Friday, June 4, 2010

The Necessity of Shakespeare

On a recent Nightline segment on Unschooling (ABC really likes this topic, it seems!), something the reporter mentioned stood out to me.  Near the end of the segment (which featured the Martin family) she said: "What happens when the learning becomes more sophisticated and her kids need to be exposed to Shakespeare or Twain or Henry James?"

And that stuck with me.  Because really, does anyone "need" to be exposed to Shakespeare?  And by being exposed to Shakespeare in school, do the vast majority of public and private schoolers really develop a deep and abiding love for the famous playwright's work, or do they hate, dislike, or find absolutely useless and/or boring everything they're taught about the man and his writing?

Yes, I'm sure there are a very few who actually find Shakespeare, his life and work, to be fascinating, and love learning about him in school.  But can anyone tell me that that's even remotely common?

I was big into poetry as a kid (I still do love poetry).  I'd completely memorize poems that were pages long, and regularly my mother, sister, and I would pull out a book (or a few books) of poetry and take turns picking ones to read out loud, to share with each other.  So I came across some of Shakespeare's poetry at a young age.  However, none of it ever really appealed to me.

As for his plays, since popular culture is steeped in references to and spin-offs from his most famous plays, I knew the basic story to them, and read bits from a few childrens versions.  But, as with his poetry, nothing ever particularly caught my interest.

Then, just a month or so ago (maybe a bit more), PBS was scheduled to air a production of Hamlet starring David Tennant, an actor whom I adore.  So, along with Emilie and a friend, both of whom also happen to adore David Tennant, we settled down to watch.

And I was entranced.  The archaic language was unsettling for a minute or two, but after that I became absorbed in the story, language, and truly incredible acting.

I was surprised at how many lines I recognized, and for the first time ever I really understood why Shakespeare was considered such a great writer.  Despite the length (a whopping three hours) I was sad when it was over.


How could things have gone differently?  Had I been forced to read and dissect Shakespeare's work, would I have been willing to even try watching the performance?  And if I had, would I have enjoyed or appreciated it (the language and tragic intricacy of the story, the tortured character of Hamlet)?

Art, any art, should be enjoyed and interpreted by the individual, of their own free will.  To force someone into "art appreciation", to drag someone to the theater, to force someone to dissect poetry or interpret a painting the way the teacher interprets it (or risk getting bad marks), is to kill art for that person, to kill what enjoyment they may have found in their own time.

Enjoyment and interpretation of art is a deeply personal thing, and it angers me when people try to take that away from children and teens.

So, please, let the kids discover Shakespeare (or not) on their own terms.  If they never find joy in Shakespeare, I highly doubt that will negatively affect their life.  But if they're force-fed Shakespeare against their will, I have no doubt that it will have a negative impact!



  1. OMG! William and I stayed up for about 4 hours the other night discussing what basically boiled down to whether or not Shakespeare was important (William) or not (me) -- to insist that someone know his works by a certain age. William sees it as a vital part of "American Culture", I, on the other hand, don't feel that way at all.

  2. Well put. I find the idea that anyone "needs" to be "exposed" to anything (academic or otherwise) to be repugnant and arrogant. Sez who?? And what about all the important stuff that life learners discover that aren't on the school curriculum?

  3. *Charli give Idzie a standing ovation!*

  4. @Michele: Haha, well, I think it's impossible, living in this culture, not to get a basic understanding of Shakespeare's work... Or at least, I was surprised by how much I know without ever *trying* to learn it! But I also don't see how knowing more of Shakespeare's work or not has any influence in the lives of the vast majority of people either way...

    @Wendy: Yes, I find the idea that there is one body of knowledge out there that's absolutely CRUCIAL in everyone's life, and that some authority knows what it is (and has the right to enforced it), to be incredibly arrogant, and rather disturbing. That too! Notably in my personal knowledge, the history of oppression, and current events pertaining to social justice, animal rights, etc. The schooled folks I know who do posses that type of knowledge learned it themselves: it certainly didn't come from a school curriculum! Personally, I think any making-the-world-a-better-place type learning is far more important than knowing Shakespearean sonnets.

    @Charli: Thank you!! :-)

  5. Very well put, and also? Shakespeare's plays are, um, plays. They weren't meant to be read. They were meant to be watched! Why the hell do people think kids need to *read* a play? It makes MUCH more sense to go to the theater or watch a movie adaptation. Duh!

    I was in school long enough to have to read a little Shakespeare. I didn't care for it a whole lot. What interest I do have in Shakespeare came from Star Trek! Hamlet was meant to be presented by someone like Patrick Stewart(or David Tennant I suppose - I'm sure you Doctor Who people will win me over one day :p), not read out of a dry old book.

    I think the people who overvalue Shakespeare are vastly undervaluing all the other literature in the world. Shakespeare is revered because he was prolific and popular. It's a bit like forcing kids who like the Sex Pistols to listen to the Beatles, "because they're more important."

  6. I agree. My first "real" exposure to Shakespeare was Branaugh's film version of Much Ado about Nothing when I was 12. I adored it. Bought my own copy, and I've been taking notes in it for years through 2 productions I was part of, my undergrad honors thesis, and teaching it to my own college students. It was my own discovery that motivated my love of Shakespeare and I quickly learned as a teacher and student that Shakespeare is meant to be seen, so forcing Romeo and Juliet down high schoolers' throats was useless.

    And I must point out, Much Ado was on PBS - best channel on tv!

  7. Of all your posts that I've read, I'm not sure why this one was the biggest eye-opener. Though I don't have children yet, I find myself constantly thinking things like "public schools don't focus enough on artsy things/musical things/etc." Unschooling appealed to me in large part because of the opportunity I'd have to take my future children to plays and concerts and other creative-type activities. I shudder even now when I think about the fact that I've told my husband numerous times "Our kids better be as into music and theater as we are." Reading this, I realized that just because a subject isn't one of the Big 4 (grammar, science, math, social studies), doesn't make it more acceptable to force on an unwilling child. Like you said, if the interest is there, the child will come to it in their own way and on their own time. All a parent can do is just keep the option available.
    (Hope this post doesn't seem out of line, coming from a non-parent/public schooled adult who still has a lot to learn.)

  8. Completely.

    In the UK our new Education Secretary wants to 'bring back the classics' and make kids memorise poetry. The centralising of arts education is one of the most ridiculous areas of public education...especially in music. Every ('As level') music student my age in the country has studied the same 9 pieces as I have! Crazy.

    We all agree children shouldn't be forced to study anything- but most often the pronouncement that Shakespeare etc. MUST be studied comes from people who don't really understand the field. Teaching english literature is about teaching interpretation so it doesn't so much matter what it is you're interpreting.

    Literature is full of crevices and corridors with really great underexposed or underappreciated books & writers...better to find those than tout the old classics and over and over.

    And you're right to say its personal- people love art because they feel it communicates to them and they have a sense of communion with/ownership of it. Schools tend to ignore that and the text/music becomes externalised. I had that feeling, anyway. I needed to really go to bed with a book and form a relationship before I was in a position to say anything meaningful about it.

    Hm...thanks for this post. Might make my own inspired by it.

  9. I lucked out, twice, as it happens, with two teachers who did help impart a lasting love of Shakespeare, and very possibly, I would have come to that on my own. That said, I agree. Especially with regards to literature, so much is continuously thrust upon students, without consideration to it's relevancy, in any way, to today's readers (The Great Gatsby comes to mind) or another look at if the work in question is actually a work worthy of the label, "literature". It's all subjective, anyway. Like social studies, we have to remember that it's not as if those of us growing up in the US are learning South American or Canadian social studies, for instance (and a report on Brazil's imports does not count). So there are volumes and volumes of things none of us know, whether we are the products of institutional schooling or unschooling. Not one of us could learn everything worthy of knowing, so again, it's all subjective, we pick certain things, hold them up and say, yeah, you need to learn this. The wonderful thing about unschooling is that when one feels a gap in their knowledge or desires to learn about something, they have the freedom to do so. For all the literature classes teaching a "classic", are all the hours spent on something of questionable and unexamined value that could be spent learning something of particular interest to that person instead. Nice post, Idzie.

  10. With a little George Orwell "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past"

    To memorize the sonnets, line by line, learn Henry V and then, to be tested (or not to be.) I would prefer to join Ophelia... but to learn Shakespeare as plays are meant to be experienced, on stage, outloud... alive.

    Thankfully my girlies have been able to do just this and even my 6 year old "loves him." Bliss based learning is possible and Shakespeare can be blissfulllll.

    Check out our little Shakespeare Challenge ( we'd love to hear more about people's experiences with Shakespeare!

    Thanks Idzie --you are divine!

  11. To "force" all students to study Shakespeare, you'd have to force many teachers to teach it. A teacher forced to teach a subject he or she hates or finds boring will do more damage than good.

  12. You have brandished David Tennant at me... sigh. I am forced to comment for the first time after lurking forever. I was public schooled, very 'hands off' by parents. I agree hugely, for I was once a high school student who hated Annie Dillard but ultimately stole Holy The Firm from the school library and slept with it under my pillow. Thanks for a very good bit of writing and inspiration.

  13. Interesting insight! I like exposing my gifted class of 6th graders to some Shakespeare. We read parts of Julius Caesar after testing since it ties in with our Ancient Rome study. I have students who love the chance to speak those lines, even though they're ten times meatier than any of our curriculum reading. We listen to an audiobook and also watch the 1953 Brando version as we go.

    I don't "test" on it or require any writing about it.

  14. "I have students who love the chance to speak those lines, even though they're ten times meatier than any of our curriculum reading."

    I dare say it's *because* they're ten times meatier. Learning is about challenge, not about breaking things down into digestible bites.

  15. I don't think it's a bad thing for parents to present Shakespeare to their children.
    That doesn't mean they have to make them dissect it or write papers on his plays... They could just let them know that the plays exist, maybe take them to a show and let it go.
    If the child is interested, they can read more about it on their own time.

    With that said, there are so many things that I learned from my years of formal education that have stuck with me.
    Shakespeare, actually, was one of them. When I was in school-school, I had a few drama classes where we read Shakespeare's works, watched plays, acted out scenes and discussed/read about some of the historical/political aspects of his work to understand what was happening at the time he (or was he a she? We'll never know :P) was writing the plays. There are so many other things, too, that I learned from my two and a half years of formal schooling (That's not to discredit what I've learned from unschooling, homeschooling and cyber-schooling as well. Well, maybe cyber schooling :P).
    Also, when my mom was formally homeschooling me- I was introduced to the works of artists, scientists, writers, philosophers and authors that I wouldn't have found on my own but fascinated me.

    But, honestly, I'm a bit of a nerd. I never disliked school. I've never had the same torturous relationship with formal education that so many people have. I've always loved the writing assignments, the note-taking, the interaction with teachers and other students (I also was terrible at taking tests, got distracted easily, didn't like some of my teachers and hated studying... It wasn't perfect.).

    Anyways, I just think it's okay for kids to be exposed (not pushed!) to all kinds of arts and sciences... They might find something that they really, really love.

  16. First off, I absolutely adore David Tennant too. Could stare at him ALL DAY!!!
    As for Shakespeare, I love him too - but because I came into him on my own. I suppose I enjoyed Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet while in school...but it wasn't until after college, after buying Shakespeare's complete works in two volumes that I completely devoured it. To say that it is necessary for a well rounded education is ridiculous. A person's life is made up of so many diffrent experiences and if reading Shakespeare is one of them...GREAT - but if it's not, this in no way means they aren't educated. Great usual. -Debbie

  17. My daughters, at the time aged 6, 4 and 3 all loved Shakespeare- the animated version for kids. At 6, she had memorized all the plays (which although tailored to kids, were still really long)-and it was such a thrill to see her serious little face stand up and say, "Is this a dagger I see before before me,the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
    I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
    Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
    To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
    A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
    Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
    Now, at 14 she couldn't care less for the bard.

  18. I've never once introduced or presented Shakespeare to my kids and yet my always unschooled 8yo has seen a number of the plays - on tv, movies and live. Some she's watched with interest, others she's wandered off to do her own thing, which is why I say I haven't "introduced or presented" them. While doing things I enjoy, she is sometimes along for the company and sometimes enjoys what I do. There's no need to have some kind of educational agenda. The world is as rich and full as you allow it to be.

  19. We watched the segment as a family. We are unschoolers. Among other comments about the way unschooling was portrayed was a question my husband asked my daughter about how she got exposed to Shakespeare. Her answer, "watching the plays at the park" - our community theatre here does free plays, Shakespeare and Greek every summer. They are plays and meant to be performed. If at some point she wants to go deeper into it, that will be her choice as it was her choice to go see the plays in the first place.

  20. A great post, Idzie--thanks.

    The reporter's exact words were: "How do you expose them to Shakespeare or Twain or Henry James? How do you teach them the great works or the great historians if you can't get them to sit down and learn?"

    So I see several aspects to that question.

    The first is what you've asked here: is there really such a thing as "the great works" or "the great historians" (I'm not even sure what she means by that, though I'm thinking she means the political figures in the overviews of history as taught in schools--and these would not be historians.)? Must all people read certain authors just because someone has deemed them 'great'?

    Is school the only place where children might be exposed to literature or history?

    Does one have to be sitting down in order to learn?

    if children are unschooled, does that render them unfit for formal learning later on?

    And I would say that the answer to all these questions is "No." To expound upon this would require a post in itself, but it did strike me in thinking about it that my children have already had more exposure to Shakespeare than I did in 12 years of public school.

    I'm not sure I get the questions or answers about children only learning because they have discovered something on their own, though. Unschooling is not isolated learning--we are all influenced by so many others in our lives--and neither, I would argue, must it be wholly separate from a mentor/teacher figure. My kids have often desired to take certain classes, ranging from gymnastics to philosophy. But that's another digression again.

    I caught that particular production of Hamlet thanks to your tweet about it, and it was fantastic. We have seen many filmed and a couple of staged versions, but David Tennant is quite possibly my favorite Hamlet of all. Thanks for that! And as I write this, we are also planning a trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Everyone had a choice to opt in or out, and only my husband opted out. We chose the program together and have watched dvds of unfamiliar-to-us plays together (my older rolled his eyes and walked out of Twelfth Night, while my younger laughed his head off). We're looking forward to it, but I make no case for my kids being "educated" because of it nor do we hold it higher regard than the music festivals one son is saving money to attend or the computer animation the other is trying to learn. And at the point it ceases to be fun for all of us, we will stop.

  21. I'd argue that the Bard is worth learning and that children should be encouraged to do so in their due course. BUT-! So is Omar Khayam and Basho and other poets of equal stature and mastery for their prospective languages (England, Iran, Japan). Rarely if ever do public schools ever cover the poets of non-anglo history.