As a senior teacher of some years at Glasshouse Christian College, I’ve often been asked a question familiar to most English teachers: Why Shakespeare? I have several glib pre-prepared answers to this question when just ‘getting on with things’ doesn’t permit an extended response, but I thought that, given the popularity of the question and the Bard himself, this more extended response ought to go somewhere. The fact that Shakespeare features throughout our Senior and Middle School programs means this question is certainly relevant to our own students and parents and there are several aspects to the reasoning behind such an inclusion.
Shakespeare is canonical
Firstly, Shakespeare is canonical. This is not intended to sound pretentious, but to point simply at just how familiar we still are with his texts. They are still being remade and performed in cinemas and on stages the world over. ‘A-List’ actors still seek opportunities to apply their own interpretations to his most famous roles. Much meaning can be understood or inferred from references to Shakespearean characters and the many hundreds of phrases he apparently invented, despite this being “cold comfort” (you see what I did there?) to readers struggling through Olde English.
Shakespeare themes are universal
Secondly, his themes really are universal. It sounds like a well-rehearsed cliché, but the fact is, it is true. Unbridled ambition, mental illness, consuming passion, blinding indifference, bloody murder, sibling rivalry, bitter revenge, misplaced trust, crushing oppression… and these are just the negative ones. Love, honour, fidelity, empowerment, resistance, freedom, I could go on for a while. The real genius of Shakespeare’s work is not just in the seriousness of the content, often covering great calamity and/or personal consequence, but in Shakespeare’s ability to embed, develop and resolve several of these themes into each of his works.
Shakespeare works for a wide range of student abilities
These very grand sounding caricatures boil down, in quite a practical sense, into texts that have something to offer a wide range of student abilities. Simply put, Shakespeare’s work contains the widest range of C to A+ level ideas, themes, and representations of any other body of work. For this point, you don’t simply have to take my word. QCAA has committed to maintain 2 out of 8 of the options for final Year 12 Term 4 texts as Shakespearean and the last straw poll we did among schools indicated that over 70% of them have taken QCAA up on its offer.
The language of Shakespeare
‘But the language!’ I hear you proclaim. It is perhaps here where the greatest actual criticism and final value of the work go hand in hand. As a teacher of literacy as well as literature, I don’t feel that the battle to extract meaning from dense language, deep symbolism and poetic device could ever not be worth fighting; however, I must acknowledge the validity the commonly asked question: “Where will I ever need this?”. The question goes to the heart of education and what it ought to look like and should never be shied away from. One version of the answer, at least for something like Shakespeare and ‘that language’, lies in an activity I do with my classes when the first student asks. The activity simply asks students to close their eyes and imagine something they can’t describe with words. Time and encouragement are given, speaking to the power of the mind and imagination and then students simply indicate whether they were able to imagine such a thing or not. The vast majority admit to being unable and verify to themselves and the class the real power of language as the limit of thought. Literally, if you can’t say it, you can’t think it! Of course, there are always the students who claim to have imagined said indescribable object or idea and who could refute them? But the challenge to find or learn or invent the words with which to share it with another person makes almost the same point.
The struggle then, with any form of unfamiliar language, be it Shakespearean English, mathematical formulae, scientific terminology, or any subject specific jargon, is the struggle to expand the limits of our thinking and it is far more dangerous to predict the type of thinking a student may ‘one day’ need, than it is to make the claim for vocabulary. Asking ‘when will I ever need to speak like Shakespeare?’ is not the same as asking ‘when will I ever need to think like him?’ and clearly not as easy to answer.
The Bard and his language, his themes and his complexity are still an important part of a student’s journey at GCC and I am clearly not alone in believing he is worth the effort.
Robert Maguire, Head of English