To be or not to be-the great Shakespeare debate

I am about to start teaching Hamlet for the last time in my career. I estimate that I have probably taught it about 50 times and although I feel some sentimentality about the whole process, I am not going to miss it. Like all teachers who become really familiar with a topic, I feel that I teach it well.  But I wonder about that and I wonder about the issue of teaching Shakespeare at all.  I can hear the chorus of English teachers gasping at my sacrilege but I am not alone in raising these questions.  The debate has been on-going for a long time and those who recognize that our elite students make up a small majority of the teaching populace have to question whether there is as much merit in teaching Shakespeare as people used to think.

The positive arguments are: the themes are universal; the language is beautiful poetry; it is a huge part of our cultural heritage; it is difficult to read and therefore an opportunity for growth.  The negatives are: the universal themes can be found in thousands of texts; it is like teaching a foreign language even though it is modern English; it is mostly poetry; we have to spend weeks going through a play because students cannot or will not read it on their own.  The one positive that I cannot dispute is the cultural heritage but I’m sure that some people would question the views of a 16th century white man.  There is no doubt that teachers can make it seem relevant- the ideas and activities you can do are endless but I do question those grade 3 teachers who want to show how much the kids enjoy it.  The point is should we have to make it relevant when there so many things of value that are relevant already?  I wonder what the average student thinks 10 years later about how much they gleaned from the process and whether all our efforts were essentially futile.

As a department head in my school, I have been able to set the texts that we use and, although I have modernized our novels and created media units, I have retained Shakespeare in our academic courses.  I have done so out of a sense of tradition and for all the positives that I have listed but I question our adherence to it.  I want my students to become life-long readers; I want them to develop critical thinking skills that will help them in university and in life.  I have to ask if spending 5-6 weeks on Hamlet is actually accomplishing this or is it, in fact, having an opposite effect.

In my next post, I will pass on some of the activities I have used and what I have learned is the best method of approaching the Bard.

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3 Responses to To be or not to be-the great Shakespeare debate

  1. Audrey says:

    I feel as though so many students are intimidated by the language of Shakespeare, and like you said, they refuse to read independently. The themes are universal and the possibilities are endless. However, depending on the grade level of the students, and their interest level, it may be more effective or a better use of time to teach a series of his sonnets or shorter works. I have found that many high school English teachers are opting to teach Dramas such as The Glass Menagerie or Death of a Salesman, and are saving Shakespeare for poetry lessons.
    5-6 weeks is a long time to focus on one lesson. However, if you have taught the play this many times, then you must be doing something right. I would base my decision on whether or not to teach on the reaction of previous students.
    Good Luck!

  2. Sophie says:

    I’m a student about to go into ninth grade. I’ve been reading some of the articles on this site, but I don’t agree with most of them. I’ve had to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, and Romeo and Juliet this past year in English 1 Honors, and I’ve loved all of them. I’ve been amazed at the writing and themes in each. TKAM is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and LOTF is up there, too. I also think Romeo and Juliet is, if not the best, one of the best plays ever written. It’s not just me. I’ve heard a lot of people, even some that don’t read often, say TKAM is their new favorite book. Even the boys are engaged. They especially like that Romeo and Juliet has a higher death count than LOTF. I’ve also read some Dickens. His books are amazing. I think these are important books, and, no offense, I think you underestimate students. Maybe it’s different at your school, but all the kids at my school love these books and their meanings.

    • Sophie, I am glad that you have enjoyed reading these books-I would have loved them myself when I was in high school.
      And if most of the kids in your class are like you then that is wonderful as well. I have always had students who loved reading and who have loved these books but I am looking at a bigger picture and a generation of students who aren’t avid readers. I am pretty sure that a majority of students in Canada and the US read summaries of stories rather than the books themselves. As a teacher, I had to deal with unbelievable methods of cheating and I am pretty sure I know the underlying cause. Out of curiosity, why have you been reading my blog-it isn’t really for anyone but teachers?

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