Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The case against Shakespeare in secondary schools

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In The Walrus Allan Stratton explains why Shakespeare should have a much smaller role in the secondary school curriculum:

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.

Shakespeare began to be studied in high schools in 1870. The language still required translation, but at least the Victorians were used to long sentences. They were also steeped in the Bible and the Greek and Roman literatures necessary to understand Shakespeare’s allusions. Even in my day, we’d been taught the ancients’ myths.

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.

Sure, it’s good for students to learn those literary terms and others, like iambic pentameter. General knowledge is useful if you don’t want to look like a dummy; it also helps connect ideas from disparate sources. But the truth is, terms in a subject area matter only for the people in that field. I drive a car, but damned if I can remember the physics that make it run.

Besides, literature doesn’t exist for its symbols and imagery, nor are they the reason authors write. What’s important is character and story and the discussions around the meanings that grow out of them. In that respect, Shakespeare is singularly unfit for purpose. There’s too much baggage.

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.

That said, although I think Shakespeare’s plays should be curtailed, students shouldn’t totally miss out. Managing a work is something they can be proud of, and it gives them a taste of one of the finest writers in the language. But I’d save it for their senior year, when they have more under their belts. And I’d present it as performance rather than as text.

I’d start with a film version to get . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 April 2021 at 3:08 pm

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