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.