • Back to the basis for my comment about attending a well-produced Shakespeare play or movie, if the original was meant to have a meter, hearing/seeing it performed with a meter will quite likely engage the audience to a greater extent than reading the words on the page.

    • …and the American reputation for not learning foreign languages early, or at all, is well-deserved.

      …and thank God we can look up to those who do.

    • The difference in the English Shakespeare used compared to our own is, for me, one other benefit of going to a well-acted Shakespeare play or watching a good movie, C.

      It gives you a better sense of the context and the inflections, tempo, facial and bodily expressions give a better sense of what the underlying message is than the words do by themselves for someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time with Shakespeare.

  3. This is a video series about Shakespeare.

    Original Pronunciation – Hamlet | To Be, or not to be… | Ben Crystal

    Ben Crystal | Part 1: Sonnet 18 | Speaking the bright and beautiful English of Shakespeare

    Shakespeare was for the masses, not the elite.

    During the 19th Century here in America, men in mining camps would put on Shakespeare plays to entertain themselves. So you had men with all sorts of accents putting on the plays. These were men, miners, no women to play the female roles, just like in the original plays.

    In the original plays, no women were allowed to act. People always make the mistake of saying that the women roles were played by effeminate men. That’s not possible, it was a crime to be openly effeminate, or “gay” in England. The actors were clearly men, dressed in “Drag”.

    – In England, “Drag” is the height of low comedy.

    Look at Romeo and Juliet. Not the Roman Polanski movie that all young girls swoon over. Look at the actors as men playing the roles, with all of the woman characters as clearly men in drag — beards and all — and you suddenly realize that the play is funny as hell.

    SCENE II. Capulet’s Garden.

    Enter Romeo.

    He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

    Juliet appears above at a window.

    But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
    It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
    Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon,
    Who is already sick and pale with grief,
    That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
    Be not her maid since she is envious;
    Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
    And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
    It is my lady, O it is my love!
    O, that she knew she were!
    She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
    Her eye discourses, I will answer it.
    I am too bold, ’tis not to me she speaks.
    Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
    Having some business, do entreat her eyes
    To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
    What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
    The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
    As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
    Would through the airy region stream so bright
    That birds would sing and think it were not night.
    See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
    O that I were a glove upon that hand,
    That I might touch that cheek.

    Ay me.

    She speaks.
    O speak again bright angel, for thou art
    As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
    As is a winged messenger of heaven
    Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes
    Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
    When he bestrides the lazy-puffing clouds
    And sails upon the bosom of the air.

    O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
    Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
    Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
    And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

    For the male actor to be saying all this stuff, to a guy in drag, would have had the audience roaring with laughter.

    Look at Midsummer Night’s Dream, as an example. The play within the play, with the village men putting on a play for the king and queen, is the funniest Shakespeare I ever saw. Because they are doing it right. I usually laugh like crazy each time I watch.

    The rest of the play, with the couples chasing each other, saying mean things to each other, makes no sense unless you see the female characters as men in drag, then the rest of the play is equally funny.

    Context is everything. When you have actual women playing the female roles, the intent of the humor is lost, and thus all of the confusion today.

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