Shakespeare in the Classroom
When I was in grad school I took a Shakespearean Tragedies course and the expectation was that we were to read one play per week. We plowed our way through Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, and so many more. At one point in the semester, just as we were finished talking about that floating dagger toying with Macbeth’s mind, the professor, Clifford Huffman, turned from the blackboard and said, “it has become easier, hasn’t it? Remember when you were in high school and this stuff seemed like a foreign language to you?”
And he was right.
Reading the Bard in high school was a daunting challenge. After all, this was Shakespeare with a capital S — the greatest writer in history — with all of his thees, thous, and thines. And there was the cultural weight of 400 years of Bardolotry pressing down on those five-act plays that we all could tangibly feel adding to the intimidating atmosphere.
Shakespeare was like the Waterford crystal store when I was a kid. There was an aura of luxury and ostentation, and I was reminded by my elders me that I should only appreciate — look but don’t touch — because my clumsy hands were ill equipped to handle something so precious.
But the aura of intimidation didn’t match the frustration of reading. Once we cracked open the plays and started deciphering lines, it wasn’t that bad; rather it was enjoyable. To my surprise, when my teachers handed me a passage to read closely, I could figure out a lot of what was happening on the surface.
Reading Shakespeare boosted my confidence as a young reader. And to my benefit, my teachers were there to show me some of the juicer things that needed unpacking. Their probing questions and close reading activities helped me understand what the nurse really meant when she said, “Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, wilt thou not, Jule?” and it reveled more deeply Iago’s machinations when he said, “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve, for daws to peck at. I am not what I am.”
Shakespeare hit a sweet spot and helped me become a better reader. I was able to read some of it on my own but I also needed guidance, modeling, and the questions of more experience, more skilled readers (my teachers) to help me to think deeper and with a more critical eye.
Shakespeare Under Fire
But Shakespeare isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Dana Dusbiber, who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in California, shared her opinion on teaching Shakespeare in an article for The Washington Post.
I do not believe that I am “cheating” my students because we do not read Shakespeare. I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior. Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has “always been done that way.”Some English teachers don’t like the idea of teaching Shakespeare?
I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has “always been done.” I am sad that we don’t reach beyond our own often narrow beliefs about how young people become literate to incorporate new research on how teenagers learn, and a belief that our students should be excited about what they read — and that may often mean that we need to find the time to let them choose their own literature.
Isn’t that sacrilege?
This is Shakespeare that she is attacking after all.
Or does she have a point? Are we holding on to a cultural legacy set centuries ago without even questioning why we are doing it?
The Decision to Teach Any Text
Carol Jago, one of my edu-heroes, writes in With Rigor for All, about the weight of our curriculum choices. “I fear that too often in an effort to make the curriculum relevant we lose rigor. In our effort to provide students with readings that they can relate to, we sometimes end up teaching works that students can read on their own at the expense of teaching texts that they most certainly do need assistance negotiating.”
How do you know if a text is right for your students, whether it is Shakespeare or something contemporary?
This is a question that I never asked early in my career and that is a shame.
I taught the texts I was assigned to teach, following the curriculum map dutifully. As soon as I finished one book or unit, I’d march right on to the next. But I never paused to reflect on what it was about that particular text that was unique. Now I find it such a fundamental question and I’m asking it of everything that I teach. Now, when I plan a unit or consider a new work, I ask myself “what opportunity does this text present that no other does?”
Mortimer J. Adler said, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
That is what I seek to do, make each text get through to my students, not the other way around.
The question remains, is Shakespeare irreparably old and irretrievably distant from our students’ lives to have an effect?
Or, should we buck up to the challenge and display the courage that Jago advocates when she writes “there is always a reason for not doing something difficult. We owe it to our students to stop making excuses and start teaching them how to read demanding literature.”
In asking these fundamental questions the past few years, I can say with certainty that Shakespeare will remain a part of my classroom.
Shakespeare isn’t irreparably old or irrelevant. Ben Jonson wrote in a memorial poem affixed to the first folio, in 1623 “he was not of any age, but for all time.” And it is as true now as it was then.
This year my students will encounter The Merchant of Venice and here’s why:
- They can get up and act parts of the play. By moving, speaking, acting, and imagining, the classroom becomes less of a sedentary place and more of a dynamic environment for learning.
- There are so many things to talk about with this play!!!!! We can have sophisticated discussions about the complex nature of persecution, justice, love, affection, revenge, gender roles, feminism, fate, loyalty, friendship, within these five acts and beyond.
- I can show my students the dichotomies of the play. Marjorie Garber points out that in The Merchant of Venice ” Shakespeare presents a series of what seems to be clear-cut opposites, but each of these opposites begins, as the play goes on, to seem oddly alike, rather than unlike.” Hmmm… we are more alike than unalike. Now that sounds like something my high school students should learn.
- We can study the history of the play and see how the way in which it was performance reflected the climate of the the time.
- We can do Shakespearean Musical Chairs
- We can observe how a character like Shylock, who appears in only in four scenes, can leave an indelible mark on the play.
- I can teach the proper citation for a work of drama.
- We can workshop thesis statements for a range of topics related to the play.
- We can do character studies.
- We can write creatively.
- We can study genre and discuss how The Merchant of Venice, while a comedy, conforms and deviates from those conventions.
- We can imagine which role Shakespeare himself assumed in the play.
- I can offer my students all this and let them decide Shakespeare’s place in our culture.
Shakespeare After All
In providing an experience for my students, I hope to show them that while Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer of all time, he is not sanctified and beyond reproach. Consider the example set by Jeffrey Wilson, who teaches a course at Harvard called Why Shakespeare:
We begin with Hamlet, the most famous artwork of the past millennium. We proceed with a study of Shakespeare in the context of his sources and some modern adaptations. Previous semesters have studied, for example, Such Tweet Sorrow (a Twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) and “the Romeo and Juliet effect” (a social science theory suggesting that parental interference deepens romantic love). Finally, we ask the big question of this course, Why Shakespeare?, and entertain answers ranging from the cynical (Shakespeare is a dead, white male that other dead, white males have used to promote the values of dead, white males) to the euphoric (Shakespeare is universal; Shakespeare invented the human). In each of these units, students develop the skills of interpretation and argumentation that are the foundation of all academic writing in all disciplines.
I love what he does here. In an age in which everything is so ephemeral, he empowers his students to think beyond the moment and decide if something that has lasted for centuries should continue to endure. Certainly, Shakespeare was not the only writer to reveal what it means to be human, but for me, he has an unparalleled combination of thematic resonance, technical mastery, and eloquence of language.
Shouldn’t we provide that opportunity for our students? Shouldn’t part of their reading experience be with literature that has withstood the test of time so that they can appreciate how the language has evolved while seeing how little the human condition has changed? For all of our evolutions, we are not that much different than we were four centuries ago.
Rob Brown, a veteran teacher from Vermont that I admire deeply, sums it up best. “I can see why some would fain push Shakespeare aside, perhaps assuming that knowing how to use “fain” is less useful in the modern context than mastery of “so.” It seems a commonplace assumption that students need to read about themselves, not people from imagined places in far gone times. Shakespeare offers a way to stretch a narrowing language, to embrace complexity in an age of oversimplification, to teach the value of vicarious experience inspired by imagination, and to explore the rich heritage of English.”
Shouldn’t we decide which texts from across the centuries — not just contemporary, not classic — we love most and teach our hearts out? Whether it be Shakespeare or John Green, shouldn’t we help students come to their own understanding of greatness and allow them to examine these works – any work, really — from that lens?
Teaching Shakespeare: Your Turn
Do you teach Shakespeare?
Are his plays still relevant?
What have been your greatest success with his works? What have been your deepest frustrations?
I would love for you to share your opinion on Shakespeare in the comments section below.
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