To Read Shakespeare or Not to Read Shakespeare—That Is the Question I Am Not Sure We Can Answer

Do you remember reading your first Shakespeare play? For many of us (and our students), the first of the Bard’s words were, “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.” I don’t know about you, but those opening words of Romeo and Juliet’s prologue conjure a lot of memories of my own experience as a student and as a teacher reading them to my classes. 

I don’t remember questioning, as a ninth-grader, why I was reading Shakespeare—English was always my favorite class, so I almost never questioned why we learned what we did—but my students often did. Why do we have to read this? I was never sure how to answer them. 

Below are a few ways that I tried to explain the American adoration of Shakespeare:

  • The Literary Value Way: Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers of all time. Not only is he known for his beautiful language, but he is credited with the creation of many now-common sayings, such as “It’s Greek to me,” “green-eyed jealousy,” “tongue-tied,” and “in a pickle.” Shakespeare is also known for the universality of his characters and themes. His characters are complex, believable, and often tragically human. Additionally, they appeal to people of all ages, races, and ethnicities. The same can be said for the themes of his plays. They are relatable and understood across all demographics.
  • The Collective Cultural Experience Way: Almost every high schooler studies Shakespeare before they graduate. Because of this, we as an American society have a common reading experience that can be tapped into. For example, try typing “star crossed Bradley Cooper Lady Gaga” into your search bar. Thousands of articles will appear and, because we as a collective society have read Romeo and Juliet, we understand what is being implied here.
  • The “It Is Tradition!” Way: Shakespeare is taught in classrooms today because it has always been taught. There isn’t a Common Core standard that requires students to read a Shakespearean play or sonnet, nor does Shakespeare appear on college admissions exams. However, Shakespeare does appear on school board-approved curriculums across the country and has for decades. Reading Shakespeare is just part of our academic tradition in America.

How do you explain to your students why we still read Shakespeare? 
Email us at ela@teachersdiscovery.com with your explanation or leave a comment below!


Middle School Shakespeare Classroom

Click the picture below to shop all essential Shakespeare resources.


10 Quirky Facts (or What You May Not Know) About the Bard of Avalon

1. His birth and death were both on the same day—April 23.

2. Sources during the span of his lifetime recorded more than 80 different ways of spelling his last name. Shakespeare even spelled his name inconsistently as well: “Willm Shakspere,” “William Shakspeare,” “Wm Shakspe,” and “Willm Shaksp.” The way we spell it now was never used in his lifetime.  

3. Shakespeare wore a gold hoop in his left ear, fitting for the bohemian look of his era (Elizabethan and Jacobean), as evidenced by some 17th-century portraits.  

4. Donald L. Holmes discovered that if you rearrange the letters in Shakespeare’s name, they form the sentence “I am a weakish speller.” Shakespeare wrote in a time where there was not a standard dictionary, and he wasn’t too worried about spelling.

5. The longest word in Shakespeare is honorificabilitudinitatibus, a Latin word from his play Love’s Labour’s Lost. According to the Collins English Dictionary definition, it means “invincible glorious honorableness.”

6. There are no records of Shakespeare between 1585 and 1592. Historians believe he traveled across Europe, became a teacher, studied law, or joined an acting troupe. No one knows for sure.

7.Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing have been translated into Klingon. And the Institute—yes, there is a Klingon Language Institute—intends to translate more of his works.

8. His epitaph on his gravestone might have warded off grave robbers: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare, / To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” What’s interesting is that his body has remained untouched, so it was certainly effective!

9. The Globe Theatre burned to the ground on June 29, 1613, after a cannon shot on set landed on a thatched roof during Henry VIII. It was rebuilt the next year. 

10. Shakespeare is the second most popular source of quotes, with the Bible being first. As stated in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, his quotes compose about a tenth of all quoted lines spoken or written in English.

“Seen better days” – As You Like It

“Wild goose chase” – Romeo and Juliet

“Off with his head” – Richard III

“Good riddance” – Troilus and Cressida

“It’s Greek to me” – Julius Caesar

“Break the ice” – The Taming of the Shrew


Fun Accessories for the Literature Lover!

Shakespeare Notepad: 5 x 8 inches. 100 pages. 10 quotes.

Shakespeare Stickers: 5 sheets of 20 full-color stickers. 1.25 x 1.25 inches. 


Writers and Curators of the Teacher’s Discovery ELA Digest:

Heather Bauer, former building principal, reading specialist, and classroom teacher

Sarah Smith, former world language and ESL teacher

Elizabeth M. Zupan, curriculum writer and former ELA teacher


 

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2 comments

  1. I teach Shakespeare because one day my students will have to read even more challenging and more difficult texts than the Bard’s plays, but they will use those skills to understand their voter’s pamphlet, tax documents or other less engaging legal documents. I tell them that they will miss Shakespeare at least once a year in their adult life after studying Shakespeare, and they will be prepared readers with the skills to unpack meaning for themselves. Also, around the world, Shakespeare is still cultural capital that students can “spend” when they connect with other people and ideas. Just the other day, Shakespeare was quoted in Turkish, in a Turkish TV show! At the very least, Shakespeare connects the English speaking world to each other.

  2. We teach Shakespeare in American because William Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant, widely-acclaimed writers of all time. We teach Shakespeare because there are so many other authors who use phrases and reference situations that first originated in the works of William Shakespeare. The irony, play on words, metaphor, symbolism, and masterful use of all forms of figurative language are best displayed in the works of Shakespeare. His stories touch every class, every walk of life, and are as poignant and relevant today as they were in his time. We must continue to read William Shakespeare as a reference point for all other literary works of art.

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