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newsletter — March 18, 2014

Why All Our Students Must Read Shakespeare

Things no one ever tells us about the writer and his works

by Roy Speed

Why teach Shakespeare to high school students?Shakespeare is still a fixture on those lists of standard works your student is expected to have read: works by Hawthorne, Melville, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, et al. — the same lists on which today you may also find The Hunger Games and The Fellowship of the Ring.

But there's a problem with such lists. They're deceptive, leading parents to view Shakespeare as just one writer among many, one more box to check off.

We fall prey to this error because high school reading lists lack any sense of proportion. You could achieve a similar effect by erecting here in our little town of Bethel, Connecticut, the Empire State Building and then listing Bethel's notable buildings:

  • the Bethel Post Office;
  • the Sycamore Diner;
  • the Empire State Building;
  • the CVS pharmacy…

The point is that on those high school reading lists, Shakespeare holds a similar position — he is a towering talent whose abilities, accomplishments, and influence on the English language exist on a different scale, a plane on which the Hemingways and Faulkners are Lilliputians to his Gulliver. Don't get me wrong: I have great admiration for Jane Austen, for Charlotte Brontë, and for Charles Dickens, but even they are not in the same league as William Shakespeare.

He's the greatest writer in English (perhaps in any language), and here's the part that's difficult to fathom: Second place is not even close. — And this difference in scale has profound implications for our students' college preparation.

Shakespeare's influence on our language

No other writer is credited with introducing so many expressions that we still use today —
among them:

  • bated breath
  • dead as a doornail
  • eating me out of house and home
  • good riddance
  • strange bedfellows
  • budge an inch
  • laugh yourself into stitches
  • sleep not one wink
  • wear my heart on my sleeve
  • what's done is done
  • the naked truth
  • foul play
  • vanish into thin air
  • your own flesh and blood
  • household words
  • in a pickle
  • without rhyme or reason
  • as luck would have it
  • for goodness sake
  • as white as driven snow
  • green-eyed monster
  • hold a candle to
  • one fell swoop
  • elbow room
  • too much of a good thing
  • give the devil his due
  • it smells to heaven
  • not a mouse stirring
  • it's Greek to me
  • sharper than a serpent's tooth

Can you think of any other writer who gave us so many common expressions? — Neither can I. In fact, the only work with comparable influence on the expressions we use is the King James Version of the Bible.

But that's not all: Shakespeare is credited with coining hundreds of words — words like:

  • addiction
  • advertising
  • amazement
  • arouse
  • assassination
  • bandit
  • bedroom
  • besmirch
  • birthplace
  • bloodstained
  • barefaced
  • blushing
  • bump
  • buzzer
  • caked
  • cater
  • champion
  • circumstantial
  • cold-blooded
  • compromise
  • courtship
  • countless
  • critic
  • dawn
  • deafening
  • discontent
  • dishearten
  • drugged
  • dwindle
  • epileptic
  • equivocal
  • excitement
  • exposure
  • eyeball
  • fashionable
  • fixture
  • flawed
  • frugal
  • generous
  • gloomy
  • gossip
  • gust
  • hint
  • hobnob
  • hurried
  • impede
  • impartial
  • invulnerable
  • jaded
  • label
  • lackluster
  • laughable
  • lonely
  • luggage
  • lustrous
  • madcap
  • majestic

I've skipped many of his coinages, and still I'm only up to the letter "m"; I haven't yet mentioned marketable, mimic, moonbeam, and many, many more. Every time we say negotiate, or outbreak, or premeditated, or remorseless, or scuffle, or swagger, or tranquil, we're using language invented by Shakespeare.

What other writer on the high school reading lists had such an influence on everyday English? Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, coined the word jabberwocky, but I can go years, even decades, without using that word. — Not so with birthplace, bedroom, impartial, impede... These are household words — and remember, Shakespeare also gave us the expression household words.

Sheer brilliance

Shakespeare had a way of capturing in few words important thoughts and insights. Take, for instance, the speech in The Merchant of Venice in which the character Bassanio describes at length how deceptive men can be and how misleading their outward appearances; at one point he refers to men

                     whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand…

Such a simple image, utterly original, and what better symbol for false promise than a stairway of sand, which crumbles the instant you set foot on it? — Yet Shakespeare tossed off thousands of such images.

I find myself able to recall with little effort entire passages of Shakespeare — something I can't say about any other writer on the high school reading lists, including ones I love. Right now I'm teaching a series on Romeo & Juliet, which is filled with lines as memorable as they are beautiful. In the balcony scene, for instance, Juliet mistrusts their love at first sight and says to Romeo —

I have no joy of this contract tonight,
It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say "It lightens."

She's referring to an experience we've all had, of seeing a brilliant flash of lightning, and before we can turn to our neighbor and say Look…!, it's gone — and irretrievably gone. She fears that their love-at-first-sight could prove just as fleeting. And the larger point Shakespeare is making is how level-headed Juliet is — Romeo, by contrast, is all in, completely captivated by the in-love feelings, with not a moment's doubt — and what a lovely way of showing us who she is.

In Shakespeare's plays, such moments abound.

The difficulty of reading Shakespeare

Granted, reading Shakespeare takes real effort. His English is more than 400 years old. He uses words whose meanings have changed over the centuries. He uses other words we no longer use at all. His writing is premised on beliefs and values often foreign to our ways of thinking.

But in my view, such obstacles make his writing all the more important to our students' college preparation. In college, no matter what field a student pursues, he or she will encounter difficult texts; succeeding in that field will mean mastering such texts. And Shakespeare's plays provide a singularly rewarding exercise in all the key skills.

Parting thoughts

Shakespeare has influenced Americans for centuries. In 1835 the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his Democracy in America:

There is hardly a pioneer's hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.

And has any single writer had greater influence on our finest leaders? — Consider:

  • Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln's private aide and secretary, John Hay, wrote that Lincoln "read Shakespeare more than all other writers together." Lincoln's friends recounted how at private parties he would read favorite passages aloud and then discourse on what those passages meant to him.
  • Douglass. In the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass, the writer he cites more often than any other is William Shakespeare.
  • Churchill. Winston Churchill was an ardent admirer of Shakespeare. Much of his oratory was Shakespeare-inspired (e.g., Henry V), and Churchill even quoted Shakespeare in staff memos. The actor Richard Burton complained that during a performance of Hamlet in the 1950s, Churchill sat in the front row and delivered Hamlet's lines right along with Burton. "I could not shake him off," Burton later said. "He knew the play absolutely backward."
  • Mandela. Nelson Mandela, during his 27 years' imprisonment in Robben Island, cherished a smuggled copy of Shakespeare's complete works. He and other inmates read and reread their one copy, annotating and often signing their names to many passages. This one from Julius Caesar was signed by Mandela himself:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Few men have proven more valiant than Mandela.

Finally, our students may also encounter Shakespeare's influence when they read other authors on those high school reading lists — say, Huxley's Brave New World, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Capote's In Cold Blood, Steinbeck's The Moon is Down, Maugham's The Razor's Edge, Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, Eliot's The Hollow Men

When giving titles to their works, all those authors chose to quote the same writer: Shakespeare. — Shouldn't our students be familiar with the one writer so honored by his successors?

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