From now to January 13th, I’m offering a $5 discount for any class that is $10 or more! You can take my Shakespeare classes for as little as $4! Go to my Outschool.com class and enter the coupon code: HTHESNIF6B5 at checkout!
I’m working this summer with the good people at Outschool, an online learning platform for kids ages 3-18. I’m designing a series of Shakespeare classes that you can sign up for. We’ll be doing acting exercises, reading Shakespeare’s text, and making Shakespeare props Cost is $3 per child.
The course is ala carte, that is, you can sign up for as many courses as you like. Each course builds on the last one, but you don’t have to have taken the previous ones to enjoy any one particular course Let me know in the comments which class(es) you are interested in, and/or what suggestions you might have. I can’t wait to hear what you think about these summer Shakespeare courses, and I hope to see you online soon!
If you like these courses, let me know by leaving a comment below. If you’re interested in signing up, visit my teacher profile page: https://outschool.com/teachers/The-Shakespearean-Student. New classes will be added every week, and I’ll work around your schedule when planning the dates and times. Hopefully this will be a great chance for me to share my expertise with a young group of future Shakespearean students!
Thanks to WordPress’ new interface, it’s easier for me to read what other bloggers have to say about the topics I write about. One trend I’ve noticed is the question that’s been boiling underneath the surface of a lot of people in our culture: “Should Shakespeare be ‘cancelled’?” It’s an interesting question and definitely merits discussion.
It is also a question that has some basis reality: Shakespeare was taken off the list of required reading of of schools in New Zealand. In 2007, The American Council Of Trustees and Allumni published a report called “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” about the number of colleges who no longer require English majors to take Shakespeare courses. If you read my post on Romeo and Juliet, you will recall that one of the main reasons why we have Shakespeare as a requirement in American high schools is that he is required reading in many colleges. So this could be part of a trend that extends to primary as well as secondary schools as well.
Many academics, (myself included), are wondering about Shakespeare’s status in education, and whether or not he will continue to be a staple of all English language curricula. So what I want to do with this essay is to ask the question, “Should Shakespeare be cancelled,” as well as”Should he not be cancelled? and “What even is cancelling and how does apply to somebody who is already long long dead now?”
First off, cards on the table: I am a white man, (with a beard), who has been studying Shakespeare for 20 years. I have a very clear bias; I would never advocate for Shakespeare being taken out of any schools. That said, I see merits to parts of the argument, and I do not believe that these teachers who are reexamining Shakespeare’s place in education are inherently wrong. Nor do I believe if that there is no merit to changing the way educators teach Shakespeare in our schools, (more on that later). My point is to write a thoughtful reflection about the nature of Shakespeare as a writer, his status within our culture, his status within the educational establishment, and how changing that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Part One: the arguments for cancelling Shakespeare
When I read the article “Why I am rethinking Teaching Shakespeare In My English Classroom,” by teacher Christina Torres, I noticed a lot of her arguments centered around diversity quotas and simply not having the class time to devote to Shakespeare. This is entirely understandable. Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, which means language has changed a lot since his heyday.
Shakespeare poses several unique challenges in education. He wrote in an obscure form of poetry that is no longer fashionable. You have to read footnotes. Although 95% of the words he used are still used today, they are used in a very unique syntax. Furthermore, I come to teaching Shakespeare from the perspective of somebody who studied theater, acting, Elizabethan history, and everything that that is required to teach Shakespeare, but many teachers do not. My point is I can understand why a teacher feels that he or she does not have the time, energy, or the learning required to give Shakespeare the space that he so clearly demands.
The question of Shakespeare’s status in our classrooms also raises subtle questions about diversity. Many curricula these days emphasize diverse writers and try to highlight the cultural contributions of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, and as far as we know, Shakespeare fit into none of these groups.
This educational initiative is a part of the anti racist initiative and I as an educator I am fully on board with this. I love to be in a classroom where Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lorraine Hansberry, Mary Shelley, and Truman Capote share the same shelf is William Shakespeare, but ever since the 18th century Shakespeare and cultural nationalism have been inexorably linked.
Almost since the beginning of Shakespearean scholarship, American and British critics have sought to venerate Shakespeare as the peak of British culture, and thus the peak of human culture as well. It’s not a coincidence that we celebrate National Poetry Month the same month as Shakespeare’s birth and death. Also, even though we don’t know for sure when Shakespeare was born, we celebrate it on April 23rd, St. George’s Day, thus forever linking England’s greatest poet, with its patron saint. George Bernard Shaw, (an Irishman), coined the term ‘bardolotry,’ to describe the treatment of Shakespeare by the English as if he were a god and the evidence is quite damning:
Just look at this painting where Shakespeare is portrayed as in the same pose and with the same reverence as the baby Jesus. This reverence carried over to poetry, music, festivals, and of course, to the classroom. As I wrote in My Romeo and Juliet post, since the beginning of American public education, Shakespeare was an indispensable fixture in American schools, and thus, prompting American writers like Mark Twain to grumpily refer to Shakespeare and other classics as “Something everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.”
Countless textbooks refer to Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language, and possibly the greatest writer ever. Ralph Waldo Emerson once preached that Shakespeare was: “Inconceivably wise.” The god-like aura around Shakespeare has made him nearly impervious to criticism and English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic have claimed Shakespeare as their gospel. Being an English speaker means having the God-Shakespeare on your side, and if you have God on your side historically speaking, you can justify anything.
The British were keen to elevate Shakespeare to this godlike status partially because it showed that their culture was superior to others. Let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest is about a man with book learning who goes off and colonizes an island whose inhabitants seem savage and uneducated. If our goal as educators with adding anti racist education is to show that all voices are valid, to highlight the contributions of every ethnic group, and to refute the notion that white culture is in any way superior to any other, then to a certain degree, we must knock Shakespeare off his literary pedestal.
We also should not a take a blind eye to the anti-POC and mysoginist language in some of Shakespeare’s plays. For instance one line I deeply despise in Romeo and Juliet is the line where Romeo refers to Juliet by saying she “Hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear” (A black woman wearing an earring).
This statement contrast beauty, specifically the beauty of white skin, with the “ugliness” of a black woman’s ear. Shakespeare uses this metaphor several times in several plays, establishing white as beauty and black as the aberration.
I bring this up not to say that Shakespeare should be cancelled and hated because of this racially insensitive language, because he’s not the only one who does it. All you have to do is Google “Who’s the fairest one of all?” to realize that for centuries, fair skin, beautiful skin, and white skin meant the same thing. As Dr. Grady says in the video above, having an honest discussion of Shakespeare’s language and his culture’s attitude towards race is an opportunity to teach critical race theory in the classroom, and to teach students to recognize and deplore dehumanizing language, which though poetic to white Elizabethans, is hurtful and dehumanizing to people of color. In short, banning or condemning Shakespeare is counter productive, but examining his language, culture, and politics with a critical eye is a very useful and important exercise.
Part 2 why Shakespeare doesn’t deserve to be cancelled
I’ve established that Shakespeare has connections with some very dark moments in a European history and he should not be celebrated merely because of he was white or because he was British. I believe that Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language as well as drama and the arts still makes him worthy of study by students. As this video from the New York Times shows, students need at least a basic understanding of Shakespeare to understand western culture:
I believe that, as long as we educators don’t indulge our bardolotrous tendancies, and keep Shakespeare in the context of the period in which he lived, we can still teach him in a way that will benefit our students.
One small way to put Shakespeare in context is very simple: STOP USING THE TERM “RENAISSANCE.” Most scholars now refer to Shakespeare’s time period as the Early Modern Period, not The Renaissance, which was an honorific term that people used during Shakespeare’s time period. The term RENAISSANCE, meaning the rebirth of classical learning and by extention the rebirth of sophisticated European culture, can give the impression that it was only a period of study and artistic achievement, leaving out colonization and racial and political tension. I find Early Modern Period a very useful descriptor because like it or not, Shakespeare’s culture influenced ours, therefore an understanding of him is very much understanding of where we came from. Learning from Shakespeare is like learning from history- we cannot shy away from the mistakes of the past, nor should we flat out reject its benefits.
it should be noted that a lot of the good scholarship in the last to the last 50 or 60 years has been tasked with putting Shakespeare back into his historical context and trying to reclaim his staus as a man of his time. Dr. Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University helped coin the term ‘new historicism’ which emphasizes learning about the culture of a writer’s time period. To New Historicists (such as myself), Shakespeare is no longer considered a great man of history, but a man shaped by the culture of his time, which is to say a man who had good parts and bad parts much like history itself. This is the approach that I think should be taught in American schools highlighting how Elizabethan culture shaped Shakespeare, and how he shaped our culture in turn.
Comparing Shakespeare to history, especially American history, is very useful in American schools. Like the founding fathers Shakespeare reached towards an ideal. He wrote plays about ideal kingship, even though kingship is a cruel and autocratic system of government. He wrote romances about young lovers who follow the wonderful idea of love at first sight, even though in reality that concept is somewhat rare, and very often fraught with peril. And like Shakespeare, people often ignore the flaws and human failings of the founding fathers too. Look at this mural painting of The Apotheosis of Washington, which still looks down on mortals from the US capital building in Washington DC.
Much like the founding fathers’ document that declares that all men are created equal, we can appreciate Shakespeare’s plays but also be aware of their flaws. Both documents were written by a flawed human being with a very narrow understanding of the wider culture and world in which he lived, but one who did his best to try and write works that would benefit all of mankind. As educators we can teach students to be inspired by this work, and seek to have a greater understanding of “The Great Globe Itself,” with the benefit of hindsight, so they may become enlightened citizens of the world, true Renaissance Men, Women, themselves.
So if I truly believe, (and I do), that Shakespeare is still relevant and has something to say to people regardless of their culture or cultural and racial backgrounds regardless of what time period they were born in and regardless of gender, how then can we teach him in classrooms in responsible and nuanced way?
-Give students the chance to rewrite or reword the more problematic elements, such as Romeo’s creepy stalking of Juliet,
-Highlight Shakespeare calling attention to patriarchial issues: Capulet in Act III, v, Friar Lawrence comparing love to gunpowder. Juliet raging against arranged marriage, etc.
Celebrate Shakespeare’s positive contributions to race relations: Othello was the first black hero on the London stage and the role helped generations of black actors get their start in theatre. There’s your modern bardolotry, Shakespeare not as “Inconceivably wise,” Inconceivably woke! You can also look at the proud tradition of color blind casting in Shakespeare’s performance history, such as Orson Wells’ “Voodoo Macbeth.”
Do some research on modern productions that translate the themes into a modern concept.
To sum up- cancelling Shakespeare doesn’t mean vilifying him. It means re-examining his role in our culture, and teaching students to appreciate the benefits, and try to correct the damages that his culture has brought to our own. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. As for Shakespeare himself, no amount of legitimate criticism will keep people like me from enjoying his plays. If anything, I appreciate even more the breadth and depth of his writing the more I learn about the culture in which he lived. I like to think that, if Shakespeare knew people would be talking about him in school, he’d echo the way Othello said he wanted to be remembered, to “Speak of me as I am, Nothing extenuate.” And that we heed the words of Ben Johnson in the dedication to the First Folio, when we think of treating Shakespeare as an icon.
I’m stuck at home with the kids for Shakespeare’s Birthday, so I thought I’d come up with some fun activities for my kids to do today:
At home I have a card game called “The Bard Game, which has several famous Shakespeare quotes printed on little cards. I hid the cards around the house and when they found them, I had them recite a short quote. Sometimes I hid them in funny locations like the bath tub or the fridge.
2. Romeo and Juliet For Kids. There’s a bunch of animated Shakespeare videos on YouTube and my daughter really likes this one: https://youtu.be/mMFE0IIHR6I
3. William Shakespeare and the Globe by Aliki. A fantastic book that introduces Shakespeare’s life and plays.
What’s a birthday party without treats? I had my kids decorate these Romeo and Juliet cookies. My daughter is only 5, so it was good practice writing ✍ the letters R and J.
If you like my ideas or want to suggest something, please leave a comment below!
What’s the best Shakespeare edition to read? You may not know it, but all of Shakespeare’s plays are contained in just one little book that has been printed and re-printed for 400 years. Today you can find thousands of different versions of Shakespeare for your needs as a student, scholar, or just regular Shakespeare fan, and today I’m here to guide you through some of the most popular! Let’s take a look!
A Little Background:
During Shakespeare’s lifetime, he wrote his plays just for his company to perform. The scripts were distributed among the cast as little rolls of paper that had each actor’s part written on it (this is why an actor’s part is sometimes called his “role”). Sometimes the plays were published when the company wanted to make a little extra money, but they weren’t exactly best-sellers. After Shakespeare died, two actors from his company, John Hemmings and Henry Condell, decided to preserve Shakespeare’s work for all time, printing his plays in a beautiful book called Shakespeare’s First Folio in the year 1623. This book helped preserve 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, 17 of which were never printed before, and would have been lost forever if Hemmings and Condell hadn’t preserved them.
Today some purists say that the only way to read Shakespeare is by reading a facsimile of the First Folio, because it preserves Shakespeare’s original spelling, his stage directions, and the natural integrity of the verse form because of the way it’s printed on the page. To be honest, I see the merit in this, but only for actors and scholars who often need every clue in the text to inspire them to construct creative and inventive interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. However, for first time readers I recommend a modern edition, since the Folio has very few stage directions, and no standard spelling or punctuation, making it very hard to understand. Shakespeare is hard enough to read without love being spelled “loove” all the time.
Shakespeare in modern type by Neil Freeman. These editions are the kind i mentioned earlier, the ones for Shakespeare Fundamentalists. These are the people who believe Shakespeare left clues for performance in every line, every punctuation mark, and every change in verse. I don’t dispute this view, but I also can’t fully support it because it encourages actors and directors to become slaves to iambic and to never deviate from the rigid construction of Shakespeare’s verse, even if they have a creative reason not to. Even classical musicians must be allowed some form of improvisation. Actors should have the same liberty to interpret the text as they see fit. You can rent or purchase individual versions of the Freeman Folio texts, or purchase the full version of the First Folio in modern type. For sample pages, click here: https://books.google.com/books?.
The Norton Shakespeare- This version is a more academic version with great notes by the venerated Robert Greenblatt of Harvard University. It focuses on the world of Shakespeare with notes about Elizabethan society, history, poetry, and mythology. I would recommend it for college students and adult readers.
The Folger Shakespeare- Edited by the premiere Shakespeare scholarship institution in America: The Folger Shakespeare Libary, this version has very clear and simple explanations for what the characters are saying, and has lots of pictures and notes. This version is excellent for high schoolers and is one of the standards in most school districts. Click here to sample some of their work. Be sure to also check out the Folger’s website! http://www.folger.edu/
No-Fear Shakespeare- As I’ve said before, this edition is fundamentally flawed, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. It purports itself to be a “translation” of Shakespeare, when in fact it’s just a loose paraphrase. I don’t agree with most of the choices that the editors put in these editions, and I think it dumbs down Shakespeare too much. In addition, I reject the concept that the plays need a translation- they were written in English, and purporting that a student needs a translation of Shakespeare just makes him or her dependent on this edition and still assume that they cannot understand Shakespeare’s text. So once again, I don’t recommend this version, but if you’d like to check it out, here’s a link below: https://books.google.com/books?
The Sourcebook Shakespeare– This is my favorite version of Shakespeare to study. They are probably too expensive to use in a classroom, but they really are worth it for a Shakespeare appreciation class. Not only do they have tons of notes and a really reader-friendly layout, each edition also contains a CD with up to 30 scenes and speeches from Shakespearean productions dating back 100 years! These editions focus specifically on how directors and actors have taken the same plays and interpreted them in new and interesting ways. In my view, this combination of reading and listening is one of the purest ways to demonstrate Shakespeare’s versatility, and why we keep reading him today. The same company is also developing versions for iPad to make the experience even more interactive: http://www.sourcebooks.com/blog/
Filthy Shakespeare- To be honest, this version is really more of a dictionary of naughty topics Shakespeare explored about in his plays, and is really just for entertainment purposes, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. I should of course mention that this version is not for children since it has lots of adult language. Click here for a sample: https://books.google.com/books?id=E523EogqB84C
Thanks for reading this post. If you’d like to learn more about the issues of editing and adapting Shakespeare, check out The Struggle For Shakespeare’s Textby Gabriel Egan. Let me know how you liked this post! I’m also planning on creating a series of audio interpretations of Shakespeare. Stay tuned!