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Classics,  Shall We Shakespeare?

Shall We Shakespeare?: Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?

I rarely get culture shock in the ways I used to when I was a travel novice. Squat toilets, different languages, or strange menu items just don’t rattle me these days. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still get culture shock. Everywhere I go, there is always something that catches me by surprise. 

In China, it was Shakespeare. 

I can’t say it surprised me that the top high schools in China teach Shakespeare. Rather, something about this really sparked my curiosity. Shakespeare was hard enough when I was in high school, and I’m a native English speaker. I can’t imagine trying to dive into Hamlet in a foreign language. 

In fact, I distinctly remember most of my high school class despising Shakespeare. As a true bookworm and huge nerd, I always cherished my time reading his works but I understood next to nothing.

It wasn’t until I started as an undergraduate at UNC-CH and took a Shakespeare course that I started to truly appreciate Shakespeare.

Studying Shakespeare in China

Despite how much I loved my Shakespeare class in college, I sometimes wonder if my students should be spending so much time on him in high school. I catch myself thinking: Wouldn’t they be better off reading something else? Should we still bother teaching Shakespeare? 

As a literature teacher, I might get fired over that thought. But there are so many fascinating writers from Vietnam and China and the United States writing about modern issues. 

So, is Shakespeare still relevant? 

Photo by Matt Riches

I think the answer to this question depends a lot on how Shakespeare is taught. If Shakespeare is taught well, I think the resounding answer to this question is YES!

So what do I mean by “teaching Shakespeare well?” Well, to begin, I think it needs to be very obvious to students why they are reading 400-year plays written in a version of English so complex you need a doctorate to comprehend it. Throwing A Midsummer’s Night Dream at a sixteen-year old and expecting them to find the intrinsic value in it risks turning students off of English class entirely. 

This begs another question Why are 16-year old Chinese students still reading MacBeth? 

Knock, Knock. Who’s There? 

When I first read Romeo and Juliet in the 9th grade, I so desperately wanted to love it. After all, Shakespeare is seen as sophisticated, intelligent, posh. But when I opened it up, I was completely stumped by all the “thou doth” and convoluted language.

We spent a lot of time talking about the stories but I wish we had spent far more time focusing on the actual language. Because when I was 15, I could not for the life of me figure out why Shakespeare was revered as a wordsmith. 

If he were so clever, wouldn’t he have written in a way we could understand? 

I now have a reverent respect for Shakespeare because I’ve actually taken time to understand his creativity with words. So many modern English sayings originate from Shakespeare. Most likely, you use these sayings without even realizing it. 

The modern-day “knock knock” joke was first used in Macbeth. This play is the same source for “the be-all and end-all” and “in one fell swoop.” 

The saying “with bated breath” is originally from The Merchant of Venice. 

Photo by Mark Rasmuson

Among some of the others are:

  • Too much of a good thing (As You Like It, Act 4 Scene 1)
  • Neither rhyme nor reason (The Comedy of Errors, Act 2 Scene 2)
  • Cruel to be kind (Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 4)
  • Own flesh and blood (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5)
  • It’s Greek to me (Julius Caesar, Act 1 Scene 2)
  • Wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello, Act 1 Scene 1)
  • All that glitters isn’t gold (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2 Scene 7)

Shakespeare is considered a master of language for a reason! And yet, I never remember learning that these idioms were originated from him when reading in high school. 

Understanding Shakespeare in Historic Context 

The cottage of Anne Hathaway (wife of William Shakespeare), just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo by Zoltan Tasi.

In my opinion, too many people try to understand Shakespeare through a modern lens. They read the sexism in a play like Taming of the Shrew and assume Shakespeare is being ironic. ‘A brilliant mind like Shakespeare couldn’t have found misogynistic humor funny.’ 

This type of thinking assumes that the brilliance of language translates to other modern values such as social justice and activism. But it doesn’t. Shakespeare, ultimately, was still a person of his time. And this was a time of very different social values and gender roles. 

Of course, scholars still argue over whether Taming of the Shrew was written with the desire to make audiences uncomfortable, if it actually did make audiences uncomfortable, or how much he believed in the sexist overtones presented in his work. That is, however, a discussion for a different post. 

Understanding the historic context in which Shakespeare was writing and understanding Shakespeare himself is an important part of fully appreciating his plays. Just because some of his works are controversial, however, doesn’t mean we necessarily need to chuck them in the “cancel culture” bin. 

In fact, understanding the historic context can better help students understand how social ideas have evolved over time. It can help them understand the changing nature of our societies and realities. Instead of assuming Shakespeare was some sort of social justice warrior or a horrible sexist, I think exploring historic understandings of sensitive topics like race and gender provides students with a far more memorable learning experience and allows them to create their own ideas and interpretations. 

Conclusion

I could write about Shakespeare’s modern relevance all day, but I’ll keep this post short and sweet! How did you feel reading Shakespeare in school? Do you think he is still relevant? 

3 Comments

  • Adam Morgan

    Absolutely! As an actor and teacher, having that base reference for everyone really helps get on the same page. . The same stories are told over and over:
    “Two feuding families have a couple in love”
    “He wants to be king, kills and feels guilty”
    “He is haunted by the memory of his father”
    I’d love to work on it once I can finally get back to work (this time with Middle school)

    Also, yes, so many everyday quotes come from his work and its great to know the true context they were used for.

    Having work that can be interpreted so many ways allows imagination to go wild. Particularly in acting lessons.
    I read Pericles for the first time a year or so ago. Only at the end did I realise its a comedy – I reread it, this time with a dark humour spin and its hilarious.

    100% still useful, relevant and important to understanding language, developing character connections and expanding imagination.

    • gabellinger

      Thanks Adam! I’m actually considering turning the Shakespeare articles into an on-going series as there is just so much that can be discussed regarding him and his work. Out of curiosity, how do Middle Schoolers respond to learning Shakespeare? Are they typically engaged (or do you have any tricks that can get them engaged)?

      I’m also considering writing an entire post about modern work that rethinks and reimagines Shakespeare. If you have any suggestions, do let me know! 😀

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