While some teachers abandon Shakespeare, others improve and update Shakespeare curricula.
Here’s an example of a sentence without William Shakespeare. He was the one who invented or introduced these words.
Ask Shakespeare if his timeless works and syllabus fixtures should not be pushed aside to accommodate the manytudinous other writers, and you’ll get hostile, fretful or sanctimonious responses.
Shakespeare was a master wordsmith and created captivating works that dealt with the human condition, psychology, as well as identity. Shakespeare’s creative wordplay, clever use of language and biting wit, puns and original characters and plots have made a lasting impression on literature and English language. The mainstays of high school English curriculum are the Bard’s sonnets, plays, and poems from his lifetime (1564-1616). All that should guarantee him a permanent place in the curriculum?
Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and fellow playwright said that Shakespeare was “not an age but for every time”. But he was very much his time. Shakespeare’s works have many problematic and outdated ideas. There is plenty of misogyny. It begs the question, “Is Shakespeare more important or relevant than other authors who have written about anguishes, love, history and comedy over the past 400 years?”
Many educators are now asking these questions about Shakespeare and other pillars of Shakespeare’s canon. Then they conclude that Shakespeare should be deemphasized or put aside to make room to include diverse and inclusive voices. But educators must consider more than just “To teach or not teach.” They need to ask which stories are most valued and which voices should be silenced. What does a syllabus reveal about your students? These are the questions educators face when trying to answer these questions.
Plays that are no longer in production.
Brittany Greene is a teacher of Romeo and Juliet for ninth graders at Nazareth Area High School (PA). Her approach to this particular play has changed in recent years. “I was inspired by the story of Laura Bates, a woman who taught Shakespeare in prison to her students. I decided to concentrate more on the violence in Romeo and Juliet,” she said. Greene pairs the play and Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down (about a teenager who decides how to retaliate after his brother is killed). She asks her students to make connections between both plays. She states that the students will “analyze and discuss the effects of external factors on Romeo and Will [from Long Way Down] as well as the consequences of those external motivators on their behavior.”
Sarah Mulhern Gross, a ninth and twelve-grade English teacher at High Technology High School Lincroft (NJ), also teaches Romeo and Juliet “through the lense adolescent neurodevelopment with a side by toxic masculinity analysis,” she explains.
Adriana Adame teaches in a charter school that is focused on college readiness, trauma-informed care and college readiness in Texas. She states that “all of our children have higher ACE [adverse Childhood Experiences] scores, which is taken into account when we teach how and what to teach.” Hamlet focuses on the trauma as well as coping strategies and grief. Adame invites experts to speak to her on “how to handle grief and how to avoid spiraling into stressful situations.”
Elizabeth Neilson, high school English teacher at Twin Cities Academy (a charter school that focuses on college prep in St. Paul), MN, uses Coriolanus for Marxist theory. Neilson says, “When they read an ancient text [that] deals with events and people from even more distant times, it is easier for their analysis to be separated from their biases.
One way to approach Shakespeare is to pair the source material and retellings that provide creative, modern, inclusive twists. Dahlia, the editor of the forthcoming YA book That Way Madness Lyes: Fifteen Shakespeare’s Most Significant Works Reimagined, Flatiron, March 2021, believes that these new interpretations of classic stories will be more accessible to a greater number of readers who don’t often get to read the books for school.
Anthology features author Lily Anderson’s retellings of As You Like It. The plot involves an adult summer camp in the woods. Anderson enjoys the reference-heavy nature of Shakespeare’s works. She says, “Each play contains an secret reading list with myths, histories and parables. And other plays.” Shakespeare and his works are relevant because “we keep alive a link to stories going back into antiquity, a chain culture from the distant past, and we do this by keeping Shakespeare and his works relevant.”
Shakespeare’s works are still taught widely, but it is worth considering how they came to be such a common teaching tool. Teachers may not have the freedom to create their own curriculum or use texts from their schools, but Shakespeare may still be included on a syllabus every year.
Ayanna Thomson, director of Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and English professor at Arizona State University is a Shakespeare scholar who has deep roots in African American and postcolonial literature. Thompson said that Shakespeare was a tool to “civilize” Black and Brown people in England’s Empire. In the colonizing effort of the British to establish imperial India, the first English literature curricula was created. Shakespeare’s plays played a central role in that new curriculum.
The meaning of the word “universal”
The colonialism made the Bard a fixture. Another assumption to be aware of is what it means for people to say that his works or any other are “universal”.
Jeffrey Austin, ELA department head at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor (MI), says that “we need to challenge [that] statement: The notion that the dominant values must be ‘universal’ or should be ‘universal” is dangerous. Teachers who wish to teach the themes covered in canonical works can also turn to modern voices, which speak from a variety of perspectives that go beyond dominant identities and values.
Another concern is that students will not be able to study Shakespeare. Thompson however questions this line. “At a disadvantage to what?” The question’s premise seems to be based on an older colonial/imperial model. “A true disadvantage is not being able to read, understand and analyze any piece literature in its political or cultural contexts,” she states.
Claire Bruncke, who taught language arts classes in a small, rural public high school in Washington State until this year, has dropped Shakespeare from the syllabus. She said that she had asked her principal about the requirements for how much Shakespeare needed to be covered. It didn’t really matter as long she was teaching the standards. She used the time they would normally have spent on Shakespeare to teach writing labs, read anthologies, and read novels that weren’t in the canon. Bruncke said that the students’ [positive] reaction to this work confirmed my decision.
Cameron Campos, an English teacher in Foothills Composite High School (Alberta, Canada), has generally moved away form teaching what’s considered to be classic. Campos states that the grade 11 and 12-level courses used texts almost entirely by Indigenous authors, with the exception of a few Canadian classic short stories. Campos stated that Shakespeare is the only author required to be taught by the curriculum. But, since this year’s provincial exam was unlikely to be cancelled, Campos was free to teach The Thanksgiving Play, Larissa FastHorse.
Liz Matthews is a ninth-grade English teacher at Hartford Public High School in Connecticut (CT), which is 95 percent Black, Latinx and Latinx. She also chose to teach Shakespeare.
“I replaced Romeo and Juliet last year with The House on Mango Street (by Sandra Cisneros) and Long Way Down (by Jason Reynolds this year,” she said. “It’s easy to say that the characters and authors of these new books look and sound just like my students and can make realistic connections. Representation is key.”
Defenders for the Bard
Many are outraged by the question of replacing Shakespeare in schools. A quick search on the Internet reveals this. Proponents say that curriculum changes shouldn’t be controversial if education is committed to innovation. Language arts classes can be used to help students learn how to read any text.
Thompson believes that all pedagogy should evolve to reflect diverse learning styles. Therefore, syllabi shouldn’t ever be written in stone. Thompson also doesn’t believe that a syllabus can be modified in a binary manner by substituting Shakespeare for other authors. Thompson has some suggestions for authors that could be added to Shakespeare study. Toni Morrison (August Wilson), Amiri Baraka Djanet Seers, Gayl Johnson, W.E.B. Thompson says James Baldwin, Du Bois, James Baldwin and countless other artists from Africa and Asia have written about Shakespeare.” Shakespeare can be approached from rich global perspectives.
Lorena Germany, an Austin, TX educator and cofounder at DisruptTexts, offered alternatives during a #DisruptTexts tweet chat. German wrote that “Trust Me, your children will be fine if [Shakespeare] is not read.” Dutchman by AmiriBaraka, Color Struck and When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Zora Nale Hurston were suggested by German. “These are all plays, and they have so much to breakdown. They are powerful and deep.”
Austin says that Shakespeare can’t be understood if you don’t explore the works of other authors. “It is worth challenging the idea that Shakespeare is an isolated genius. However, every culture has transcendent authors that are not included in our curriculum and classroom libraries.
Campos agrees. Campos agrees. “Surely no author shouldn’t be given such a high position in our curriculum,” he said. “Educators need to start asking themselves why we give certain texts and authors special treatment.
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Let the past be our prologue
Bruncke, who focuses primarily on student choice has never had one student ask her why she stopped teaching Shakespeare. “It is clear that we must be better at ELA. I knew it was impossible to stop focusing on the narratives of heterosexual white men. Eliminating Shakespeare was one step I could easily make to help us get there. My students appreciated it.
The reliance on older works, intentional or not, sends the message that modern literature doesn’t merit the same respect. Do we allow the canon to grow and change? Are we allowing future classics to be added to it?
Austin states that Austin often sees teachers extolling Dear Martin by Nicstone’s book, while at the same time telling students to read it independently, as though it didn’t merit classroom space. “In my conferences, I have heard the same complaints from students from different districts: Books they do not want to read are placed on the sidelines as entertainment while books they do want to read are the mainstays of their learning.
Austin then talks about BIPOC’s many scholars and teachers, who have been fighting against the very idea that the canon is being created and pushing for more inclusive schools. “We have the tools, strategies and frameworks. But no one can give our belief, commitment, or wherewithal. “That’s up to us,” he said. “It is hard work because we are challenging deeply ingrained beliefs about who and what knowledge is important. Constant effort is required to make spaces more equity-driven, identity-affirming, and equitable.
It is possible to see the canon as a way to remind ourselves that literature belongs all of us. There may be richer conversations with new additions. The educator must be aware of their own nostalgia and beliefs regarding the works. To affirm the lives and voices of students, educators are increasingly saying that embracing diversity in literature will help them to embrace their own pasts.
While some teachers abandon Shakespeare, others improve and update Shakespeare curricula.