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Why Shakespeare?

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Everyone seems to study Shakespeare at some point in their schooling lives – for the majority of us every year. Whether Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet or something more off-the-cuff (at least for 13 year olds) like Julius Caesar.

And love him or loathe him we seem to be bound to the curriculum and have little choice whether we want to study him or not. I understand the importance of him, I really do. He has a unique flair and a seemingly unparalleled linguistic beauty. The master playwright’s works still resonates with people today with his timeless issues of jealously, ambition, greed, love and senility. Simply speaking Shakespeare never grows old. Or does he?

I do appreciate the elegance of his prose and the significance of his issues, but I don’t know about you but he is figured in the English syllabus way too much. Every term, every year. Without fail. I don’t want him to be cut out of the syllabus completely but should we be making room for others? Whether his contemporaries¬†like Ben Jonson, whose style is often incorrectly compared with that of Shakespeare (whose style is more romantic), or more modern playwrights – all equally brilliant and relevant today.

“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall”

From the history books it is clear theat at the time of Shakespeare’s increasing popularity in the theatres, at the expense of Jonson, the crowds were captivated and swept away by the Romantic Revolution. But what if the Romantic Revolution had not been as widespread, allowing Jonson instead to become popular amongst the masses of theatre-goers, would we be studying Jonson in the Bard’s place now?

I’m not trying to discredit Shakespeare. I’m just questioning the continuing devotion to him at the expense of others. Here’s just a fraction of examples if of his contemporaries whom we could study instead or as well as.

Francis Beaumont (1584/5-1616) often writing with Fletcher. His (their) works were strikingly similar to Shakespeare. It is culturally important, witty and poetically beautiful, in which he wrote about concepts of satire and parody and was centuries ahead of its time. His works include The Knight of the Burning Pestle, The Woman Hater, Cupid’s Revenge, A King and no King among numerous others.

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) [slightly later than Shakespeare but included due to her Romantic style]. She was one of the most influential dramatists of the late 17th Century, and was more classical/romantic than her contemporaries. Her style was particular and identifiable, and she possessed a unique poetic vision with themes of hetero/homosexuality and female sexual desire running throughout. [obviously if studied will have to be for older high-school students]. Her works include A Gifted Woman, The Dutch Lover, The Roundheads, Like Father Like Son to name a few.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) Shakespeare direct contemporary and competitor. He had an unparalleled breadth of influence on Jacobean and Caroling playwrights. His towering literary figure had enormous influence, however, Shakespeare’s plays proved to be more popular during the Romantic Revolution. But more popular doesn’t mean better. His works include Volpone, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t”

If we still want to study Shakespeare or his contemporaries and what he (they) brought to literature of the Elizabethan era, then why stop his study in the English classroom, surely it would be equally fitting that he has a place in the History classroom too. (History is more than just dates – but more on that at a later date).

What’s more I believe that Shakespeare is more fitting to the Drama class anyway. His plays are intended to be seen not read – as with all plays. But with the difficulty of the language of Shakespeare – now classed as olde English – better understanding of the words may be brought about through acting. Act. Understand the words. Understand the themes, emotions, the nuances of the language, as well as the characters and their motivations. Most children – and people – struggle to understand Shakespeare and invest all their intellectual steam power deciphering what his words mean – before even beginning to discuss the themes and poetic beauty of his prose. (Some may be able to understand him, but many of us can’t. I am far from being alone in this.)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”

Furthermore, English is a developing language. It changes everyday. New words are introduced, old ones removed. Even the spellings of words can change. If this is true should Shakespeare and his contemporaries be taught as part of English literature or should we reserve it to the English language classroom, where the nature of the development of language – including its meaning – can be discussed? I’m just speculating here of course. But who could go in his place? How about these more modern, but equally important and influential playwrights?

Auden. Critics regard him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. His writing is stylistic and he writes about issues relevant today and tomorrow, namely politics, morality, love and religion. His works include, to name a few, The Dance of Death, The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6.

Arthur Miller. He was/is a prominent figure in American theatre, and is considered one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th Century. His works include Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View From the Bridge.

Noel Coward. His personal style is full of wit and flamboyance, and he has more than 50 plays to his name. His plays feature recognisable people and familiar relationships. His works include Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Blithe Spirit.

T.S. Eliot. Arguably the most important English language poet of the 20th Century. The Sweet Agonistes, The Rock, Murder in the Cathedral. He also wrote more ‘commercial’ plays to target a wider audience. The Family Reunion, The Cocktail Party

J.B. Priestley. His works have a social aspects, and many include a ‘theory of time’. Dangerous Corner, Eden’s End, The Long Mirror, and most famously An Inspector Calls.

Tennessee Williams. His plays are regarded as classics of the American stage, and include The Rose Tattoo, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie.

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

I have often wondered why Shakespeare is taught in schools so religiously. Keep him by all means but maybe it’s time to move on, reduce our dependence upon him in the English classroom and prehaps move the study of him into other spheres, English Language, History and Drama. I’ve thought about this again recently after wondering whether as a writer I should read the collected works of Shakespeare – or at least a fair few?

What I’m basically asking is: is Shakespeare that important anymore?

“Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow”

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