Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Shakespeare in high schools

I have an issue with Shakespeare.

It all goes back to my high school education. I remember years of Shakespearean learning units where we stared at blueprints of the Globe Theatre and read Romeo and Juliet aloud in class. I remember being forced to write mediocre sonnets and write essays on soliloquies that I only half understood. Most of all, I remember my teachers would consistently telling my class one thing, "Shakespeare is the one of the greatest writers of all time."

And that's where my issue comes in, because that's where my high school education cut off. There was no actual explanation of why Shakespeare is considered so highly. We spent so much time studying the plot of the plays, that we completely glossed over any sort of deeper meaning.

Some would argue that it's not necessary for high school students to get into the whys of Shakespeare. After all, the only reason that Shakespeare is taught in grade school is to expose young people to as much classic literature as possible. Why go into detail when many people will never use it past high school?

Personally, I think going into detail would help students actually enjoy studying Shakespeare. And I'm talking from personal experience as a kid who used to detest Shakespeare. When you start analyzing what King Lear has to say about humanity, it becomes a lot more interesting than the simple interpretation of a kingdom full of crazy people and traitorous kids.

Shakespearean plays did one great thing for literature: they caught the essence of humanity in a time period where people didn't want to explore what it meant to be human. They are some of the first works of thought provoking literature.

Just look at a handful of Shakespeare's great plays: Hamlet is all about indecision and the consequences of ones actions. The Tempest questions what it is to be human and what it means to grow older. Falstaff from the Henry IV Parts One and Two is considered one of the greatest Shakespearean characters because his attitude is so mercurial. It doesn't matter whether the play is a tragedy, a comedy, or a history--so many of them are deeper than they first appear.

Teens can understand these kinds of things. Teens know what it's like to be in love and to be betrayed. Teens are just starting to discover who they are and Shakespearean plays speak to all of those raw and real emotions.

Now I went to a public high school, so maybe I didn't experience the pinnacle of modern grade school education. Maybe some schools do a better job teaching the Shakespearean plays. Maybe it's just a lost cause and we should keep looking towards college degrees to educate us on Shakespeare. Either way, I want to know what you think.

Should high schools develop better teaching methods when it comes to Shakespeare? Or am I just being super idealistic? How was your education of Shakespeare? Was it good or bad? Tell me your thoughts in the comments.


Rachel Fewell said...

Mine was mediocre and I took Advanced Placement English for 3 years of high school. I think it largely depends on the teacher, because the one year we did delve into that kind of thing for the play A Midsummer Night's Dream, forever my favorite because of that. But two other teachers were too lazy or whatever to make the effort. But yes, Shakespeare should always be taught like you say, it makes much more sense. Heck, all literature should be taught so that the kids can relate to it.

Jessie said...

Definitely depends on the teacher. I always liked it when teachers encouraged us to come up with our own ideas and interpretations. I hated studying Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, because the teacher kept telling us it was this great love story, and my interpretation was completely different. After all, Romeo is fickle and Juliet would have been better off with Paris, and by the way, them killing themselves? That's just stupid.

Most of my other English teachers were a lot better, and I think I truly started to love Shakespeare while studying Hamlet in AP English. Since then I've read 20 more of his plays and have loved them all with the singular exception of Titus Andronicus, which I hate with a passion.

I'm lucky enough to live close to London so I've been to the Globe to see shows a couple of times. I've also been up to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited Shakespeare's home. Actually standing in the room where he was born was amazing :)

Austin Wulf said...

I hated Shakespeare in high school. I mean, I got it and all, it was just boring. I think they should teach kids all the cool shit in Shakespeare, like "country matters" and other innuendo. That would've kept me more into it at the time. But, oh wait, we live in a Puritanical society.

Brenna Braaten said...

I agree with your assessment and I too did not get enough out of my high school coverage of Shakespeare. However, I do believe it was helpful in some ways. Yes, going over the plot isn't that exciting when you're just glossing over the deeper meaning embedded in his words. However, I do believe that having that background of understanding that way made it easier for me to understand him in college. I think high school students, to really get deeply into Shakespeare, could only learn maybe one or two plays per semester to really get them. The other question is, college students take a Shakespeare class because they are interested in the field (ie - English. Generally.). How would you deal with those high school students who aren't motivated and don't care? I almost think it would be a waste of time if you were to get into it further.

Sarah Robertson said...

Yeah, I was took AP classes too. While they were a lot better than the normal English classes, I can't say they were anywhere near perfect. However, during my senior year we spent three on Hamlet, which is probably the closest I ever got to the perfect English class in high school. :)

Sarah Robertson said...

I was never a big fan of Romeo and Juliet either. It's definitely Shakespeare's most glorified play, which probably doesn't help.

I started liking Shakespeare with Hamlet too! It'll always hold a special place in my heart. :3 And you know, I've never read Titus Andronicus, but I'm starting to think it's the #1 disliked Shakespearean play.

That would be amazing to go see shows in the Globe and visit Stratford-upon-Avon. Ahhh, I'm so jealous!

Sarah Robertson said...

Ahh, so very true and so very unfortunate. Shakespeare's innuendos are kind of hilarious when you're looking for them, and teens would definitely find such easter eggs interesting. :)

Sarah Robertson said...

I'm curious as to how many Shakespearean plays you covered in high school, because I consistently did one a year. If we did more than one, it was in the form of selections. Despite this, I only had one teacher who delved deep into the source material.

Also, how do you feel about students in English classes spending extended periods of time learning about the Globe Theater? I remember taking tests about the elements of the stage, and I can't say that it helped me in any way.

I do agree that some students wouldn't care about Shakespeare no matter what you do. However, catering to them instead of students who don't yet realize that they're interested in learning more, creates a poor model of education. That's how standardized testing gets put into use and how teachers lose their faith in students. Teens are smart and if every teacher would treat them that way, there would be benefits.

Jackie said...

I've appreciated Shakespeare since high school, but I did always wish someone would explain the "whys" to me. One teacher attempted to, but he couldn't move beyond how over-glorified R+J was.

Even in college, professors didn't explain the "whys" which is especially disappointing! We mostly examined plot and symbols just like we did in high school. Or, maybe my teacher did discuss the "whys" but I had zoned out at that moment. I had a Shakespeare seminar for three hours, and the professor was a stutterer. It was a rough three hours...

Sarah Robertson said...

My college Shakespeare class was hardcore. Luckily it wasn't a three hour class (I don't think I could have handled that), but it totally should have been listed under english AND psychology. My professor was pretty awesome though. :)

Post a Comment