In preparation for my class this year on Shakespeare (one of my favorites to teach) I’ve been doing some reading. One book that has been helpful in practical ways in organizing my lessons is Teaching Shakespeare, by Rex Gibson. Here is a summary on why we should continue to teach Shakespeare, even to young students. Much of the following is taken directly from the book, in some places I’ve just altered it enough to connect the ideas. If you want some creative and practical help with this topic you really should consider this book. (My class will have students from 4th grade thru high school all working together, it works surprisingly well and each time I teach it I’m surprised by the insights of some of the younger kids and that they will argue their position with students much older than they are.
The first reason to continue to teach Shakespeare is that
Shakespeare deals with familiar and abiding concerns. Shakespeare’s characters, stories and themes have been, and still are, a source of meaning and significance for every generation. For example, students will find the discussions between Juliet and her controlling father recognisable and familiar, and an excellent spur to discussing parent child relationships. In all of his plays the emotions expressed reach across the centuries; love, hate, awe, tenderness, anger, despair, jealousy, contempt, fear, courage, wonder. The plays raise questions of morality, politics, war, wealth, and death. Many of the plays explore the gap that exists between public appearance and private practice…a problem that is just as relevant today. As characters struggle with the interconnections between the individual and society students are forced to question their own moral choices and how much they, personally, are affected by our societal values, and our American culture.
Secondly, to study Shakespeare is to acquire all kinds of knowledge, not just the knowledge of the plot of another play. It might be an increased vocabulary, or an understanding of the Elizabethan stage. The Tempest can motivate students to research the colonisation of the Americas , or the growth of Renaissance science and literature. The history and Roman plays offer opportunities for developing different kinds of historical understanding.
Studying Shakespeare also allows an addition to knowledge as students explore human feelings in ways that give mental, physical and emotional realese, but in the safe condition of a classroom. Enacting Shakespeare can help students generate self-confidence and learn to confront and control their own emotions. It can lead to greater understanding and empathy. To express it less prosaically, Shakespeare develops the understanding of the heart.
Third, Shakespeare uses many different styles of language and plays all kinds of language games. His language provides students with rich models for study, imitation, and expressive personal re-creation. Shakespeare was fascinated by language and constantly explored and stretched it’s power and limitations. As students come to grips with the language in active explorations, they gain insight into the power of language and become enfranchised as readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and actors.
Fourth, and my personal favorite, education is about ‘opening doors’. It is concerned that individuals should not be imprisoned in a single point of view, confined solely to local knowledge and beliefs. Education shows that ‘there is a world elsewhere’ beyond the familiar and everyday. Shakespeare invites students to develop a deep acquaintance with those characters, to experience their extremes of emotion, to imaginatively inhabit their remote worlds, and to learn from those close encounters with otherness.
Every student is entitled to make the acquaintance of genius. Shakespeare remains a genius of outstanding significance in the development of English language, literature and drama. All students should have opportunities through practical experience, to make up their own minds about what Shakespeare might hold for them.