“To be or not to be?” plagues high schools as we decide if students should continue a Shakespeare education, or if we should move on to something more contemporary.
by Nethra Narasimhan
From eighth grade to senior year, many students are required to read Shakespeare. Whether it be Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, a portion of the curriculum relies on Old English written by one of the most famous authors of all time. However, increasingly, arguments and debates as to the relevance of these plays and poems are finding their way into the classroom.
Some teachers and parents believe that Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught, or should be banned, because of the old and discriminating language used throughout stories. But some teachers find the high-level analysis required in the readings not only provides deep thinking but the unique character tropes keep the material engaging for students.
Because of these contrasting perspectives, a solution or compromise may be impossible to find. This is where our trilemma lies: should students continue to read the difficult and deep Shakespeare plays, or should schools revert to more contemporary reads in the American canon?
When stories, characters, and themes are mundane, teenagers find it extremely difficult to engage in the material teachers assign. But the antihero Othello and protagonist Hamlet completely change some perspectives on how literature students view literature while still maintaining an attentive conversation about the reading. Consequently, students can make relatable connections between the olden and modern days.
Shakespeare maintains high reading comprehension and quality analyzing skills because of the eclectic language used in the plays. The ability to pick up on descriptive and dense language that Shakespeare uses can bring confidence and change a poor writer’s style. Similes, metaphors, and countless imagery provide a more complex experience in regular, honors, and AP classes. Contrasting images of light and dark and the fine line between love and hate, that Shakespeare describes can be found in many contemporary novels as well, invalidating the argument that Shakespeare is irrelevant.
Moreover, many common words used today were coined by Shakespeare, including “savage,” “unhelpful,” and “numb.” Similarly, the author created many more tropes that are used in today’s stories, the most well-known being “star-crossed lovers,” which recurs in the extremely famous novels and movies The Fault in Our Stars and A Walk to Remember.
Many parents and teachers want to add more Shakespeare plays and poems throughout high school because students not only enjoy it but also learn the most in the process of having fun.
Words on the script cannot solely decide videography, costume design, set, lighting, and more important factors of a film. Therefore, the director's choice plays a significant role in movies, T.V shows, documentaries, and other motion pictures. Similarly, plays cannot be interpreted based on script and stage directions on paper, because the tone of voice, body language, sound effects can completely change a student’s understanding of “to be or not to be?” So, reading these works is tedious and unnecessary in comparison to watching the poetry in motion. Similar to how meaning can be lost in translation from Spanish to English, certain lines disappear when reading in one’s head. Alternatively, teachers sparsely use movie versions, and some scenes don't deliver the intended meaning.
A similar problem is the complex and confusing language used in the plays and poems. When reading the plays for assignments, many students have to use Sparknotes, a website designed to summarize novels and literary novels, or No Fear Shakespeare, a modern-day English version of the play. Once again, students misunderstand Shakespeare’s intended message, which leads to passes of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination being excused because of the “old” language.
The most prominent solution to these problems is completely removing Shakespeare’s content from the curriculum of Literature and English classes in schools.
Sometimes, teachers have allowed students to conduct a project on whether or not Shakespeare should be taught in school (what are the pros and cons of reading this content). Subsequently, this can help students understand the importance or lack of importance of reading this content, allowing students to take charge of their learning.
Another solution allows students to read deliberately chosen sections of Shakespeare’s writing that outline excellent writing, plot, character, or theme description. Not only does this allow students to read relatable content while maintaining a high reading comprehension, but it also doesn’t barrage students with homework and busywork. And there is no loss of meaning and importance because of a lack of theatrical performance and highlights the writing worth being reviewed and understood.
A final solution incorporates student theatrical performance into the literature class by allowing willing students to perform parts of the play with their peers. A live-action of the work enables students to understand the content while still reading the whole piece.
Even though many parents and teachers disagree and dispute the merits and issues with Shakespeare and Old-English, the topic has gained increasing awareness over the last few years, so that students understand and can take charge of their own education.