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Why All Our Students Must Read Shakespeare

Things no one ever tells us about our greatest writer

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. Today these same lists may include The Hunger Games, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and The Fellowship of the Ring.

But there's a problem with such lists: they're deceptive; they lead parents to view Shakespeare as just one more writer in a long list, one more box to check off — in a word, optional.

We fall prey to this error because high school reading lists are missing a vital piece of information: a 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, 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 really difficult to fathom: in that contest ("greatest writer..."), second place is not even close.

It's a curious fact that Shakespeare's preeminence among great writers is seldom emphasized or even discussed in English classes. Yet in my view the magnitude of Shakespeare's talent and accomplishments make it imperative that all our students study his plays. Other writers on those high school reading lists may be optional; Shakespeare is not.

Bear with me, and I'll try to show you what I mean.

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. The fact is, every time we say negotiate, or outbreak, or premeditated, or remorseless, or scuffle, or swagger, or tranquil, we're using language invented by Shakespeare.

It's astonishing to think that a single writer could have such an effect on everyday English.

Now think about those high school reading lists: Has any other writer on those lists had such a staggering influence on our language? — The truth is that Shakespeare is a kind of freak. There's no writer in his league.

So why don't we explain all this to our students in English class?

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, 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 deceptive appearances 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.

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 hesitation or even a flash of doubt. — But what a lovely way of showing us who Juliet is!

In Shakespeare's plays, such moments abound.

The difficulty of reading Shakespeare — and the rewards

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' intellectual development and future studies. The reason: No matter what field a student pursues, he or she will encounter difficult texts; succeeding in that field will mean mastering such texts. And close reading of Shakespeare's plays provide a singularly rewarding exercise in the key skills.

It also helps teach students the necessary attitude and determination. Students who chase down the meaning of a particular word or expression, or who research an allusion to an unfamiliar historical event, do so because they're determined to understand what Shakespeare was saying or what he was trying to show us. They refuse to accept not understanding. And that determination will serve them well, whether they're hovering over a Shakespeare play or an economics text or a psychology text or a philosophical treatise.

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 — his idea of a good time.
  • 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 in the 1950s, during a performance of Hamlet, Churchill sat in the front row and audibly 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... — Shouldn't our students be familiar with the one writer so honored by his successors?

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