Some teachers give up teaching Shakespeare’s work while others enhance and modernize Shakespeare curricula.
Here’s one sentence that we couldn’t make without William Shakespeare.
Ask Shakespeare if Shakespeare’s time-honored works should be moved to include the multitude of other writers. You will experience hostile, fretful, quarrelsome or sanctimonious reactions.
Shakespeare was a brilliant wordsmith who created engaging works which spoke to the human condition and psychology. Shakespeare’s brilliant wordplay, creative language use, biting jokes, puns, innovative characters, and plots have amazed generations of readers. His legacy has been a lasting influence on literature and English. The English syllabus at high schools includes the Bard’s plays, sonnets, poems, and other works he wrote during his lifetime (1564-1616). Is that enough to guarantee his place in the curriculum forever?
Ben Jonson (Sharps’s contemporary) and fellow playwright claimed Shakespeare was “not of an era but for all time.” However, he was very much of the time. Shakespeare’s works are filled with outdated, problematic ideas. The question is: Is Shakespeare better or more relevant than all the other authors who have created masterful works about pain, love and history, comedy, and humanity over the past 400-odd year?
An increasing number of educators are asking the same questions about Shakespeare. The essential questions go beyond “To teach or NOT to teach.” Educators need to consider who is valued and what voices are silenced. What does your syllabus say about you and your students’ places in the world. These questions challenge educators who must teach, critiquing and question Shakespeare’s works, and offer alternatives to updating and enhancing curricula.
Brittany Greene teaches Romeo and Juliet ninth graders in Nazareth, PA Area High School. Recently, her approach has changed to this play. She shares that she was inspired to pay more attention to the violence in Romeo & Juliet after reading about Laura Bates (a prison teacher of Shakespeare) who inspired her. Greene pairs the play to Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down, a story about a teenager trying to decide how much retribution he will take after his brother’s death. She then asks her students what connections they can make between the main characters from both plays. She says students should “analyze the factors that affect Romeo (from Long Way Down) and discuss their effect on the characters’ behavior.”
Sarah Mulhern Gross (ninth and twelfth grades English teacher at High Technology High School, Lincroft, NJ) also teaches Romeo and Juliet. However, she says that she views it “through a lens of adolescent cognitive development with a side-by toxic masculinity analysis.”
Adriana Adame is an educator at a charter high school in Texas, which focuses on college-readiness and trauma-informed services. She says, “All our children have higher ACE (adverse childhood experiences) scores, and that is taken in consideration when teaching how and what we do.” Hamlet is a focus on trauma, coping mechanisms, and grief. Adame has brought in specialists to discuss “what to grieve and how to prevent from spiraling in stressful situations”, she says.
Elizabeth Neilson, a highschool English teacher at Twin Cities Academy, an independent charter school in St. Paul that is college-prep-focused, uses Coriolanus and Marxist theory to teach her students. Neilson explains that it is easier to let go of their prejudices and inherited views about class in modern times when they are able to read texts written centuries ago.
Another way to approach Shakespeare is by combining the source material alongside retellings of the plays that are innovative, modern and inclusive. Dahlia Addler, editor for the forthcoming YA anthology That Way Madness Loads: Fifteen Shakespeare’s Most Famous Works Reimagined (Flatiron), March 2021), believes these new approaches to classic stories are “more accessible” to a larger audience of readers who may not often be able to see themselves in the books that they read at school.
The anthology contains author Lily Anderson’s retelling and adaptation of As You Like It. It includes a plot line that centers on a summer camp set in the woods for adults. Anderson is fondly aware of the high number of references in Shakespeare’s works. Anderson says that every play contains a secret list of myths and histories. Shakespeare and his works will always be relevant. “We are also keeping alive a relationship to stories that go back to antiquity, as well as a chain cultural history from the present to the distant past.”
When looking for school Shakespeare workshops, make sure you visit Sky Blue Theatre.
Shakespeare is still widely taught. But, we must also consider how he became a mainstay in our canon. It is possible for Shakespeare to appear year after year on a syllabus. Teachers may not be able to select their curriculum using texts they have created at school and may not have enough money to make changes.
Ayanna THOMPSON, director at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and English Professor at Arizona State University, has deep roots in African American and postcolonial literature. Thompson states that Shakespeare’s plays have been a fixture in education because they were used as a tool to civilize Black and Brown peoples in England’s colonial empire. The British colonized India and created the first English literature curricula. Shakespeare’s plays were the core of this new curricula.
The meaning and definition of “universal”.
One assumption that colonialism helped make the Bard a household name is how it translates into his works being “universal.”
Jeffrey Austin (ELA department chair, Skyline High School Ann Arbor, MI) says “We must challenge the whiteness” of that statement. Teachers may also be able to look at modern voices for teaching themes not covered in canonical works if they wish to do so.
Another common concern is the possibility that students won’t be able study Shakespeare. Thompson however, questions this line. “At what disadvantage?” This question seems to be framed in an older colonial/imperial paradigm. “A real disadvantage is not being capable of understanding, reading, analyzing, and grappling with the cultural or politically charged contexts of any piece.
Claire Bruncke who was until this year a teacher at a small public school in Washington State taught language arts classes. However, she dropped Shakespeare off her syllabus. She says, “I asked my principal if there was an exact amount of Shakespeare I had to cover.” It didn’t matter that she was teaching the standards. She used the time she would have spent writing Shakespeare for writing labs as well as reading novels and anthologies not normally found in Shakespeare’s canon. Bruncke states that her decision was solidified by the positive reaction of her students to her work.
Cameron Campos, an English instructor at Foothills Composite High School Alberta, Canada has generally moved beyond teaching what is considered to be classic. Campos said that her grade 11- and 12-level English courses are almost entirely composed by Indigenous authors. However, there are some Canadian classic short stories and works by contemporary poets. Campos says Shakespeare is the only author that the curriculum demands we teach. However, because this year’s provincial exam could be cancelled or made more optional, Campos was allowed to skip Shakespeare to teach The Thanksgiving Play of Larissa FastHorse.
Liz Matthews, a ninth year English teacher at Hartford Public High School (CT), is also a Latinx school. The school is 95 percent Black.
She said that “I replaced Romeo and Juliet” with The House on Mango Street last year by Sandra Cisneros and Long Way Down this year by Jason Reynolds. “It is clear that the characters and authors in these two new[er] novels look and sound exactly like my students. They are able to make realistic connections. Representation is crucial.”
Defenders of Bard
It is clear that many are angry at the idea of replacing Shakespeare or removing Shakespeare from schools. Proponents of curriculum revisions argue that education should value innovation. Students can read any text to learn if the goal of language arts classes are to analyze literature critically, grow writers, increase literacy and meaningful engagement, and create lifelong readers.
Thompson states that “all pedagogy has to evolve to reflect different learning modes, and in turn, syllabuses should never be written with a set of rules.” He doesn’t believe that a syllabus must be altered in a binary, replacing Shakespeare by other authors. Thompson gives some suggestions on authors Thompson can recommend in order to enrich Shakespeare study. Toni Morrison, August Wilson and Djanet sears are just a few of the many authors Thompson suggests. Thompson says James Baldwin (Du Bois), James Baldwin, as well as many modern artists from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who wrote in response to Shakespeare.” Shakespeare can be approached, taught, or analyzed from rich global perspectives, Thompson says.
Lorena Gerena German, an Austin teacher and cofounderof DisruptTexts offered alternative suggestions in a Twitter chat. German wrote: “Trust us, your kids won’t be able to read Shakespeare if they don’t know how.” Dutchman by AmiriBaraka and Color Struck by Zora Neale Hurston are some of her suggestions. These are all plays with so many things to break down. They’re powerful and deep.
Austin says, “There is nothing that can be gained from Shakespeare which cannot be derived from studying the works of others.” “It’s not fair to assume that Shakespeare is the only genius in the world. There are many transcendent writers from other cultures that we don’t have in our curriculums or libraries.
Campos agrees. He said, “Surely no writer should be given such high regard in our curriculum.” “Asking why certain texts or authors are given such a high place in our curriculum is something teachers should be doing more of.”
Let the past serve as a guide.
Bruncke, a focus on student choice, has never been asked by a student why she stopped teaching Shakespeare. “I know that we have to do better in ELA class to move away from the narrative centering on white, cisgender and heterosexual men. Eliminating Shakespeare was something I could easily do to make this happen. And it was worth it for my students.”
Intentional, or not. Students get the message that older literature isn’t as important. Is there enough room in the canon for it to evolve and be updated, to add current and future classics.
Austin says, “I often see teachers sing the praises of Dear Martin by Nic stone, but in the exact same breath telling students that they should read it on their time, as if the book doesn’t deserve classroom space.” “My conferences with students from across the district revealed the same frustrations: They report that the books they want are ignored and discarded as uninteresting entertainment, while the books they don’t want to be read become the focus of their learning.
Austin talks about BIPOC educators and scholars who have long fought against the notion of the canon and pushed for more inclusive classrooms. “We’ve been given strategies, tools and frameworks, but nobody can give us the belief and commitment that we need. He said that this is our responsibility. “It’s hard work. We’re challenging deeply ingrained beliefs regarding what and whose knowledge are essential. It takes constant effort and dedication to make our spaces more equity-driven as well as identity-affirming.
Reexamining the canon is a great way to remember that literature is all ours. Richer conversations can emerge from new additions. There might be deeper personal engagement with texts and connections. Teachers must also confront their nostalgia for and beliefs in established works. Students’ lives, voices, experiences and abilities will be affirmed if they embrace the diversity of literature. A growing number educators agree that the past should not be a guide as we look to the future of teaching literature.