On Wednesday nights, I meet a man I’ll call George at a public library to tutor him in reading and writing. George is a cab driver, but is taking a high school equivalency program in order to eventually take a course in a trade, and get a better job. He is incredibly motivated, and sees improving his reading and writing with me as one rung of a long ladder. Consequently, the work we do relates directly to his high school equivalency program, which means we’ve tackled a Steinbeck, differentiated some metaphors from some similes, and run smack into Shakespeare.
Dream: Remove Shakespeare from the high school curriculum.
Goal: Unachievable. There is no argument I could possibly make that would sway any school board to remove Shakespeare from their high school classrooms. My mother is an English teacher, and she would surely put spider eggs in my Christmas stocking if she knew I held this opinion. My drama teachers would have expressive and highly-physical heart attacks (ideally before an audience) if they read this missive. A bunch of old white actors like Ian McKellen, John Lithgow, and Brian Dennehey would wail and keen and get Tony’s for it. But I will not be swayed.
Here’s the thing about Shakespeare as it relates both to young teenagers, and adults like George with reading comprehension skills that need the occasional boost: it’s too difficult. The language is dense, the length interminable, the story a foregone conclusion. Everyone knows Romeo & Juliet die in the end, as much is stated in the prologue of the play! But to me, forcing Shakespeare on readers at that level is like making students copy pages out of the dictionary as punishment. Useful as it may be, brilliant though Shakespeare’s work undeniably is, students learn to loathe it. Shakespeare is exercise, vegetables, and church. To a young reader, the only reward of Shakespeare is just getting through the damn thing.
“But you need vegetables!” I hear you objecting, comfortably ensconced in your adult intellect and perspective. “Shakespeare is so important! His work is the foundation of modern literature and drama! He is unparalleled!” I agree. He knows his stuff. No slouch, that Bill. Real class act. But try feeding a T-bone steak to a four year old and see how impressed she is. Suggest to a 22 year old that they ought to put half their paycheque towards retirement. Give a homeless person a gift certificate for granite countertops. They can’t appreciate these things, not yet!
George and I have taken several approaches to the Shakespeare play that will make up at least half of his school term. We try reading summaries before going into the actual text. We’ve watched film adaptations. We learned the choreography to West Side Story (not really). Eventually, we parse line by line and, motivated though we both are, we end each session frustrated and exhausted. I try to remain as driven and upbeat as the man I’m working with, but he sees through my attempts at cheeriness. “You are so tired,” he says to me. “You must go home, get a lot of rest.” This from a man who drives cab all night to go to school all day in an effort to make a better life for his family. But that’s Shakespeare, man! That’s the utter slog through. We will get through one speech, and then another, but by then, we will have lost our train from the first speech. An act doesn’t hold together, even with helpful prodding like, “But remember when Benvolio said…”, or, “Why do you think Friar Laurence agreed to…” When something is foreshadowed, it’s just another cog in an increasingly complicated machine. It’s like putting together a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle, and the picture turns out to be frustrated man putting a puzzle together.
Plan: Replace Shakespeare with other stuff.
It’s not that I don’t think we should revere Shakespeare, it’s quite the opposite. But I wonder if we shouldn’t treat his works the same way many of us treat the Bible. We know it’s there, we know it is the basis of many faiths, we also know Biblical allusions are found throughout literature. In the same way, we know Shakespeare’s the guy upon whom a great deal of modern work is based. Other than the Greeks, he kinda laid out the template for how we tell stories. But people derive meaning from the Bible in a rather piecemeal way. This verse of that Book, or Dave’s letter to Shawn or whatever. Likewise, why don’t we tell kids that Shakespeare’s the big cheese, and treat the cannon like it’s something to be culled from, rather than pounded into young brains?
Can’t we throw some more diverse literature at kids as a general rule? How many prizes does Joseph Boyden have to win before teenagers read his fantastic work? Does he have to be white and dead? What about Esi Edugyen? I tore through Half Blood Blues, I couldn’t read it fast enough! For that matter, why not give teenagers Gone Girl? Yes, it’s popular, but it’s not 50 Shades of Grey; it’s well-written and engrossing! Why does a good, enjoyable read and an assignment in an English class so often feel so different? In terms of plays, why start at Shakespeare and end with Our Town? Make them read Thomson Highway or Joanne McLeod. For that matter, get them scripts from TV shows or movies and show them what makes a smart sitcom script or gripping drama. Can you imagine how thrilled a classroom of teenagers would be to go through a classic Simpsons episode to try to figure out what makes it so well-written? What techniques are employed, what is the rhythm of the humour? Speaking of humour, what’s so damn funny about Shakespeare’s “Comedies”? At live performances I’ve been to, some people chuckle when the fool character gets up to his antics, and I want to throw my bug spray into their faces. “That’s not funny!” I want to yell at the chucklers. “You’ve just be told it’s supposed to be!” I don’t mean to be like a drunk at a comedy club, but where’s the part where I start laughin’?
I’m not suggesting we ignore Billy S. entirely. I’m just saying I don’t know any adults who tuck into a Shakespeare play when they’re looking to unwind. Shakespeare is always an assignment, always an undertaking. And it’s not as if, by taking it out of a few grade levels, we are depriving the world of the contribution Shakespeare has made. Shakespeare will always be the standard, whether or not 15 year olds scratch their heads over Hamlet for yet another year.
Even as I make this argument, I see the holes in it. We have to challenge students to get them to learn, and what’s a bigger challenge than Shakespeare? Who can say that by eliminating Shakespeare in high school, we won’t eventually eliminate him from colleges and outdoor festivals? Maybe no exposure to Shakespeare as a young person means that, when you encounter him later, you’re just as confused. I don’t know what the answer is.
What I do know is that reading isn’t fun for the guy I read with every week. Shakespeare is a unit to be suffered through, a test to be passed, then tossed aside and never looked at again. As we go back over and over the same speeches, desperate to not only derive meaning, but retain all the information for test time, I can’t help but think this isn’t how Shakespeare himself would have wanted his work enjoyed. I close with the man himself:
If we shadows have offended,Think but this, and all is mended—
High school years are troubling times
With so much heaped on fertile minds
Take from this text what you will
Sorry it’s boring