Five years ago, a California high school English teacher wrote a blog post that the Washington Post picked up. In it, she averred that she’d had it with Shakespeare. The students didn’t understand him, the students didn’t like him, and she saw no point in perpetuating their sorrows. In fact, she didn’t much care for him, either. “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 navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.” (Washington Post, June 13, 2015) So out the window with the Bard.
I like it when people are honest, almost whatever they say. The English teacher showed an admirable measure of independence and that’s always welcome in our trembling times. But I fear that the California English teacher will probably have her way, and Shakespeare will begin to disappear from high school curricula and perhaps from college too. A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal says that: “A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #Disrupt Texts, critical theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.” (WSJ, December 27, 2020). Shakespeare, we learn later in the article, is also a major offender and should probably go too.
Soon, there may be little Shakespeare taught in schools, and in time maybe none at all. Any and all sorts of difficult literature may well be banished along with him. And by “difficult” I mean almost anything that stands north of Harry Potter in depth and complexity. Two major social currents may well merge to put an end to the practice of reading hard books in high school, and perhaps even in college.
The first reason is fairly clear and was adumbrated by the candid California teacher: students cannot understand Shakespeare and other authors who make potent demands on them And many of their teachers can’t, either. For the world that we live in is no longer literate or literary. We seem to be making a transition from a print culture to a visual culture, in which most writing and speech are simple and omni-accessible.
How do I know? My students tell me so—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely they let me know time after time where reading is in their lives. Writing? They do some of that: online mostly, in emails and posts and blogs—more writing than reading one might guess. English majors coming back from break often talk to me about the book or two or three that they’ve read over the summer. (Often it’s only one.) I still know students who are obsessed by books, and good books at that, but over the decades I’ve been teaching, their numbers have declined.
How can one blame them? There is just so much good stuff out there for them to do. They have access to virtually all the movies ever made and most of the TV. Music? Any tune you want, any time you want it. They have a universe of diversion and (sometimes) edification in a rectangular box smaller than an overnight suitcase. And they avail themselves of it. How couldn’t they?
Some of them I talk to came to college with ambitious plans to read deep and ponder what they’d read. In high school this often isn’t possible. If you’re going to rack up all the club memberships, sports participation, and awards that you need to make it into a top tier school, you’re going to have to budget your time. Reading is often cut from the schedule or severely reduced. You can always find out what happened in Romeo and Juliet by consulting SparkNotes or something called Shmoop. And then, when you get to college, you find that though SparkNotes may have gotten you an A in high school, it did not teach you how to read Shakespeare. That’s something you are not equipped to do—so back you go again to the “study guides.”
I believe that few students (and few adults) read Shakespeare and other difficult authors straight up because few can. What is there to do about this? One spends time in class carefully reading one passage after the next, trying to remediate the lapses that occurred in high school. Does it work? Sometimes. But there are still too many really good things out there to do.
Books continue to have prestige. Reading—or seeming to have read—has cultural clout. When experts appear on TV, it’s often with a wall of books behind them. Not to know about consequential books is a sign of cultural cluelessness. Yet some of those books are hard, very hard, to read, especially when no one has taught you how, and now you are eighteen or twenty-five or forty and what can you do?
This is not an impossible situation in itself. You can teach willing students to do hard work, at least some of the time. But another cultural movement can interfere. There are many motivations behind canceling this writer and de-platforming that one, but I would guess that one of the salient but little remarked upon causes is that most literary writers of consequence are just too damned hard to understand, if you’ve been busy avoiding them lo these many years. A lot of the protests against this book and that may be, not exclusively but significantly, protests against hard books, period—against demanding reading, and a culture that still endorses it, overtly at least.
Another element enters in, too. Shakespeare was a white writer, no way around that. And in the current political climate, it is perhaps but a matter of months or at the most a year or two before we hear from some of the more prestigious academies that all literature written by whites is a tool of white supremacy. All. It makes sense in a certain way. Whites reinforce their economic and political standing by concocting a racially dominated canon, calling it great, and borrowing its prestige to underwrite their various cultural and political power plays. When this moment comes, when inability to read meets political conviction, Shakespeare may not have much of a chance. For if Shakespeare is a tool of white supremacy then one has no obligation to read him. In fact it is highly virtuous to skip his work entirely.
Shakespeare matters for many reasons, but the primary one may be his verbal power. No one yet born, and I dare say no one who will be, has his prowess with words He can write about anything and, as a dramatist, he can do so from any perspective. If you read him, you will begin to acquire the power of articulation, and there is no power that can better help you to navigate the world, and sometimes to bend it, if only a fraction, to your own best purposes. “A metaphor king is a life king,” I once heard the Renaissance scholar Louis L. Martz say. A little vaunting, but not entirely wrong. If you can talk well and write with grace and power, you can probably thrive in this hard world.
One reader who found a source of verbal power in Shakespeare was James Baldwin, perhaps America’s preeminent African American author. In a piece called “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” Baldwin says that at one point he was dubious about Othello and bitter about Caliban. The great gallery of Shakespeare’s characters oppressed him. But, says Baldwin, “I was resenting … the assault on my simplicity; and, in another way, I was a victim of that loveless education which causes so many schoolboys to detest Shakespeare.” (A line worth pondering, fellow English teachers.) “But I feared him too, feared him because, in his hands the English language became the mightiest of instruments… No one would be able to match, much less surpass him.”
In time, Baldwin begins to see that Shakespeare is an astonishing resource—a road to the acquisition of one’s own verbal power. He’s not just an antagonist but a potential ally. Says Baldwin: “If the [English] language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I never had attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.”
The point could not be clearer: Baldwin’s marvelous verbal prowess came to him at least in significant part by learning from and sometimes struggling with Shakespeare. Would Baldwin’s prose be as rich, sonorous and complex as it is without his tough-minded encounter with Shakespeare? And the students—Black, White and Brown—who never have the chance to have that encounter, to forge their language in conjunction with the greatest verbal artist who has ever lived, what becomes of them?
I can all but guarantee that in the best schools, the Andovers and Exeters, students will have the chance to grapple with Shakespeare and if they are tough and aware, they may acquire some share of his verbal prowess. And what will happen to the poorer students in the poorer schools? Will they ever get the chance that Baldwin created for himself and used so well?
There’s another salient value in reading Shakespeare, too. If you read Shakespeare from end to end, nothing that arises in this world will ever truly surprise you. You will never be taken off guard. He knew and rendered virtually every human type that has been and will be. He gave us what the Great Cham of Literature, Samuel Johnson, told us he did, just representations of general nature.
Donald Trump and his minions: a big surprise? Consider Shakespeare’s Richard III, his enablers and hangers on. Stephen Greenblatt does so in his fine book on Shakespeare and tyranny where he describes not only the way a malign huckster like Richard works, but why he appeals overtly and indirectly to many, many people.
Throughout the book, Greenblatt implicitly compares Trump’s mesmerizing power to Richard’s. “What excites him,” Greenblatt says, speaking overtly of the king, “is the joy of domination. He is a bully. Easily enraged, he strikes out at anyone who stands in his way. He enjoys seeing others cringe, tremble or wince with pain. He is gifted at detecting weakness, and gifted at mockery and insult. These skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight, even if they cannot have it to his unmatched degree.”
But it’s not only his followers in the play who are drawn to Richard. He mesmerizes the audience too. “There are,” Greenblatt says in an essay that preceded the publication of his book, “those who take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humor of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable… . It is not necessary to look around to find people who embody this category of collaborators. They are we, the audience, charmed again and again by the villain’s jaunty outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by the lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them, by the seductive power of sheer ugliness. Something in us enjoys every minute of this horrible ascent to power.” (“Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election,” NYT, October 8, 2016) It’s a distinct possibility that Shakespeare continues to know us far better than we know ourselves.
There’s also the awe that the playwright induces. Pyramids, Great Wall: all marvelous sights. I went out of my way to see both and I’m glad I did. But the fact that one person wrote those plays and poems strikes more awe in me than any of the Seven Wonders possibly could. I recall sitting on a panel with Richard Poirier, one of the best twentieth century American literary critics, talking about the death of Cordelia at the end of King Lear. We paused on the King’s lamentation for his daughter:
No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thoul’t come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Reading the lines aloud, Poirier who was one of the most tough-minded people I’ve known, looked up from the page in awe at Shakespeare’s rendering of the old king’s grief, and simply said, “A human being did that. A human being did that.” The work is, truly, a miracle.
And if a human being can do that, who knows how much we, lesser though we are, might somehow achieve?
Verbal prowess, unmatched; knowledge of the world, unmatched. Are those resources we would care to live without?
No. But perhaps those who come after us will have to.