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.)