Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why Study Shakespeare?

Why Shakespeare?

Teacher: Why do we study Shakespeare?

Student: We study Shakespeare because he is a famous writer.

Teacher: OK, but how did he get famous?

Student: He was a white guy who wrote famous stuff. In the olden days, we only celebrated dead white guys.

Teacher: There are plenty of dead white males who wrote pretty decent stuff… Could it be that Shakespeare is famous because his works exceeded the works of others? Could it be that Shakespeare captured something unique in his writing? Could it be that Shakespeare’s works communicate something of great importance, which is still relevant for today?

Student: Can I go to the bathroom?

The question—why study Shakespeare—is an important one that teachers need to ask each time they teach Shakespeare. I always begin my study of a play with this question. With my students, I argue for two main reasons. At the heart of it, I believe Shakespeare is a unique writer who captures the human experience in—ironically—the most accessible way like no other English writer. Shakespeare’s characters are diverse, three-dimensional, and authentic; they reveal a broad and deep picture of humanity. Dickens creates caricatures of humanity, Austen creates miniature portraits of humanity but Shakespeare creates an almost God’s-eye-view of humanity. He puts the world on display in all its beauty and ugliness.

I call Shakespeare “accessible” because it is a play that was meant to appeal to a diverse audience. Shakespeare works as a “show and tell” of the human experience.

The second reason I argue for Shakespeare is for cultural literacy, to borrow E.D. Hirch’s phrase. Shakespeare’s works permeate our culture so exhaustively that we are doing our students—I suggest—a disservice by not giving them the context of our current culture. From words and phrases, idioms and clichés, to films, music and art, Shakespeare is present.

The problem in our current culture is that we celebrate “fame” as an achievement. There are many famous actors and musicians who are neither unique nor do they excel in their craft. Then, these famous people get behind a “cause” that they know very little about and they have not demonstrated any merit other then being famous. Case in point is the great Canadian seal hunt controversy. Among the people who oppose the controversy are famous actors and musicians. Among those who support the seal hunt are ecologists, academics and some lesser known celebs from intelligencia acclaim. No debate should be determined by a “who’s who” list. That’s just stupid propaganda. If I was accused of a crime I did not commit and I was on trial, facing the death penalty, then I would want an expert in the field of law to represent me. I would not want an actor, even if he or she played a lawyer on TV or the silver screen. It is no wonder students are cynical when it comes to “famous” writers. We must remind them that in the “olden days” people often achieved fame because they actually merited it.


Anonymous said...

Messages of importance and relevance? Like destroying a Jew's life and calling it comedy? I can't imagine how studying a prejudiced work and calling it art would be benificial to todays youth.

~Brian Sheridan

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Hi Brian,

Prejudice is alive and well in the 21st century; it does our students no good to pretend it doesn't exist. Perhaps you have never actually read, watched or studied Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Look up Shylock's powerful speech in Act III. In this speech, Shylock gives the most succinct mantra for anti-discrimination by arguing that Jews, like all people, are the same in their humanity.

"If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."

Act III, scene I

Literature allows students the opportunity to "walk in the shoes" of another human being. No one who truly listens to Shylock's speech can come away without feeling empathy for his plight as a person who is discriminated against. I have read that the Nazis celebrated Merchant. This may be the genesis of your claim, Brian. In answer, I refer to a line from Simon & Garfunkel's song, "The Boxer" that goes like this: "still the man hears what he wants to hear And disregards the rest". We need to teach Shakespeare well so that people are able to truly listen to Shakespeare, and not simply focus on one aspect, judging it as a whole. That is what the Nazis did.

Thanks for writing, Brian.


Anonymous said...

shakespeare is boring

Anonymous said...

im boring too

Anonymous said...

We don't care.

Kacey said...

Wow, you jerks who leave insensitive comments like that have nothing better to do in life than critisize.

At least Jeremy is allowing us to contemplate more on Shakespeare's works. I highly doubt you could do any better.

Thank you very much Jeremy; your view was very helpful. :)

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Thanks, Kacey.

Gotthammer said...

I'm giving a lecture on this very subject tomorrow morning, and I'm thankful for the lines here Jeremy. I think those who can't stand Shakespeare haven't read enough of it, or were taught it by an inept educator. I would be the first to say the language is daunting, but like a fine wine (which takes some 'getting used to') I think Shakespeare grows richer with age. And sips. You sip Shakespeare. Anyhow Jeremy, vielen dank!

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Glad to be of some help, Gotthammer. You are right about people not reading enough. It is the plight of the 21st century. Everyone dabbles in everything and masters nothing. What education needs is balance between depth and breadth of understanding and knowledge.

Anyway, cheers. I hope your lecture goes well. You inspired me to sip a pint of dark beer. I don't want to open a bottle of wine...

B2 emglish said...

whatever they say sir. We think your great and shakespeare rocks!
and we love you

Craig, Andrew

Anonymous said...

I think you are absolutely wrong. Shakespeare is written in what is essentially a foreign language. Students can't master their own modern English so what is the point of inflicting Middle English on them? My child has a zero average in English because he is totally turned off to Shakespeare and can't grasp why it is being inflicted on him. There are some academic lobbies that keep up the "we must have Shakespeare" business but they are totally out of synch with reality. If a student is turned off and won't study the material, he is being programmed for failure and Shakespeare will be irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

as a high school student I disagree with the last comment posted. It seems that the only reason some students do not do well in Shakespeare is that they either have the wrong mind set towards it and think or have been told that it is irrelevant or else they just do not care and sleep through class.

Anonymous said...

skakespeare had an EARING! ewww

Anonymous said...

wouldn't it be more important to ask who we DON'T study? and p.s. your c.s. lewis quote makes it sound like people should be christians because it's comfortable.

Anonymous said...

I disagree about your assumptions and whoever it was that brought it up, that people don't appreciate shakespeare because they don't read him enough. I have an M.F.A. in creative writing and i resent every required shakespeare course i ever took. His writing was so rigid that the interpretations we learn are just as old and conventional as his writing. I have no problem with people studying shakespeare, but it shouldn't be mandatory, especially at the college level. it's not exactly progressive thought, and all his themes might be universal, but so are soap operas. that's why nobody gets lost in the plot. i never considered him a genius by any standards, and his words were never intended to be read. So i say leave it to the drama majors and leave the literature majors and the high school kids alone.

Anonymous said...

yeah... he's not hard to understand, he's just boring and has no flow. iambic pentameter is the opposite of flow; it's like stumbling to a metronome. most overrated writer in history. like calling elvis a musician. we don't study him.

Anonymous said...

i agree. he's not very controversial or risky. he wrote about themes that were worn out way before his time. isn't that more like genre fiction? translate his stuff into modern english and what do you have? Romance Novels from the mall discount rack. that's his contribution? thanks bill! i think the english language would have been fine without all your clever little sayings. how's that working out for you? being clever?

Anonymous said...

it's all arbitrary. his impact on western culture had something to do with his exposure and funding. just like every other famous person in history. it could have been anybody. i'm sure there's some undiscovered genius buried in the same cemetery as shakespeare. also, there are some pretty sweeping pessimistic statements being said on this blog about our generation. maybe you should turn off the tv and put down the shakespeare and find that middle ground called relevance.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Dear Anonymous,

Sorry I had to delete your comments. I usually permit people to post their thoughts, provided they actually engage the issues or contribute to the debate. Your last few comments lacked relevance.



Anonymous said...

lacked relevance? how about the lack of responses to the past five postings?

Anonymous said...

if nobody addresses that last string of really good points made, it's not much of a debate, is it?

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

I apologize for not responding to your comments sooner, Anonymous. This post, “Why Study Shakespeare?” was posted in 2006 and it is now 2008; I don’t expect to see much heated debate on an old post. However, I will endeavour to address some of the issues you raise in your recent comments, as well as a few issues raised by some of the other earlier comments.

“Shakespeare is written in what is essentially a foreign language. Students can't master their own modern English so what is the point of inflicting Middle English on them?”

Shakespeare is written in modern English, not Middle English. An example of a Middle English poet is Chaucer, another brilliant English writer; but, as you say, Middle English reads like a foreign language. Most students who read Chaucer read him in a “translated” or updated form. That being said, Shakespeare does use some archaic expressions, numerous obsolete words and much of his plays are written in poetic form. All these language peculiarities pose an obstacle for students. Challenges, however, should not be avoided. This is the point of education. If something is easy, then there is no reason learning it in school. Many students struggle with the language of modern novels. This is why most editions of Shakespeare provide explanatory notes to aid the reader. Challenge is not the main reason for teaching Shakespeare, but it should not be a reason NOT to teach his works.

“wouldn't it be more important to ask who we DON'T study?”

We should always ask this question. When we discover who we are not studying, and why we don’t study them, we will begin to appreciate why we DO study Shakespeare. Not everything people write is worth reading. Some stuff is worth reading, but only for specific reasons. Education is a field constantly in flux, yet one of the most common and recurrent texts in English classrooms are Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare has become cultural currency. I suspect that more people are familiar with Shakespeare then they are with any other cultural works, even say 20th century cultural icons as Star Wars, the Beatles, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings.

“I have an M.F.A. in creative writing and i resent every required shakespeare course i ever took. His writing was so rigid that the interpretations we learn are just as old and conventional as his writing.”

Great writers need to join the great conversation of human experience; that requires listening to writers who have contributed to the conversation before our time. You should write like Shakespeare today. Shakespeare wrote (successfully) for his own day. Writers in the 21st century should do the same---but I suggest---that they do not write in a vacuum. We can learn from what writers have written and how they wrote. One great novelist who joined the “great conversation” was Dostoyevsky; he admired Shakespeare, but he didn’t write Elizabethan plays. He wrote some of the greatest prose novels of all time. Classical composer Felix Mendelssohn was also an admirer of Shakespeare; likewise, he didn’t write Elizabethan drama, but rather he composed music is the form and style of his day. Goethe is another who admired Shakespeare but he wrote poetry. There are hundreds of artists, authors, composers who have been inspired by Shakespeare and created new works for their time and place. The joined the conversation; they didn’t repeat the conversation but they didn’t ignore it either. Maybe we teach Shakespeare poorly; that is the educators fault, not Shakespeare.

“it's not exactly progressive thought, and all his themes might be universal, but so are soap operas.”

If Shakespeare’s themes are universal, then of course they will be evident ubiquitously. Comic books, song lyrics, horror films, novels, soap operas… Shakespeare captures the essence of the human experience. His works provide deeper understanding of who we are as humans. We are still learning. Shakespeare is still teaching. How much more progressive can you get?

“that's why nobody gets lost in the plot. i never considered him a genius by any standards”

I do not claim to be an expert on whom or what can be called genius, but I have come to believe that Shakespeare’s genius is not in plot, but in character development. Too often, students approach Shakespeare through the eyes of summary and synopsis. If more students actually read the plays, then they would be able to appreciate what makes Shakespeare’s works so important. Forget plot; examine Hamlet, Falstaff, Brutus, Mercutio, Horatio, Lady Macbeth…

“and his words were never intended to be read.”

I do not presume to guess what Shakespeare intended; certainly, his plays were written to be performed. However, there is so much packed in the language that no audience, contemporary to Shakespeare or present-day, could ever glean everything in Shakespeare’s writings by simply watching his plays. Frequently, there are remarkably fresh and original examples of complexity and richness that are only evident in the printed text. Why he included these aspects for a drama script is beyond me. Modern drama is far more direct and simplistic in written form. I believe educators can make a good case for reading Shakespeare as well as watching Shakespeare. Overcoming language challenges is certainly one good reason.

“iambic pentameter is the opposite of flow”

Iambic pentameter is intended to resemble the flow of common speech patterns. As natural as it is intended to sound, it is a restricting form for the playwright. I suspect this pattern facilitated memorization of lines for the actor, like Homer’s dactylic hexameter in The Iliad and The Odyssey. These epics were intended to be memorized and recited by travelling bards. I suspect this is the reason for Shakespeare’s use of specific meter. He does alter the pattern when appropriate to the context and he also writes in prose when ignoble, cras or crazy people are speaking. Nevertheless, to write within those parameters underscores his genius.

“most overrated writer in history. like calling elvis a musician. we don't study him.”

Why don’t we study Elvis, but we do study Shakespeare? A simple answer is that the general consensus of the human history agrees that Shakespeare has something important to say to all people in all places and in all times. Elvis does not.

“he's not very controversial or risky. he wrote about themes that were worn out way before his time.”

Things like death, hope, love, pride, ambition, passion, pensiveness? These were not worn out; they are still not worn out. Every new generation that comes along has to face these issues anew; we have much to learn about these subjects… Besides, anyone can be controversial… that requires no talent whatsoever. Approaching the age old questions of human existence with fresh insight… that requires talent and genius.

“translate his stuff into modern english and what do you have? Romance Novels from the mall discount rack”

Shakespeare points us closer to reality than any of the modern trite that our current generations have created (e.g., Romance novels). If there are imitations in hack literature and popular culture, then one might think Shakespeare was on to something. Shakespeare’s works are not “realistic” but they express a better picture of reality than the most banal reality TV show. However, there is a time and place for everything. Discount rack books serve a purpose somewhere for someone.

“it's all arbitrary. his impact on western culture had something to do with his exposure and funding.”

What funding? What exposure? The fact that his works survived to this day is a testimony to its value.

“just like every other famous person in history. it could have been anybody.”

Many historically famous people are still famous today because of the enduring merit of their contributions to the world. Glance through a history book next time you are in a bookstore; you will find people who, in their day, were incredibly wealthy and well-promoted yet only historians and history buffs know who they are. Some have been forgotten for good reasons; others should not have been forgotten. Those people you do recognize, are those who made monumental contributions to human existence.

“i'm sure there's some undiscovered genius buried in the same cemetery as shakespeare.”

There might be, but that doesn’t change the fact that Shakespeare’s work endured.

“also, there are some pretty sweeping pessimistic statements being said on this blog about our generation. maybe you should turn off the tv and put down the shakespeare and find that middle ground called relevance.”

I don’t watch TV.

Alice Wanty said...

I teach freshmen English. We are starting Romeo and Juliet on Monday, and I was searching for something I could use to create my "anticipatory set" (Madeline is our district's curse, I mean blessing). Anyway, I like your article, but I want more examples of those cliches and ways that Shakespeare permeates our culture today. I know a few such as "Every dog has his day" and "a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet." Do you know of any more examples? I will still search, but I believe if a teacher truly loves and appreciates what she is teaching, the students will sometimes find their own relevance.

I think it's ironic that the comment about Shakespeare not having original themes points to modern romance novels as the example, as if Shakespeare copied them. That person needs a lesson in chronological order. It's not a "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" kind of debate. Many plays and works have copied Shakespeare's themes (West Side Story, etc.)That's Shakespeare's relevance!

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Check out the article by Bernard Levin at


Some of your students may not know some of these cliches and idioms, but it is amazing how many common English phrases Shakespeare coined.

Check out this webpage as well... Words invented by Shakespeare.


Anonymous said...

well said :D
i used some of your ideas as some points of inspiration for my work, do i have to cite you?

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

You should always cite your sources; if your instructor does a "google search", then you may get into trouble! On your works cited page, you may want to list "works consulted", under which title you can list this blog post.

Anyway, glad to help!


confuzed said...

hi i need to know about the teachings of shakespeare and why we study him. i read your blog about him but i still dont understand. i have go a GSCE on him soon an stressing.

from confuzed.

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Hi "confuzed",

There are four centuries of writings that should help you get an idea as to why we study Shakespeare, and certainly lots of debate as well.

In short, I still teach Shakespeare because I am convinced that his plays present a true portrait of reality. Shakespeare gives us insight into the human condition and the reality of truth and beauty and goodness in the universe.

Shakespeare's portrayal of reality is, of course, poetic. But poetry is often a better venue for communicating the intangible realities of life in this universe.

Keep searching the web; better yet, go to a library and sign out two or three books on Shakespeare. There is no shortage of books about the Bard.



Anonymous said...

A true portrait of whose reality? To believe that Shakespeare "writes of the human condition" is only proof that you are a historical product of 18th-19th century Universalism/humanism/liberalism. A less crude response to your question would probe the power structures that have guided/implemented the teaching of English 'literature' (for lack of a better word). These answers are more complex then you have maybe admitted, and are undeniably linked to power. Do you really think that there will never be a future society where Shakespeare is as useless as you discard Elvis? Is his 'greatness' really as naturalized as you would have your poor unsuspecting pupils believe?

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog. Here are my thoughts on your comment.

My response to your question “whose reality?” is to suggest there simply is only one reality. Although perceptions may vary, reality is reality, whether one admits it or not. I argue that Shakespeare is a keen observer of reality… the one and only, the real reality. You may wish to dismiss Shakespeare’s observations as simply an Anglo-centric, Christian and Classical perspective. I will not deny that there were influences on Shakespeare’s perspective. But “influence” does not necessarily mean negative. By analogy, it is like decrying the use of a map to get to a destination or decrying eyes to see where you are going. Having a map does not guarantee you will get somewhere; you still need orienteering skills, to observe the sights and sounds of the world around you, as well as read the map rightly. Is it possible to make a wrong turn? Yes. But is it possible to actually get to the destination? Yes. If Shakespeare observes reality rightly, as it actually is, then it matters not that he was influenced. What matters is actually the authority of the “influences”…

So, you are absolutely right to identify “power” as a fundamental underpinning to this discussion. I am suggesting that Shakespeare’s observations are accurate and therefore somewhat authoritative, in part because I agree in the authorities that he defers to.

In truth, all positions on all topics are based on a question of authority. Whether that authority is reason, the senses, God, the Bible, the self, the Church, the Scientist, the Government, the Philosopher, the Poet, the Ideology… whatever. We all---every one of us---we all submit to a FAITH in some authority of one kind or another in order to determine reality.

In terms of my 18th/19th century bias, you may be right, although I am not particularly fond of 19th century thinking. To a large degree, we are all products of our time and place, perhaps more than we realise. If I have attempted to gain perspective on my time by peering through an historic lens, I hardly think that is a point of criticism. I am interested in understanding reality. The chronology of an idea, though important to note, does not de facto negate an idea. Attacking an argument as new or as old is irrelevant. A forgotten truth does not make it non-existent. In fact, remembering a forgotten truth sounds more like wisdom. I do believe that 20th century post-modernism has clouded our view of reality, hence your question “whose reality?” rather than “what is reality?” This is no less than relativism, pluralism, perhaps Marxist theory… “Who owns the truth?” thinking. One hundred years from now, future societies may chuckle at your ideas as a product of late 20th / early 21st century history. Studying Shakespeare gives us perspective on our contemporary bias.

Continuing this chain of reasoning, I do not reject ideas simply because of the age of an idea. To do so is nothing more than “chronological snobbery”... the belief that new is better, that humanity is “smarter” today than it was yesterday. Truth can be forgotten, wisdom can be lost. Education is the key to preserving the gains made by ancestors, but education can break down, and it has in many ways. I can't answer your statement about whether Shakespeare will be valuable in the future... There is simply no guarantee the future societies will value Shakespeare. This does not mean that Shakespeare will not valuable, it just might not be valued. G.K. Cheserton once stated that literture is a luxury, but fiction is a necessity. Human beings---as far as we know---always had "stories", but "literature" is a luxury of civilization. So yes, our civilization may crumble, and ignorance and superstition may overtake reason and good judgement.

I need to add to my position just one more point... Shakespeare is very enjoyable to read, study, and watch. Never underestimate the power of joy to enhance our lives. All the other benefits aside, Shakespeare is really, really good theatre!

Rebecca said...

It has been my experience that those that speak well are grounded in great literature. I am beginning my study of Shakespeare today.
Thank you Jeremy for your comments and insights. You have inspired me. :)

Sid in Canada said...

A play is not produced and mounted 400 years after it was originally written if it has no merit or ability to draw an audience. 400 years of playgoers in both English or other language speaking countries have had their "vote." Shakespeare's writing is relevant and worthy. Readers and viewers are not swayed by "academic lobbies." Shakespeare is "alive and well" because his writing continues to speak to his audience. Shut up many of you, and agree to have a difference of opinion. If Shakespeare or Monet or Bach or J.Z. doesn't inspire you, fine. But Seurat's paintings will not disappear because you don't get the point.

Genesis said...

ok so i am a freshman in high school, and we starting today are starting william shakespeare, and i can't wait! I have already read a lot of his poems but I cant wait to see how my teacher teach us about him, and get his input. I am upset though to see most of my class though about how they are saying this is going to be boring.. I may enjoy the classic more because my mom is an english teacher and my dad loves poetry, but it isn't fair that already they have closed there minds into the wonderful world of shakepeare.!