After teaching an intensive Shakespeare class week, I have to admit it: Shakespeare is difficult. It’s hard to understand the plays and poems he wrote, but apparently, it’s of the utmost importance that we all do—after all, knowledge of Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar is what separates the educated from the uneducated in the United States. That’s why we make our high school students spend so much time on these plays: we want them to be educated and knowledgeable about their culture, and Shakespeare is about as cultured as you can get in high school.
There’s only one thing wrong with this picture, which is just about everything.
I’m not going to get into the argument that plagued higher education a generation ago, when scholars argued about whether it really was important for students to know and understand the plays of a dead white male that were written about a time long past. You can read about that debate here, if you’re interested in it. Today, I’m not concerned about whether we study Shakespeare at all, but rather about the ways in which Shakespeare is distorted to fit into the high school curriculum.
There are several reasons for this distortion. First of all, the study of Shakespeare in American high schools is fraught with shame, and this shame has nothing to do with the content of the plays (although we will talk more about that in a moment). Think back to your high school days–if you’re a high school teacher, think back to the last time you had to teach Shakespeare. In all likelihood, there were parts of the play you did not understand. Whether it was the difficult language or the confusing character names (really Shakespeare? Grumio and Gremio in the same play?), or the convoluted plot, there was something you just didn’t get. When this happens, as it does all the time, even with college professors and scholars, we tend to cover it up, ignore it, pray that no one asks questions about it. As far as Shakespeare goes, we are taught early on to play the emperor’s-new-clothes game. If we don’t advertise the fact that we don’t get the play, don’t understand the language, and don’t see why Shakespeare is so important, then maybe we can pass for a truly educated person. The problem with this is that while high school students aren’t incredibly quick to understand Shakespeare, they are very quick to identify our discomfort, and it distances them from the pleasure of reading and understanding Shakespeare.
Secondly, high school is apparently not a suitable place to study Shakespeare–hence the censorship that Shakespeare must undergo in order to make the plays fit for consumption. All of Shakespeare’s plays deal with sexuality in one form or another–every single one of them. We are hypocrites when we say that teenagers should understand Shakespeare all the better for this but refuse to identify the truly raunchy parts of the plays for them, passages which go unnoticed because of the archaic language and difficult references. A poem like Venus and Adonis is, after all, intensely erotic, pretty much soft-core porn, and would engender numerous complaints if it were placed on a high school syllabus. Until we can deal effectively with the problem of censorship in our high schools, Shakespeare will continue to be despised by our students. High school will continue to be, in the words of a wise student of mine, where Shakespeare goes to die. (Thanks, Jordan!)
But maybe you are one of the lucky ones. Maybe you made it through high school and even college without conceiving a distaste for Shakespeare. Congratulations! But even so, you may still face a serious problem with Shakespeare, and that’s that most of his plays are completely misunderstood today. Here are just a few examples: Julius Caesar, which we all suffered through in 10th or 11th grade, is not about Julius Caesar, a throw-away character who dies before the play is even half over. And Mark Anthony is not the hero of the play, as he is so often made out to be: he is a wretched opportunist who capitalizes on his patron’s murder. The play is really about Brutus; it’s about how difficult it is to respond to tyranny in a truly humane and civilized way. Likewise, Romeo and Juliet is not just a play about love; rather, it’s really about rebellion. I don’t think we are meant to feel heartsick about the ending of the play, as we do about its modern counterpart, West Side Story. The ending of the play should, if done correctly, make us feel angry at the insipid young lovers and the utter waste of life they leave scattered in their reckless–and rebellious–wake.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Shakespeare has been taught all wrong for too many years. Whether it’s worthwhile to study works from a period and a culture so distant from ours is up for debate, but surely it cannot be right to study them in a way that distorts their true meaning, fostering disdain, shame, and disinterest among so many of us. As for me, I look forward to a time when we can openly admit our confusion about Shakespeare, when we can be honest about the raucous and delightfully filthy language in his plays, and when we can challenge the stale interpretations that have been handed down to us, replacing them with our own outrageously creative readings.