The Bard as burden?

I recently took part in a conversation that I found extraordinarily troubling. Those taking part were two schoolteachers, one university lecturer and two businesspeople. The topic of conversation was secondary school reform. And the consensus of all those taking part, except for me, was that it was time to retire William Shakespeare from the curriculum. The arguments given in favour of this proposition included the amount of time given over to Shakespeare that could be spent on more contemporary drama; the way in which highlighting Shakespeare perpetuated an ‘English’ perspective on the world at a time when many other cultures needed more attention; the difficulty in making students understand the archaic language; the obvious problem inherent in the white maleness of Shakespeare.

So are these good points? Should we see Shakespeare as just one more dead white male taking up too much of our cultural attention?

In this anniversary year of the Authorised Version of the Bible (the ‘King James’ Bible), it may be worth recalling that this translation of scripture and the works of Shakespeare together more or less created the sound and flow of what we now know as English. Shakespeare was not just another author, he was a designer of what became the world’s primary language. Nor was his work focused on England, or even on an English understanding of history, culture and politics.

I am strongly in favour of encouraging today’s students to engage with modern literature, in English and other languages. But to imagine that this requires us to abandon Shakespeare seems, to me at least, to be absurd.

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8 Comments on “The Bard as burden?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Quite.
    Mind you, I would be very inclined to decouple the grammar aspect that English teachers use when compacting Shakespeare into the kids. Further, it should be remembered that in the past the kids would have vastly more context for his works having been exposed to the cultural precedent. Thirty years ago and beyond, the kids knew he didn’t lick it from some stone in the middle of Warwickshire.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    *Nor was his work focused on England, or even on an English understanding of history, culture and politics.*
    I remember the first time I ‘encountered’ Shakespeare, I was a shy eighteen year old attending my first English Literature class at university in Naples. The lecture theatre was overcrowded, as always was the case, and the module was entirely dedicated to King Lear. I knew very little about Shakespeare’s work, only Romeo and Juliet from film and TV adaptations, I had never read the original text before, let alone any of its beautiful Italian translations. ‘Lear’ sounded somewhat mysterious, almost musical to my ears, however by the end of the semester I was besotted by it, the fact that it did not relate specifically to ‘my’ history or culture was completely irrelevant. The next semester I made my aquaintaince with another of Shakespeare’s great kings, the ‘King of Fools’ Falstaff, Lear and Falstaff not so dissimilar after all, both telling us that there is wisdom in foolishness and vice versa, both splendid parables of those inner contradictions which makes us who we are: human. The point of teaching Shakeaspeare is obviously not so much of reinforcing univocal interpretations of British history, hence becoming a ‘burden’ ‘a la Kipling (I’m referring to his controversial poem the The White Man’s Burden of 1899) rather to emphasize the universal aspects, the ones that pull us together, that make a story worth listening to and a life worth living.

  3. Peter Lydon Says:

    I can’t believe that 2 teachers would agree with a proposition to remove Shakespeare. I hope this is not an general indication of the level of cultural sophistication among those we charge with developing young minds.

  4. Don Says:

    Shakespeare has a relevance to today’s issues, as he has had through the centuries: Love, Hate, Friendship, Exploitation, Deceit, War, Peace… – that’s the wonder and the brilliance of his works. He is universally acknowledged as a genius.

  5. Brian Mulligan Says:

    Kids today get it too soft. We had to suffer through it so why shouldn’t they.

    • Don Says:

      Mmm…Brian, and your point is…? If it’s to justify suffering, fine (if such justification can be made). But why use Shakespeare to make kids suffer…why make kids suffer at all? My comments, like yours I hope, are tongue-in-cheek:)…


      • Yes, Don, it is tongue in cheek insofar as I would not like kids to suffer through it nowadays. As a relatively high performing kid in the seventies, I could not make head nor tail of it. In my case it was a waste of time. Perhaps the teacher was not quite skilled enough. I believe that there still are a lot of kids bored with it, so even if there is great stuff there, if its not getting through, it is wasting the kids time. Although my daughter loves Romeo and Juliet, I spend more time discussing with her the satire in The Simpsons. Not quite the beautiful language of Shakespeare, but the ideas are all there (even if lifted from most of the best drama of the last 3000 years).

        We probably need to be clear about why we teach literature. Is it to learn to communicate, or to appreciate the beauty of art, or to understand the human condition? Then we need to evaluate how the studying of Shakespeare in secondary school is measuring up against the desired objectives.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    Literature should be included on its merits and Shakespeare is staggeringly good & his themes are universal. And why stop at Shakespeare: what did the ancient Greeks ever do for us?


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