“I don’t know why we have to read Shakespeare,” grumbled a student recently.
Why should we care what someone who’s been dead going on 400 years had to say? What possible relevance could his writing have in an ever-connected, electronic, modern world?
The reason the Bard has lasted half a millennium is because he was a master of exposing the desires and emotions that make us human: envy, greed, arrogance, love, miscommunication, and social status. These things never change.
What sets him apart from a glorified Elizabethan soap opera writer is the way he develops his characters and their interrelationships. His plays are multi-layered. He can evoke sympathy for some of his most evil characters like Iago. He can make us lose patience with the hero (Hamlet). He can show how the responsibilities of power can change our relationship with our friends (Henry V).
Modern relevance? Shakespeare dealt with depression and mental health issues hundreds of years ago in plays like Hamlet and King Lear.
However (and this is a big “however”), there are two main problems facing modern readers of Shakespeare’s work. These are what produce groans and complaints from students.
A Rose by Any Other Name
The first is vocabulary. Let’s face it; English has changed in 500 years – a lot! It’s hard enough keeping track of the changes in word meanings and slang from the last half century let alone the last half millennium. And Shakespeare loved throwing in double meanings his Elizabethan audiences would have known and appreciated.
When I want to read Shakespeare, I first have to remind myself of some of the nuances of the vocabulary. Yes, reading the footnotes can be annoying, but they help me “get it.”
When we read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, I had a teacher who was wise enough to realize that Shakespeare’s English was like Greek to us. He also knew that, if he pointed out some of the racier double entendres, he could keep the attention of his teenage students. I thought he was a little crazy, but he made the play more real for us.
Any writer knows meaning is vitally important for painting the right picture. English has so many words! Synonyms have shades of meaning that can make a masterpiece out of a cartoon.
With Shakespeare, those shades of meaning are faded and need to be restored for us to appreciate the full richness of his work.
The Play Is the Thing
The second major problem with teaching Shakespeare is that students read the plays. Folks, the Bard’s work was meant for the stage, not the page.
Unlike a novel, where the author sets the scene and describes what is going on, a play is written with off-stage direction and dialog. If we can’t see and hear the speakers, with vocal inflections and body language, it’s really tough to get a good feel for the characters. It’s almost like reading a bunch of statements.
It wasn’t until I took a Shakespeare class in college that I truly appreciated the difference. At the time, PBS was running a series of BBC-produced Shakespeare plays. My professor held play-watching parties at her house. It was fun, and we got to experience Shakespeare the way he wanted us to – by watching the actors.
The Wheel Is Come Full Circle
Too often we think of Shakespeare as some guy sitting in a room churning out plays teachers tell us are masterpieces. Shakespeare lived in a time of political turmoil, intrigue, social class struggles, racism, and religious persecution. He sometimes put things into his plays that could be seen as critical to the monarchy, and he often skirted disaster.
Shakespeare Uncovered is a great PBS series that explores some of Shakespeare’s plays, what they mean, and the setting in which they were written.
It is important to remember that Shakespeare was a real man, living in a real world, with real problems. He used his talent to hold up a mirror to the world to say, “This is what you are, and this is what you could be.”
So, yes, what Shakespeare wrote centuries ago is still very much relevant today.