by Logan Bowe
For centuries, Shakespeare’s plays have captured grand audiences and encapsulated the human condition. Whether it be the nature of undying love presented in Romeo and Juliet, the thought-provoking philosophies of Hamlet, or the violent nature of mankind and power on display in Macbeth, Shakespeare has the ability to show his character’s inner minds and machinations so impeccably that he has left literature historians to this day stunned and awe-struck. With such a notable effect on literature and, more specifically, on humanity’s thoughts and ideas, it’s no wonder why Shakespeare’s works have been taught in most high school curriculums for over a century. With all this said, however, times have changed and Shakespeare is no longer a staple on all high school English curriculums. So, does Shakespeare have the strength to withstand the evolution of literature, and, moreover, should Shakespeare continue to be taught in American high schools?
Many would argue that a good reason for keeping Shakespeare on a curriculum is it helps kids to learn how to analyze literature and understand complex themes found in literature. Many people would also argue that Shakespeare’s themes are more in-depth and complex than any other forms of literature. This, however, is subjective and, frankly objectively false. In my English class, we’ve been analyzing the Shakespeare play Macbeth, a play in which a Scottish nobleman lets power (and his wife) get to his head, leading to him murdering King Duncan and claiming the throne for himself. As a result, he is murdered himself by a fellow nobleman, Macduff. Some common themes we’ve discussed within the play have been, to dumb it down, “don’t judge a book by its cover”, “blind ambition”, and “rebellion”. As most readers can infer by this point, those aren’t very “complex” themes in comparison to many themes found in modern day literature. At the very least, people who advocate for Shakespeare’s inclusion in a high school curriculum cannot argue that there aren’t plenty of other modern pieces of literature that contain similar themes to Shakespeare and would be a lot easier for students to follow and comprehend.
So, what are some other genuine reasons to choose to teach other pieces of modern literature instead of Shakespeare? For starters, as I previously mentioned, the language in modern literature is usually much easier to understand than Shakespearean language. Some may argue that giving students tougher literature can lead to their comprehension skills progressing more quickly; however, this is objectively false. Think about this – could you effectively do work if you were taught by someone with an extremely thick Scottish or Welsh accent? Maybe, but it would be a challenge. Also, many teachers practically translate the Shakespearean language for the students so that the students can comprehend what’s happening. Of course this is helpful and necessary, but, in theory, it makes reading Shakespeare twice as long. Perhaps teachers could move on to other works more quickly if they didn’t have to spend so much time “translating” Shakespearean language to their students.
If the themes of Shakespeare can be replicated in modern works, and, for the modern student, reading Shakespearean English makes learning more difficult and stressful, what’s the point of reading Shakespeare at all? Well, Shakespeare’s cultural impact cannot denied. Everyone older than 8 knows who Romeo and Juliet are, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone over 18 who hasn’t at least heard of Hamlet or Macbeth. All this is to say that knowing culturally significant characters such as these is important, even if just to a small degree. Imagine a world where you want to reference a love story and people don’t immediately reference Romeo and Juliet. I think we can all agree that people need exposure to Shakespeare to at least a small degree.
But how can we make reading Shakespeare easier and more accessible for high school students? Well, for starters, there are graphic novel versions of most Shakespeare plays. These graphic novels contain easier language and not nearly as many words, yet they still convey the story and themes. These graphic novels, which are already part of the OHS English curriculum, are simply easier for kids to understand.
The curriculum should also make watching film versions of Shakespeare’s plays mandatory, providing students with an added visual layer to aid in their comprehension. Or, maybe teachers can just show the film versions without even using the original texts. Another option would be to simply only teach a truncated version of a play with arguably the most notable characters (i.e. Romeo and Juliet) and perhaps teach the rest of Shakespeare’s plays in an optional elective class. This should, in turn, let kids who want to enjoy Shakespeare’s works do so while those students who don’t want to read Shakespeare won’t be obligated to.