By: Joseph Conducto M.ES, BTeaching/BA (Humanities)
I am confident in saying that the words ‘William Shakespeare’ said together are amongst the most frustrating words to hear for a high-school student. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this sentiment is also shared with the parents, some of whom have told me specifically of their discontent at The Bard’s name’s utterance. Despite this, William Shakespeare’s work has continued to be a staple in school curricula in not just Australia, but across the Globe… and the world. (I’m not sorry for the pun… and I won’t promise that it’s the last one either.). It is because of these ideas that the stage is set for a question that we cannot help but ask - why? Why do we continue teaching Shakespeare in classrooms and lecture rooms despite such consistent and outspoken resistance from both the students and parents? Enter this post - an attempt by yours truly to answer such a monumental query in a time-efficient manner.
We begin with a fact that does not have its truthfulness and/or validity hinge on whether or not William Shakespeare is liked by anyone: He is a genius, a master even, of English. American songwriter and popular music icon Michael Jackson once said ‘Study the greats and become greater’, so it stands to reason that if we wish to learn about English, whether as a language or as literature, it makes sense that we delve into Shakespeare’s work. After all, amongst the many great writers in the English literary canon, it is only William Shakespeare who is unanimously referred to as The Bard - The great and definitive writer and poet, whose works are over four hundred years young and are not showing any signs of fading into obscurity. Both his plays and sonnets have been adapted and referenced in all kinds of literature across the world (As a bit of trivia: there’s a Japanese adaptation of Macbeth called ‘Throne of Blood’, directed by none other than Akira Kurosawa, renowned Japanese director of black-and-white Samurai films). In fairness, I’m aware that this level of praise could be said about almost anyone in the English literary canon. However, The Bard went one step further and as a result, he would forever cement an everlasting legacy for himself: Shakespeare invented words that we still use today by either joining pre-existing words together or changing their very nature i.e taking words that already exists as a noun and using it as a verb or an adjective, and vice versa - a feat of lateral thinking that’s as amazing today as it was over four hundred years ago. Simply put, to compose stories, varying from star-crossed lovers to unchecked ambition, which transcend the writer’s life and are passed down from society to society over several lifetimes is one thing. To achieve all this, and invent actual words in the process that we still use to this day is another entirely. Whether you like him or not, William Shakespeare’s contributions to English, both as a language and as an entity that houses timeless stories, are immeasurable. As such, he has appropriately earned the title of The Bard and it just makes sense to learn from an individual of such talent and prestige.
It’s amazing how often a phrase akin to ‘Shakespeare is still relevant today’ is met with varying levels of disdain and disbelief from students and parents. Fortunately, Shakespeare’s works are still relevant today for one major reason amongst many - his works explore the ‘human condition’ (I suspect that at this point, students in their senior year specifically, are rolling their eyes at the mention of the aforementioned phrase). In simple terms, ‘exploring the human condition’ is essentially all about answering an existential-crisis inducing question of ‘What does it mean to be human?’ - a question that seems simple at first but becomes more and more difficult as you continue to think on it. What are these feelings we have towards ourselves and others? What is our place and/or purpose in the world? What is the meaning of life? These are just some of the many questions that Shakespeare confronts us with the moment we engage with his work, and are questions that I know for a fact most high school students today are asking themselves. Furthermore his sonnets explore love, a defining quality/aspect/emotion/verb of what it means to be human(you could add more to this list depending on what you’re studying). We are constantly learning when we engage with William Shakespeare’s work. This varies from learning about the time period of when a play and/or sonnet was written, the topic(s) of the play and/or sonnet itself, or more intimately, who we are as ‘players on the World’s stage’.
This is why William Shakespeare will continue to stay in school and academic curricula. He is The Bard after all - The definitive and great poet and writer whose plays and sonnets allow us as people, not just students, parents or teachers, to learn more about ourselves and the world around us. Now, I am not saying that by the end of this post, you should admire Shakespeare and his work as much as I have grown to. Rather, for the reasons that I have explored just now, as well as countless others that exist in literary pieces within academia, Shakespeare is here to stay. It just makes sense to approach him with an open mind instead of rolled eyes and dejected groans.