“I don’t want to teach Shakespeare”

“I don’t want to teach Shakespeare”

Sophie made Oberon and Titania paper dolls. With plenty of attendant fairies.
Sophie’s Oberon and Titania paper dolls. With plenty of attendant fairies.

In the Washington Post an English teacher explains why she doesn’t like teaching Shakespeare and why she doesn’t think it necessary to do so:

I am a high school English teacher. I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.

I think it’s pretty sad that this teacher, Dana Dusbiber, never had a teacher who made Shakespeare live for her. Or saw a play that lit a fire. Imagine that whole part of our cultural and literary heritage cut off for you because you just don’t get it! Imagine not liking Shakespeare! It makes me want to cry.

While she is wrong– Shakespeare is far from irrelevant– I will grant that it’s far better for teachers like her who dislike Shakespeare to skip teaching him than for them to try to do a task they are, by virtue of their disdain, ill suited to accomplish. I think more damage is done to students’ love for literature by teachers who disdain their material than by skipping over it altogether.

Where she goes wrong is not in refusing to teach an author she neither likes nor understands but in arguing that no one should teach Shakespeare, that Shakespeare is unnecessary and irrelevant, and that somehow teaching a diverse curriculum that includes a wealth of great literature from around the world somehow precludes teaching Shakespeare.

If even the English majors hate Shakespeare, we’re doing something wrong

But I think there is a really good point to be made here. The way we teach Shakespeare is not calculated to create a love for our greatest English poet. I suspect that many English teachers feel just as Dusbiber does and it’s partly not their fault because the way they first met Shakespeare was all wrong.

First, high school is way too late. By then students will already be convinced that Shakespeare is too hard and too boring and irrelevant. Some high schoolers come at Shakespeare with so many wrong assumptions that they won’t be able to give his plays a fair shake. We need to start introducing Shakespeare in elementary school when kids are still too young to know it’s supposed to be too hard for them. Last year I started to read Shakespeare with Bella when she was in second grade. She loved it. (And so did her younger siblings. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard a lisping two year old crying because you won’t let her watch “Mewwy Wives of Windsowr.”)

Second, if you want people to enjoy Shakespeare the very worst way to begin is by reading a play and analyzing it. That’s a method that is guaranteed to make almost anyone hate Shakespeare and think Shakespeare is too hard and irrelevant. The article quotes three different Common Core standards that all contain the word “analyze”. Now I adore literary analysis. I was an English major and I went on to get an advanced degree in literature as well. But I don’t think literary analysis is really the most effective way to get students to appreciate, much less to love, Shakespeare.

This is how I have taught Shakespeare to elementary school children.

1. First we read a really good adaptation that makes the story and characters accessible. Geraldine McCaughrean and Bruce Coville have written some really nice picture book versions. And there are also the classic Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by E. Nesbit. Shakespeare’s language is hard for modern audiences so knowing the story first as a story is very helpful. The best adaptations are liberally sprinkled with lines from the original–especially the most often quoted lines– so the student gets a flavor of the language and has some recognition when they hear the lines again.

2. Once they know the story and characters, we watch a good adaptation. Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read. Many of the lines you struggle over on the page just make sense when you hear them said by an actor who knows what they mean. Really, you should watch at least a couple of performances to get a sense of how the play is interpreted in different ways and so really let the language sink in. (I really am liking the Globe Onscreen Shakespeare series, filmed on stage before a live audience at the reconstructed Globe Theater in London: Shakespeare the way it’s meant to be seen.)

3. Then you can act out some scenes with the kids, have them memorize a speech or two and perform it. Have fun with it. Shakespeare is really best when performed. (You could swap steps two and three, perform first, watch a performance, I don’t have a strong preference. Either works.)

4. Only after students have a really solid foundation in Shakespeare appreciation should teachers even think about having them try to read and analyze the plays. By the time they hit high school they should have seen and acted and memorized bits of plays throughout their elementary and middle school years. When they’ve done that and already have a foundation of enjoyment and appreciation, then it will make much more sense to have them read and analyze Shakespeare.

But I still think you’re better off just having them perform it in high school and leave the analysis to college classes. Students can dig for meaning with much more interest when they’re coming at it as an actor trying to understand the lines they’re supposed to deliver. It feels more real than when they’re just sitting in a classroom and talking about it.

A few further thoughts, slightly disjointed

First, in depriving her students of Shakespeare, Dusbiber is doing them a grave injustice. To try to understand literature written in English without knowing Shakespeare is like. . . I’m hunting for a simile. . . is like staring at an acorn and trying to understand it without ever having seen an oak tree. You can certainly describe the acorn in all its detail, you can dissect it and look at the parts under a microscope, but you have no real idea what that little sucker is capable of. You’re missing the bigger picture. I’m hard pressed to think of a major author in English who doesn’t owe a gigantic debt to Shakespeare. How can you understand those who follow after him, what they’re quoting, what they’re reacting to, what they’re riffing on, how can you really get it if you’ve never met Shakespeare?

Second, Dusbiber presents a false dichotomy. Why does she try to make it seem that teachers have to choose between Shakespeare and other literatures? I’m all in favor of introducing kids to world literature, by the way. Our book basket currently has Russian fairytales and Chinese legends and we’ve done stories from Africa and Australia and the Pacific islands. I want my children to be citizens of the world and to be conversant with a huge range of authors both in the old and new canons. I want their literary diet to be as diverse as possible. And that’s precisely why they need the Western Canon. They need to know how the English language has developed and changed, who the great writers of yesterday are as well as the greats of today. Shakespeare isn’t just about the human experience, it’s also about poetry, language, words. Words. Words!

Finally, Dusbiber does have a point. Classroom time is limited and teachers don’t have time to lay the solid foundations in high school which should have been laid in elementary school and middle school. We start Shakespeare too late and that’s part of why it’s so laborious and time consuming for teachers to teach it in high school Furthermore, the way the Common Core sets about telling teachers to teach Shakespeare is all wrong. It’s all about analysis, pulling the text apart. That’s the opposite of what we should be doing with Shakespeare. We need to be pulling it all together.

By all means read the Africa folk tales, steep yourself in various oral traditions, and then come back to Shakespeare and see the orality of it. See that Shakespeare was never meant to be read but performed. And see how when Shakespeare is about performance students will want to engage with Shakespeare’s plays.

And on that note, thinking of Shakespeare and African oral history reminds me of this anthropologist’s tale.

See more posts about teaching Shakespeare to my kids.

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  • +JMJ+

    When I was in New Zealand, my British ex-pat professor opened his series of lectures on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by taking a survey of the class:

    “How many of you have ever been in love with someone who liked someone else? . . . How many of you have ever tried to be friends with people who were cooler than you? . . . How many of you have been part of a loud, late-night party that your neighbours had to tell you to stop? . . .” and so on . . .

    And when he was done, a classmate from the tiny island of Tokelau (population 600, I believe) gasped, “Enbrethiliel, that’s the story of my life!” That Shakespeare would have nothing to say to people from other ethnic groups or literary traditions is just ridiculous!

  • I was 10 when I was first introduced to Shakespeare. Friends of ours, an English major, decided to put on a play with a bunch of homeschooled kids. We had such a good time, I’ve been interested in Shakespeare since. I feel strongly that performing and in seeing Shakespeare preformed is the best way to learn it.