Why must our students study Shakespearean plays?
Perhaps the parents and students of St. Pius X are above asking such questions, but certainly the faculty is not! We constantly ask the hard questions – the ones that we imagine we might encounter in the classroom. Much of what we teach we believe in and at one time or another, or still for those of us in currently engaged in courses of our own, obsessed over. In fact, we found our obsessions so enthralling and our studies so thrilling that we felt that we had a capacity to share our enthusiasm for these studies, which eventually lead us, at least in some capacity, to teaching. So, are all English teachers pumped about teaching the classics? Well, it depends on who you ask and what that particular teacher’s strengths happen to be in. Of course, the English department does not make a habit of asking its teachers if they enjoy what they teach. Instead, we are handed a curriculum, much as the students are handed a syllabus on day one of a new school year, and told what we must teach within the grade level that we have been assigned. Some literary works make the heart soar! Others cause a lump to gather in the throat whilst the stomach churns. It’s like going back to school all over again!
Which begs the question, “do we really need to teach Shakespeare to high school students?” The answer of course, is no. We don’t. We could certainly remove the Bard from our curriculum and be done within him for good. But the fact would remain that while our classrooms would be Bill-free, the rest of the English-speaking world would continue in their obsession and our students would find their education lacking once they hit the college scene. Consider what it would be like to be a giddy English major choosing classes and deciding to take a Shakespeare class without having any background at all. Or, consider being a college student taking English 110 and the professor or TA keeps pointing out Shakespearean references in the text, assuming that every student in the auditorium has had some dealings with Romeo and Juliet. One might suggest that this student head home to quickly bone up on the timeless tragedy, but truth be told, that is not going to be what happens in this student’s spare time when there is so much freedom and so much other work to be completed. Should we deny our students these timeless Western literary works because they are “old”?
Certainly Hollywood could not disagree less. It seems as though at least every other year a Shakespearean play is remade/reconstructed/rebooted for the silver screen. And while our business is education, we cannot pretend that the American entertainment industry does not have an effect on our students or ourselves on a regular basis. Nor would we want to be void of such necessary diversion! Consider that during the Great Depression one of the most popular forms of entertainment was to go to see a movie at the cinema. The time spent in the theater offered a break from the horrors overseas and the pain at home, and allowed for a sense of community and unity that was otherwise lost. Since the invention of the moving picture movies have enthralled all of us, adults and young people alike, and the industry has embraced Shakespeare’s works with open arms. Of course, the ingenuity of screen writers, directors, and producers has allowed us to become familiar with Shakespearean remakes such as Romeo + Juliet, She’s the Man, and 10 Things I Hate about You, each a reworking of a Shakespearean classic. Other films stay true to the time period or location in which Shakespeare set his works, all the while providing viewers with stellar performances. Among these gems are Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice. Each of these works can be enjoyed in just a few hours, but undoubtedly are even more amusing or compelling when familiar with the original text. Those who are unfamiliar with these works and have never read a Shakespearean play might as well give up now. How daunting to pick up a Shakespearean play for a good read if it is for the first time, and without a teacher handy to answer your questions and soothe your bewildered mind, no less, for Shakespeare’s language is tough! But not impenetrable. Once the secrets to his world are revealed the reader may glide from line to line with ease, even gloat at times that this “foreign language” is second nature.
This is where we, SPX English teachers, want our college-bound students to be. We want our students to not only succeed in post-secondary education, but to enjoy what the educated world has to offer. So, while we toil away with our students over seemingly-antiquated texts, we are working to assure that the next generation of brilliant screen writers, novelists, professors, teachers, historians, artists, designers, business gurus, and other visionaries they may grow to become, are well educated and knowledgeable about William Shakespeare and savvy to his constant influences in our lives. Granted that while our students squirm in their chairs, suddenly agreeing with Flavius from Timon of Athens and thinking to themselves “We have seen better days” they are in fact preparing for excellent days ahead. It is for their futures that I stand firm in my belief that students benefit and will continue to do so from studying Shakespeare in high school, but Shakespeare put it best in The Taming of the Shrew, in Christopher Sly’s line “I’ll not budge an inch”.