Whether you love him or hate him, Shakespeare is a name you recognize. Inventor of words still in use and spinner of stories that continue to be told, the Elizabethan is the bane of many people’s existence. At least one of his thirty-seven plays has marked a time of either great content or great displeasure in the academic career of many English speakers. Now, I’m not going to argue against the cultural importance of William Shakespeare— love him or hate him, you cannot deny that his work has had a lasting effect on both language and culture. But does he need to be taught in school? I’m going to say yes, but reluctantly so, with lots of asterisks and caveats.
Familiarity with some of his most popular works is necessary for cultural literacy. Understand the plot, some of the quotes, know a few of the characters. I’m not saying he isn’t important or that his work isn’t incredible (please forgive me, Mrs. O’Connor, my seventh grade English teacher). I just find it ridiculous that, in classes intended to teach you how to find a deeper understanding of the human condition through literature, students are expected to become temporarily fluent in stylized 16th-century English.
The language barrier is just one part of my main issue with teaching Shakespeare: his work is inaccessible. The language alone is a slog to get through. As beneficial as the mental exercise may be, the ability to read what feels like a different language should not be necessary to an introduction to Shakespeare. A modernized version of his work, while it may disrupt the iambic pentameter or drain a story of the beauty from the original words, would be more useful. The cultural importance of his work could be explained just as successfully through a study of the movie Ten Things I Hate About You as it would be through a reading of The Taming of the Shrew. A movie, which is a medium that didn’t even exist in Shakespeare’s time, used the plot of a 409-year-old play to create a compelling teen drama. The shared plot is not a coincidence. The fact that it was done on purpose shows that the story still has relevance centuries later. Showing this to modern audiences and getting a reaction is proof that the story has a timeless quality to it. That is proof of an incredible cultural impact, and the evidence is more accessible than the source text.
Using a movie does more than make the dialogue understandable. The inaccessibility of Shakespeare is more than the wording. In fact, the elitism surrounding his work is far more damaging than the change of language over time. For most students coming into an English class, William Shakespeare is the writer for old rich people with PhDs. The fact that Shakespeare is taught year after year and people still think that his plays are deep and serious shows the failure in trying to teach Shakespeare. If that is the impression the majority of people are walking away with, then something has gone dreadfully wrong.
His work is sophisticated, yes, but his work is not just holding “the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure (Hamlet).” His work is full of puns, dirty jokes, and plots that could feel at home in a soap opera. In Titus Andronicus, one character tells another, “Villain, I have done they mother.” Shakespeare coined the term “the beast with two backs” in Othello. A man named Bottom gets his head turned into that of an ass in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. That’s not highbrow; that’s funny.
I don’t point these things out in an attempt to degrade Shakespeare but in an attempt to demystify him. Shakespeare is not solely intelligent drama; Shakespeare is not solely explicit puns; Shakespeare is both serious and silly, which is what makes him human. Making him modern or pointing out his penchant for blue humor makes him seem more human. Modern language doesn’t make the stories stupid, it makes them easier to understand for an audience unacquainted with either his work or the language of his time. Bringing up risque jokes, while it will lead to the inevitable snigger, makes him more relatable. The inclusion of jokes doesn’t just make his work fun, the jokes are part of what makes his work brilliant. What we joke about and the angles behind our humor reveal our opinions of and relationships with the things in our daily lives. Jokes made by Mercutio or Beatrice are just as revealing as, and probably more amusing than, our own one-liners.
He was a talented writer. There are many talented writers throughout history. The main defense for continuing to teach Shakespeare is his almost unparalleled cultural impact. If his work is continued to be taught, it needs to be taught in a way that shows that, despite the language and elitism, the work is still human. Proving his importance is not what makes his work good art. Good art, work worthy of spending time with, is something with which we can connect. When a piece is in a language that we can understand, whether that be stylized 16th-century English or 21st-century slang, we have a chance to sympathize. Everyone knows pain and drama, even teenagers sitting in an English class— think of the hormones— and everyone knows humor, even within dark situations. The ability to live through both, for many, at the same time, is what makes humanity complicated. It is what makes stories interesting and literature a thing worth studying. To quote the bard himself, “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale.” If we continue to retell one story over and over again, the least we can do is to make sure that the story is understandable. When something makes sense, it is easier to relate. Being able to relate to something, whether that be a play or a peer’s anecdote, is an integral part of being human.
We are all going to be exposed to William Shakespeare in one way or another. His stories, human stories, are going to cross our path, whether that be in English class, in a movie, or somewhere else. The most important thing is the understand the humanity within those works: why should that not extend to the classroom?
Photo from the Hulton archive.