Should Shakespeare take a step back from the spotlight?


Izabella Manning

A graphic shows an edited depiction of Shakespeare alongside the text “Is Shakespeare worth teaching?”

by Izabella Manning, Editor

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

These words have been droned into English students’ heads countless times for decades. In fact, “Romeo and Juliet” has become such a prominent play that it is taught in roughly 93% of freshman English classes. Yet, “Romeo and Juliet” is only one one of the many Shakesperean plays being taught.

Every year, students read play after play, from tragedies to comedies to histories. And there is certainly no shortage of content since Shakespeare wrote thirty-eight plays in his lifetime.

There is no debate; Shakespeare is the most widely taught author in American education. The high proportion of his texts being taught in lieu of others raises the question: is Shakespeare worth teaching?

There is no simple answer to that question. Shakespeare holds a great variety of pros and cons, and whether he is worth teaching cannot be answered with an easy “yes” or “no.”

So what are those various pros and cons? What is Shakespeare’s place in the modern-day classroom?

To start, it is very difficult for one author to reach such excellence and cover such diversity in their writing in order to be relevant to every single student in the world. No matter how skilled the writer is, it is simply impossible for their work to connect with everyone. An author deemed important enough to be taught in schools should be able to connect with the general majority of students. So, how does Shakespeare measure up in his ability to connect with a world-wide audience?

Linganore English teacher Mary Troxel said, “Absolutely [Shakespeare] has relevance. He is the iconic individual who made English legitimate.”

Troxel references how Shakespeare legitimized the English language. There are numerous words and phrases used today that originate from Shakespeare’s writing, such as “tongue-tied” or “in a pickle.” This means, at least for English speakers, Shakespeare holds some relevance as he helped develop and solidify the very language they speak.

Folger Shakespeare Library employee Dr. Peggy O’Brien said, “There has been a lot of different talk about Shakespeare through the years as somebody who writes about universal values. He writes about the human condition.”

The universal values Shakespeare speaks to allow him to connect to a wide audience. His plays tackle questions that are applicable to most of humanity.

O’Brien elaborated that Shakespeare’s plays ask a lot of questions that are relevant today. Examples of these questions are: What does a child owe their parents? What do parents owe their children? and Do you have a right to keep what you take?

Shakespeare’s themes do a good job of connecting his works to the school curriculum. But who is Shakespeare himself?

“The fact is [Shakespeare] is a dead white guy, who lived between 1564 and 1616,” said O’Brien.

The fact is [Shakespeare] is a dead white guy, who lived between 1564 and 1616.

— Dr. Peggy O'Brien

For some people, no matter what themes Shakespeare explores in his plays, the lens he writes through will make him unrelatable. As O’Brien said, Shakespeare is a dead white guy, and the privilege he possessed affected his writing.

“Some things [Shakespeare] wrote from a particular point of view, stuff about race and his views of women, are not so great and [are] out of sync with how we are thinking now,” said O’Brien.

On the other hand, a student does not need to find an author’s writing relatable in order to take something meaningful from it. That is the entire point of literature: to view an array of pieces from different centuries and authors.

In fact, an author’s flaws bring forth their own educational value. Excellent works teach students what makes a piece great. However, flawed texts will teach students what not to do. Reading and analyzing such works also trains students not to blindly accept anything a teacher puts in front of them.

“[The Folger Shakespeare library] think[s] it’s important for students to learn to read Shakespeare resistantly and to learn how to talk back to Shakespeare,” according to O’Brien.

It is important that when Shakespeare is taught alongside other authors he should be grounded as a part of recognizing his flaws.

“Get Shakespeare right off that pedestal. Haul him off the pedestal and get him in conversation with other authors,” said O’Brien.

Additionally, the combination of good and bad qualities in Shakespeare’s writings will train students to call out flaws in a great work; learning that differentiation will make students smarter.

The complex language Shakespeare uses is a good mental challenge for students.

Troxel said, “It is granted that he wrote five-hundred years ago, but if you don’t struggle with texts that are old, then you’re not going to develop certain areas of the brain; so, you need to read old texts like Shakespeare who has already proven the test of time. [Reading Shakespeare is] gonna make you smarter in the long run.”

Joel Martin sits in class reading Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.” (Victoria Benson)

So, yes, Shakespeare does have a lot of educational value. But there are thousands of authors out there with educational value. His historical significance may make him worthy of a spot in the school curriculum, but how much of English class should he be dominating? And how should his works be taught to students?

As much as Shakespeare’s complex language is a good challenge for students, it is also a barrier. When students have to read the same paragraph ten times over just to understand what Shakespeare was saying, it loses some of its impact.

Additionally, most of Shakespeare’s plays are long. So when students read thousands of lines of hard-to-understand dialogue, they are going to become exhausted. And rather than remembering the enticing plot and complex characters, students are just going to think of that exhaustion when reflecting on Shakespeare.

This is where abridged versions come in handy. Most schools already teach abridged plays due to lack of time, but even incorporating summaries could be helpful. Shakespeare’s original words should certainly still be read, but reading summaries of some of the scenes could increase students’ engagement with the pieces.

Furthermore, rather than just sitting at a desk flipping page after page, students should be acting it out. Hearing the words being spoken can help with comprehension and provides an overall more immersive experience.

Troxel said, “You should definitely be acting [Shakespeare] out. It doesn’t mean that you have to act out every single line; you could do an abridged version. If you read every single line it gets boring for some people.”

In addition to students acting out Shakespeare, they should be coming up with their own interpretations and opinions.

O’Brien said, “What we want kids to do is get inside a play and march all around inside it and figure out a lot of things together, and then come up with their own interpretation of what this play is and what it means to them.”

Schools tend to push an agenda of what particular pieces of literature mean, but works should not be confined to one meaning. Every student has their own perspective and unique experiences that will lead them to perceive a work differently from everyone else.

Maybe a student will derive a meaning from a piece that was not even intentional on the author’s part, and why should that be discouraged?

To tie back to a previous point, no one author can connect with everyone. Even great authors will be hated by some, and students should not be writing essays where they are obligated to write only about the author’s strengths.

Instead, that dislike should be channeled into an even stronger and developed opinion. Analyzing Shakespeare through a negative lens takes just as much effort as applying a positive one.

O’Brien said, “[Shakespeare’s characters] are complex and they give us a lot to think about. But we don’t have to like them, and a lot of the time we don’t like them.”

Both Troxel and O’Brien said that if they had to choose one Shakespeare play, “Much Ado About Nothing” was a definite read for schools.

“It’s my favorite. It’s hilarious, [and] it is really fun just to be able to compare different versions of it. With ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, everything wraps up. Everything fits together, and you do have certain characters who–because of their social status–are not treated well, so you can talk about modern issues with our society and how we don’t treat certain people well and how we need to actually deal with it. It’s relevant to today, and it’s also just a really funny romcom,” said Troxel.

O’Brien explained that “Much Ado About Nothing,” is a great comedy to teach because Shakspeare writes strong female characters, much different from the usual weak, suffering female leads in his tragedies.

Ultimately, Shakespeare should continue to be taught alongside other authors and not take up such a substantial percentage of the curriculum. There is a plethora of talented and phenomenal writers throughout time that could contribute a lot to the school curriculum. 

“In school, kids should get a sweep of literature. In some kinds of high schools, kids read four Shakespeare plays, like one a year, but they don’t read any James Baldwin, Toni Morison, [or] Julia Alvarez. So, they don’t get the sweep of reading all authors from all kinds of centuries, all cultures, all religions,” said O’Brien.

Shakespeare’s plays have a lot of depth and educational value, but he is not going to have any sort of impact on students if he is not taught in an interesting way alongside other diverse authors.