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Pros and cons of teaching Shakespeare

While some educators decide to stop teaching Shakespeare’s works, others continue to update and improve Shakespeare curricula.
Here’s a sentence that we wouldn’t be able to write without William Shakespeare. He invented or introduced nine words.

If you ask Shakespeare about his time-honored works or syllabus fixtures, you will get hostile, fretful and quarrelsome reactions.

Shakespeare was a brilliant wordsmith, who created engaging works that addressed the human condition, psychology, identity, and other aspects of life. Shakespeare’s masterful wordplay, inventive use of language, biting humor, puns, and innovative characters have been enjoyed by generations of readers. They also had a lasting impact upon literature and the English language. The high school English syllabus is dominated by the Bard’s plays, sonnets and poems (1564-1616). However, does that guarantee him a place in the curriculum for ever?

Ben Jonson was Shakespeare’s contemporary, and fellow playwright. He claimed that Shakespeare was “not for an age, but for all times.” But he was very much in his time. Shakespeare’s works contain a lot of outdated and problematic ideas. They also include a lot of misogyny. This begs the question: Are Shakespeare’s works more relevant or valuable than the myriad of other authors who have written brilliantly about love, anguish and history as well as comedy and humanity over the past 400 years?

This question is being asked more often by educators about Shakespeare and other canon pillars. They are coming to the conclusion it is time to devalue Shakespeare or make way for new, diverse and inclusive voices. The fundamental questions are more than “to teach or to not teach.” Teachers must also ask who’s stories are being valued and which voices are heard. What does your syllabus tell you about your students and where they are in the world? These questions require educators to teach, critique, question, abandon Shakespeare’s work, as well as offering alternative ways of updating and improving curricula.

Did you know Sky Blue Theatre offer school Shakespeare workshops?

Old plays given new life

Brittany Greene teaches Romeo and Juliet at Nazareth (PA), Area High School. Her approach to this play has changed recently. She says, “After reading about Laura Bates, a woman who taught Shakespeare to prisoners in prisons,” she said. Greene has her students connect the two plays by pairing them with Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down about a teenager who weighs retribution after his brother was shot and killed. She says that students “analyze the outside factors that affect Romeo [from Long Way Down]” and then discuss the effect of these external motivators on characters’ behavior.

Sarah Mulhern Gross is a ninth- and twelfth-grade English teacher at High Technology High School Lincroft, NJ. She also teaches Romeo and Juliet but “through the lense of adolescent mind development with a side effect of toxic masculinity analysis,” says she.

Adriana Adame is a teacher at a charter school in Texas that focuses on college readiness and trauma informed care. She says that all of her students have higher ACE scores. This is considered when deciding what and how to teach them. She focuses on trauma and grief with Hamlet. Adame invites specialists to talk to her about how to deal with grief and prevent it from spiraling in stressful situations.

Elizabeth Neilson is a high-school English teacher at Twin Cities Academy in St. Paul, MN. She uses Coriolanus as a method to teach Marxist theory. Neilson says that when they read a text from centuries ago [that] addresses people and events from even further back, it’s easier for them to separate their analysis from their biases or inherited beliefs about class in today’s era.

A different approach to Shakespeare is to combine the source material with retellings that are creative, modern, and inclusive. Dahlia Adler is the editor of The Way Madness Lies: Fifteen Shakespeare’s Most Important Works Reimagined (Flatiron March 2021). She believes that these new versions of classic stories are more accessible to a wider range of readers, who don’t often see themselves in the books they’re reading for school.

The anthology includes author Lily Anderson’s retelling Of As You Like It. It features a plot that involves a summer camp for adults in the woods. Anderson loves Shakespeare’s works because they are so reference-heavy. Anderson says that each play has a secret reading list of parables, histories, and myths. In keeping Shakespeare’s works relevant, we are also maintaining a connection with antiquity stories, which is a chain of popular cultures from the past to the present.

Shakespeare is still widely taught. However, it is important to consider how he came to be a standard in the curriculum. Because teachers are not allowed to decide their own curriculum and may be limited in their ability to modify existing texts, Shakespeare can appear on a syllabus year after year.

Ayanna Thompson is the director of Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and a professor of English at Arizona State University. She is a Shakespeare scholar with deep roots within African American and postcolonial literatures. Thompson explains why Shakespeare’s plays are so prominent in education. “Shakespeare was used to civilize Black and brown people within England’s empire.” The first English literature curricula were created in the colonization efforts of the British in India. Shakespeare’s plays were a key part of that curricula.
The meaning of universal

Another assumption is that the Bard was a fixture partly due to colonialism.

Jeffrey Austin, ELA chair at Skyline High School, Ann Arbor, MI, says, “We have to challenge the whiteness [of that ] statement: It is harmful to assume that dominant values should be universal.” Teachers can look beyond canonical works to find modern voices to help them teach traditional themes.

Another concern is that students who don’t study Shakespeare will be academically behind. Thompson questions this line. Thompson asks, “At what disadvantage? This question is based on an older colonial/imperial model. She says that a true disadvantage is the inability to understand, interpret, analyze, and deal with any piece of literature’s cultural or political contexts.

Claire Bruncke was a teacher of language arts at a small rural school in Washington State. She dropped Shakespeare from her curriculum. She says that she asked her principal whether there was any requirement as to how many Shakespeares she needed to cover. It didn’t matter as long as she was teaching standards. She used the time that they would have spent studying Shakespeare to write labs, and to read anthologies and novels that were not usually found in the canon. Bruncke states, “My students’ positive response to this work solidified [my] decision.”

Cameron Campos is an English teacher at Foothills Composite High School, Alberta, Canada. He has generally moved away teaching what is considered classic. Campos explains that his grade 11 and 12 courses almost exclusively use texts written by Indigenous authors. There are a few Canadian short stories, but not many works by contemporary poets. Campos said that Shakespeare is the only author the curriculum requires us to teach. However, this year’s provincial exam was likely to be cancelled or made optional. Campos was able skip Shakespeare and instead teach The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa QuickHorse.

Liz Matthews, a ninth-grade English teacher at Hartford Public High School (CT), a school that is 95 per cent Black and Latinx has chosen to also pass on Shakespeare.

She says that she has replaced Romeo and Juliet by The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, and Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds this past year. “The authors and characters in the new books sound and look like my students. They can also make real connections. Representation is important.”

Defenders of Bard

One quick look on the Internet shows that many people are furious at the idea of replacing Shakespeare in schools. Proponents argue that if education values innovation then curriculum changes should not be controversial. Students can learn any text if they want to study language arts.

Thompson says that pedagogy must evolve to reflect various learning styles. Syllabi shouldn’t be written in stone. Thompson doesn’t believe that a syllabus should be altered in a binary fashion by substituting Shakespeare with another author. Thompson suggests some authors Thompson could recommend to enrich Shakespeare’s study. “Toni Morrison and August Wilson, Djanet Sears and Gayl Jones, W.E.B. Thompson says that James Baldwin, Du Bois and many other modern artists from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean have written in response Shakespeare. Shakespeare can be approached, taught and analysed from many different perspectives.

Lorena German, an Austin educator and cofounder of DisruptTexts suggested alternative options in a #DisruptTexts twitter chat. German wrote, “Trust me. Your kids will be fine even if they don’t read Shakespeare.” Dutchman by Amiri baraka, Color Struck, When the Rainbow Is Enuf, By Zora Nealehurston and For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide by Ntozake Shange were some of the suggested topics. These are all plays that have so many parts to be broken down. They are deep and powerful.”

Austin states that Shakespeare is not worth the effort. “There’s nothing you can gain from Shakespeare that cannot be obtained by studying other authors’ works,” Austin said. It’s important to challenge the notion that Shakespeare is a singular genius. Every culture has transcendent writers who don’t get in our classroom libraries or curriculum.

Campos agrees. He says, “Surely no author should have such a high place in our curriculum.” Teachers need to have more conversations about why certain authors and texts are favored.

Let the past be your prologue

Bruncke, who is focused on student choice and has never had a student question why she stopped teaching Shakespeare. “I am aware that we need to do better in ELA classes to avoid focusing on the narrative of white, heterosexual, cisgender men. Eliminating Shakespeare was an easy step I could take to get there. It was a worthwhile decision for my students.

Students are also sent the message that modern literature isn’t worthy of their attention, whether it is intentional or not. Is it possible to allow the canon of classics to change and evolve, and to include current and future works?

Austin says that teachers often sing the praises for Dear Martin by Nic Stone but tell students to read it in their own time. “In my conferences across districts, students report the same frustrations. Books they love are put to the side and treated as unsophisticated entertainment. While books they don’t like become the center of their learning.

Austin continues to speak about BIPOC scholars and teachers who have been long challenging the idea of the canon, and advocating for inclusive classrooms. We’ve been given all the strategies and frameworks but no one can give the belief, commitment and wherewithal. He says that it is up to us. It’s difficult work because we have to challenge deeply held beliefs about what and who knowledge is essential. It takes constant effort to make our spaces more equity-driven and identity-affirming.

The canon can be reexamined to help us see that literature is ours. New additions may lead to richer conversations, deeper personal engagement, greater connections and more passion. It is also important for educators to confront their nostalgic attachments and beliefs about the classic works. Accepting diversity in literature will enhance students’ lives, voices and experiences. A growing number of educators are saying: Let what is past be prologue, as we look forward to the future teaching literature.