Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Wherefore Shakespeare?

My first exposure to the works of William Shakespeare (aren't you glad that I didn't refer to him as "The Bard"? That's so pretentious.) was when I was a freshman in high school. I had a great English teacher named Mr. Byson, and we read Romeo and Juliet. We read it out loud in class, and I remember reading the part of Romeo when he shouts, "I am fortune's fool!" after killing Tybalt. Mr. Byson made me drop to my knees and shout it up to the sky. Great stuff. I remember enjoying it quite a bit. While I certainly couldn't understand every word that was uttered, Mr. Byson did a great job of explaining what was going on. I picked up on what a good story it was, and there was something about the language that attracted me. I didn't quite get it, but it was intriguing - it was over-the-top and had a certain rhythm to it that I found fascinating.

My next experience was with Macbeth my sophomore year. I remember when we were in the middle of it, a couple of kids in my class were complaining how "boring" it was. I remembered liking it, but in high school you don't exactly feel like being the guy to rise up and defend Shakespeare. Besides, I didn't quite have the words to express exactly what it was that I liked so much. I do remember, however, really liking the part where Banquo's ghost comes in the dining room and Macbeth freaks out. I'm the kind of person who gets haunted by a guilty conscience, so I completely related to it on that level. I also remember discussing it with my dad. He was never much of a Shakespeare fan himself, but I was talking about the character and his motivations (I don't think I used that word, but that's ultimately what it was about). It really started to hit me then what the appeal was - or at least, one of the appeals - there was so much going on with his characters that you could discuss them endlessly - and this was a rather one-sided discussion!

As the years past, I read A Midsummer Night's Dream my senior year, and Hamlet in college. I was also exposed to Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh's film. At SF State, I took a Shakespeare class where we read Measure for Measure, Henry IV, part I, The Merchant of Venice, and a few others. I always enjoyed everything that the Bard...umm...I mean, Shakespeare wrote.

Of course, now I've become much more familiar with his works since I'm an English teacher. I've taught Romeo and Juliet (using the copy that I had when I was in high school - complete with the notes that Mr. Byson told me to write down), Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Hamlet. It has always been my favorite thing to teach, especially Hamlet. All of his works are endlessly rewarding, and I find something new in them every time I teach it. I've also had some very long, in-depth conversations about the characters with friends, coworkers, and even at the comic book store (which wouldn't be a surprise to anybody who actually reads comics - comics fans are usually quite literate).

Recently, I heard a colleague tell me of a conversation that she had with a certain administrator. This administrator believes that it's not worth teaching Shakespeare to the masses, mainly because when she was in high school, she didn't "get it."


Where do I even begin with this? Is that really a reason to not teach something? Because some students find it difficult and aren't able to appreciate it? What about all of the kids who do appreciate it and find a lifelong love for it? Should they suffer because some kids struggle with it?

You might be thinking that's easy for me to say, after all, I was one of the kids who liked it. Well, I didn't really "get" Chemistry, but I'd be a drooling moron to suggest that kids shouldn't have to learn it because of that. I didn't get Pre-Calculus either, not to mention P.E. I guess my lack of comprehension for these subjects should lower the bar for everybody else, huh?

Now, you might make the argument that Shakespeare isn't for everybody, so maybe some kids can learn it while other kids can opt not to. Well, we're no longer able to have classes that are "A" and "B" and remedial classes anymore. So, all of the kids are lumped into one class, except for the Honors classes (which have to accept any kid who applies - go figure).

Here's the thing though, I've seen kids who probably would have been in the "B" classes years ago when they could do that who have really gotten into Shakespeare. I had one student, who was the bane of many an English teacher (not me, I liked him quite a bit) get so excited about Hamlet that he was shouting at the TV during the swordfight at the end. It was amazing to see how much he had emotionally invested in it - and it ranks as one of the highlights of my teaching career.

Now, do you really NEED Shakespeare though? Personally, I wouldn't be willing to be the guy to rob him of this experience, but this kid is probably not using "To be or not to be" in his career of choice. So what? I don't use algrebra, but I'm glad that I took it. After all, math exercises areas of the brain that you use for daily tasks. As for Shakespeare, if you can decipher what he's saying, you can comprehend pretty much anything. (Except maybe Chaucer - what the hell's up with THAT guy? Middle English my ass! Just kidding, but I'm not enough of a fan of Geoffrey Chaucer to write a blog on him).

Is Shakespeare important for any other reason then? How about the fact that there is no single author who has had a greater impact on the English language than him? Not only that, but he has introduced more words and phrases into the language than the King James Bible. Not even Snoop Dog can make such a claim. Let's not forget the fact that allusions to Shakespeare's works are everywhere. Shoot, a Julius Caesar reference was made during the case for gay marriage recently in the California Supreme Court. I believe it was, from one of the gay marriage proponents, "I came to praise marriage, not to bury it." (A twistaround of "I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.") The judge responded that he was expecting the Shakespeare reference to be, "What's in a name?"

Do we really want to live in a world where the arts (including literature, naturally) are seen as not important? I believe that every subject has its place (except for "The Films of David Hasselhoff"). Most of them teach kids how to function in the world, but literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular, deals with the questions of what it means to be a human being. Of course, some people are never going to get it, but that doesn't mean that they get to ruin it for the rest of us.

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