To Read or Not To Read Shakespeare…

By Jody Goldenberg (Correspondent)

Shakespeare has been read and studied in high schools and colleges for hundreds of years. The Massachusetts Common Core recommends that high school students read four Shakespearean plays: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello. But, only three out of the top 25 liberal arts colleges and only one Ivy League school (Harvard) now require English majors to study Shakespeare.  

Despite this trend, many teachers and professors across the country agree that Shakespeare will not be disappearing anytime soon.

Ms. Lori Ayotte, an honors English teacher at SHS, says that English majors should be required to take a Shakespeare course in college.

“It’s really important as an English major to have a firm foundation in what’s known as “the literary canon” — what is considered to be the most important and influential works. That said, an English major with no knowledge of Shakespeare is like a medical doctor without a basic knowledge of anatomy,” said Ayotte.

Jason Holtham, writer for the American Theatre, says that teaching Shakespeare is definitely worthwhile because it gives students “a solid basis in his work that is vital to today’s society.”

“While I don’t think the canon begins and ends with Shakespeare, he is quite possibly the most important writer in Western literature. Having a strong foundation in his works will only help young people as they move through their lives,” says Holtham.

He says that Shakespeare is the root of the English language, and no one can replace Shakespeare in the classroom. “He invented/coined thousands of words and phrases and ideas that are part of the English language now. I really don’t know of any single writer who could take the place of Shakespeare in a high school class. There are some great writers, male, female, people of color, who have a place in the classroom, but Shakespeare can and should remain central.”

Stephen Greenblatt, professor at Harvard University, agrees that high school students should be required to read at least one Shakespearean play because his works are crucial in today’s world.

“I do not think he is becoming outdated, not at all. The evidence for his currency would seem to be the innumerable performances, movies, television adaptations, etc,” says Greenblatt.

Matthew Truesdale, an English teacher at Wren High School in Piedmont, S.C., also says that it is “absolutely still important” for a high school student to read Shakespeare even if  many colleges are not requiring his works anymore.

“Shakespeare’s writing is the foundation for so much of what we read and see on TV and in movies. I think it’s important to understand where our foundations come from,” says Truesdale.

Truesdale also says that Shakespeare is nowhere near outdated, “The storyline of Othello doesn’t feel outdated to me. In fact, it maybe feels more relevant today than ever,” he said.

Truesdale says that there isn’t anyone who can take the place of Shakespeare in a classroom.

“Shakespeare…he’s different. He’s important to the foundation of what we read and write in a way those other authors aren’t. And if teachers decide to teach some other playwright other than him, that’s fine, but I don’t think they could claim that they were making an equal substitution,” said Truesdale.

However, there are some teachers who say that other authors and books can take the place of Shakespeare.

Dana Dusiber, a veteran teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento California, says that there is no need to keep teaching Shakespeare because he is outdated and old.

“Not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students,” she said.

Dusiber added that just because most teachers across the country teach Shakespeare in an English high school class, she does not believe she has to.

“I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. Not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will not 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’,” she said.

“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,” added Dusiber.

Sarah Hirschorn, a freshman at Sharon High School, says that it is not necessary to read Shakespeare all 4 years of high school. “I think it is good if a high school student gets to experience at least one year of Shakespeare, but I think that Shakespeare is hard and outdated for high school students.”

Ayotte disagrees and says that it’s important to read Shakespeare in high school because it may be the only exposure students have if it is no longer required in college.

“If English majors are no longer required to study Shakespeare in college, high school may be the one and only exposure to Shakespeare that many students may have. The themes and situations in his plays still play out on the world stage today, in politics and in sports and in Hollywood, as well as in other arenas,” said Ayotte.

“How many celebrities have walked similar paths as the classic tragic heroes? When will our world leaders finally learn about the pitfalls of pride and ambition?” she added.

Ayotte says that by studying the Humanities (history and literature in particular), we learn about patterns in human nature. “With that knowledge, we can live fuller, wiser lives,” she said.

Ayotte acknowledges that reading Shakespeare can be long and tedious.

“It takes a lot of time and patience to read Shakespearean plays because the language is difficult. It may take about 4-6 weeks to cover Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet,” she said.

“If we assign reading at home, the text can easily be Sparknoted or Shmooped —  that seems to defeat the purpose of reading Shakespeare and decoding the language and enjoying the language. If we read the plays fully in class, it can feel torturously slow and it’s easy to lose interest,” Ayotte said.

Ayotte says that she loves Shakespeare, but wouldn’t mind bringing other authors into a high school class, and wonders whether we are being too narrow-minded focusing so much on Shakespeare. “I personally would love to bring in more current events to English class (the daily news from the New York Times or Washington Post or The Boston Globe) so that we can read and discuss what’s going on in the world rather than upon a writer who lived some 400 years ago.”

“But I still love that writer who lived some 400 years ago,” she said.

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