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.