How would you feel if we tossed out the study of William Shakespeare in all schools across America? And why not in the rest of the world while we’re at it? After all, what student wants to hear about iambic pentameter or struggle through all the archaic language or stare blankly at a line their teacher swears is humorous? This question was posed to my husband’s graduate class and is a subject I thought worthy of our attention as well.
So why study Shakespeare? What is so special about him? Why does he rise above the rest of all those authors English teachers shoved down our reluctant, pubescent throats?
The answer is simple yet so deeply ingrained into our collective consciousness that it easily escapes notice. Shakespeare, better than any other author, in part because of his prolificness and the medium in which he wrote, speaks to our passions. Ask anyone on the street what the greatest romance of all time was and most will tell you Romeo and Juliet. We may not remember most of the details or have struggled through the lines, but love so passionate that it is worth dying for is such a humbling and intense experience, particularly when portrayed with the immediacy and life of the stage, that it resonates with us. Perhaps we want to be loved that desperately. Perhaps we recall a time when we loved so deeply? But whatever we think of the characters—personally, I thought Mercutio and Tybalt far more enjoyable than our star-crossed lovers—the concept behind it touches us.
We may have never read Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, or a word of The Henriad, but lines from them have infiltrated our culture for their power and eloquence: “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and caldron bubble,” “To be, or not to be,” “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother,” and so on. Shakespeare so eloquently inspired the passions of those in his day that his skill has continued to stir our hearts four hundred years later.
In addition, Shakespeare touches us through the fact that, even in his time, he addressed issues that we can relate to today. Othello engages race issues before the debate even began in the wider world. Romeo and Juliet deals with hatred and the ugliness of violence as much as it is about love. Julius Caesar reminds us of struggles with loyalty and power and Richard II reveals the political traumas of secrets and skeletons in the closet, troubles we see in our own world every day.
Everyone can find something in Shakespeare to love and to hate, and in that we find its beauty and universality. As such, it proves its usefulness for us in a world torn by divisions of culture and faith and thought, in a country where, in many ways, we’ve lost something of the identity and unity we once held dear.
So what do you think? What value is Shakespeare to us? Should we continue to study him in school?