On July 8, the West Virginia State Board of Education made two major decisions — along with extending the requirement to teach cursive from elementary to middle school, they ended the one forcing high school students to read at least one of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Instead, teachers will decide the curriculum for themselves. Though I honestly support the first decision, I believe that the second one is not only poor, but incredibly damaging.
Shakespeare is widely regarded to be the greatest writer in the history of the English language, along with one of the most prolific, and the most influential. His work has drastically influenced our entire popular culture, from our books and films, to the way we speak. It works as powerful art, and as a period piece, and it’s also just fun. And I’m sorry, leaving it up to teachers is not enough.
Don’t get me wrong, teachers should have some choice in what they teach. Not every group of students is the same, and different teachers have different strengths. But there should be some guidelines. I’ve had some really outstanding teachers, but I’ve also had some bad ones. Though I’m sure a lot of teachers will continue to teach Shakespeare, and other equally important works, there are others who won’t. Others might not use their freedom well — others might be lazy, and teach something that isn’t important, and maybe isn’t even good. They might let their students slip through the cracks.
So why Shakespeare? Why not Hemingway or Steinbeck, why not Dante, or Dickens? Why not more contemporary authors, ones who teens can understand and relate to, ones who aren’t just white men? I agree that those things are needed too. But Shakespeare, in my opinion, is a first priority.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Shakespeare isn’t a first priority. Let’s say that we should end this requirement. If that were true, we still should not have had this meeting, and made this decision, for a very simple reason. And that is that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, when it’s still not clear what school will even look like this year. This is not the time for this debate. This is the time to sit down, and figure out ways to continue with one of the most important things in the world: our children’s education.
The instructions as of now, toward how we will continue school are vague, and confusing, and a bureaucratic mess. We need to fix that, before we turn any attention to curriculum. There are plenty of things about curriculum that we should change, but I’m willing to wait for those. But, if this decision was going to be made, there are several things about Shakespeare that should be taken into consideration first.
First is the fact that they’re plays, which we don’t read a lot of in school. It’s a major art form, that a lot of kids and teens don’t have access to. Mostly we just read prose or poetry, and some kids barely even read that. For a long period in our history, live theater was the dominant art form, whether you are talking about Greco-Roman tragedies, Japanese kabuki, or even romance-era opera. That’s important.
Understanding our domestic culture is one of the most important ways that we can understand ourselves, and our journey throughout history. Entertainment is especially revealing; even today, the stories we consume show our values, our traditions, and our beliefs, the good and bad. Looking at these different eras of entertainment and comparing them helps us understand ourselves. It’s a cliché, but art really does imitate life, and life really does imitate art.
All the action films, all the video games, all the tough, macho heroes we have show the emphasis our culture places on violence, brutality and domination over each other. Looking at Shakespeare, we can see that that was true even then; so many of his plays, especially the histories, contain sword fights and battles, dueling knights and swashbuckling pirates. We can see that, though some of it is dated, much of our sense of humor has not changed; puns, slapstick and romantic entanglements dominate his comedy, as they dominate much of ours today.
It’s also important, far more important, in fact, to study the things in Shakespeare that don’t hold up. It’s important to look at some the appalling depictions of race, sex and class, and understand the roles these played in our history. Hundreds of years from now, I would not be surprised if future scholars did the same.
I do think that students should read more diverse authors in school, and the world Shakespeare lived in, and thus his work, was by no means diverse. Back then, in Europe, at least, white men were generally the only people who could create art. If we’re going to look at history, especially through entertainment, then we need to accept that in many places, things were not diverse.
By all means, we should look at other works, from other authors and other parts of the world, in order to study history; “The Tale of Genji,” from Japan, the Arabian Nights stories, from the Middle East, and countless others should all be taught. But none of those of impacted our culture in quite the same way that Shakespeare has. Sad, but true.
Shakespeare is still one of the most prevalent things in our culture, influencing everything from “The Lion King” to “Game of Thrones.” The characters he created have grown into massive archetypes, that you can point out everywhere you look. Even the language we use comes from him; a quick Google search can bring you page upon page of words and phrases he came up with. And I, for one, think it would be a crying shame if we weren’t taught to recognize all this.
Shakespeare speaks to millions people still, across different cultures, classes and races. If you get on YouTube, you can find tons of performances of Shakespeare by all-female, all-black and other more diverse casts. It’s language is antiquated, and so are many of its world views, but the characters, themes, and stories are universal.
That’s why I think that the decision to remove Shakespeare from classroom requirements was a mistake. It’s still relevant, still influential and still entertaining, despite the antiquated language. It’s had more of an impact on our popular culture than nearly all other works, and is an important snapshot, of life during a certain part of our history. Shakespeare created a huge chunk of the English language, and a bigger chunk of global storytelling. Those creations should not be forgotten. Shakespeare should still be taught now, and for many years to come.