The Obscure Shakespeare
For most American high school students, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth are the first exposure to Shakespeare they receive. For many, these plays create a difficult first experience as they embody themes that are not relatable to the modern American student. Between the Elizabethan English and the standard, sometimes elevated, themes of star-crossed lovers, revenge, and deadly political aspirations, these plays often struggle to capture the attention of teenagers at an introductory level.
While Shakespeare’s romance and two tragedies are the ones that are introduced most frequently to students, the comedies and histories tend to be left out, leaving students to focus solely on the dark endings of the most popular three. Frequently, these three plays are their first and last experience with Shakespeare, which is tragic in itself.
Although the tragedies and romances hold to lofty themes that are hard to relate to at times, the comedies utilize ideas that are familiar to the human condition at any stage of life, and provide jokes that are still entertaining hundred of years later.
By introducing students solely to the tragedies and romances, the exposure is only to one side of Shakespeare’s writing. The comedies are essential not only to provide students with a new perspective of Shakespeare, but to capture their engagement where it might have been lost through the reading of the other three plays.
The Importance of the “Classic Three”
That is not to say that these three plays do not provide merit to students; they absolutely do: some of the most famous soliloquies and speeches are in those three plays, from the “balcony” scene in Romeo and Juliet where there isn’t actually a balcony, but a window, to Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy where he contemplates suicide (after his father is murdered by his uncle), to Lady Macbeth’s speech about what it is to be a woman with a man’s ambition. These plays are packed with valuable lines and ideas that have transcended time; it’s why we still read them.
However, solely exposing students to these plays is limiting, and as Shakespeare isn’t overly accessible in the theme of modern young adult novels, students can’t be expected to go out and look for more on their own. The plays can be taught without students dreading the material or constantly complaining that they will “never use it” in their adult lives. The lessons and morals involved in the plays are certainly valuable, but there is something much more important at stake: The plays were created to be enjoyed, sometimes with a political or social message in mind (King Lear and Macbeth are examples), but mostly for an audience to escape their daily lives and enjoy a few hours of entertainment.
The three that are most frequently taught definitely provide that, if done correctly. The witches, murder of an entire family, and the ghosts and hallucinations that haunt Macbeth is nothing short of anxiety-inducing when the taught in a way where students can not only understand the language, but understand its implications. Additionally, the entire narrative of Hamlet is built on suspense, leading the audience to wonder whether or not Hamlet will ever get his revenge against Claudius, or if he is truly damned and insane for seeing King Hamlet’s ghost to begin with.
Far too frequently students, and even adults, claim to hate Shakespeare because they don’t relate to the plays or the language is too difficult. They “don’t understand it”. This doesn’t have to be the case. There are so many plays, such as Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that can capture the attention of modern students without sacrificing the experience of learning Shakespeare.
An Exploration of the Tragedies (and Romeo and Juliet)
Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to be the most taught and performed plays in modern eras. As a result, plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and sometimes Othello and King Lear, have become perceived as the most accessible plays that Shakespeare has written. While these plays definitely provide accessibility to more modern adaptations of the plays, they are not the only ones that can be understood and enjoyed.
What exactly is it about these plays that make them so popular?
Aside from the sheer fact that they are frequently performed, each of these plays focuses on themes that are still relevant to the modern reader. Hamlet’s struggle with his own faith and morality while dealing with the need for revenge after the murder of his father is an issue that can still be understood by audiences and Macbeth’s deadly desire to acquire more power can be viewed through a more modern political lens. Even take the 2010 BBC film version of the play starring Patrick Stewart as an example: a general seeks to become king despite the costs after he becomes a war hero, something that has happened time and time again historically (Napoleon, anyone?)
Othello deals with racism and cultural acceptance; something that is still present and a source of conversation in schools, in politics, and on the news. Desdemona’s struggle to convince her father that her Moor husband is “acceptable” can be understood by any young adult trying to gain their parents’ approval, while simultaneously trying to stand by what they believe in. Similarly, the concepts of parental disapproval or approval, young love, and suicide in Romeo and Juliet could not be more relevant to young audiences.
While these are all valuable in their own ways, especially because students generally have some outside knowledge of them before they begin reading, the general themes, if not taught in a way that is engaging, can be overlooked as students struggle with the lofty language and seemingly abstract ideas. Although the values and conflicts transcend time, there is a limit to how much students will be able to grasp before they are overwhelmed by the antiquity of it.
An Argument for the Comedies
Although the tragedies are famous for a reason, the comedies often get left out of discussions of Shakespeare at the basic level. While A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sometimes taught in English classes at the earliest level, the majority of the more obscure comedies get left behind. By not teaching the comedies, the knowledge of Shakespeare becomes reduced to the general idea that everyone dies at the end.
By reading so many bloody endings, the idea that Shakespeare had a sense of humor can sometimes slip away, especially to younger audiences.
There are so many comedies that are relatable and are just flat out funny. The entire plot of Much Ado About Nothing has to do with gossip and rumors and the sometimes disastrous results that ensue: something that most high school students could absolutely relate to on some level and A Midsummer Night’s Dream connects students to traditional ideas of magic and fantasy by portraying characters like Titania, Oberon, Puck, and even Bottom, providing a break from the serious quality other school subjects.
The Importance of Adaptations
While the tragedies are frequently staged, there have been so many modern adaptions of the comedies that students could have potentially been exposed to without even realizing, leading to increased accessibility. Younger audiences will recognize the plot of 10 Things I Hate
About You in the Taming of the Shrew, and the plot of She’s the Man in Twelfth Night. Aside from the interpreted adaptions, there are also modern performances of the more obscure plays with actors that younger audiences will recognize, furthering their connection with the play itself. Al Pacino performs as Shylock in a screen adaption of the Merchant of Venice, the 1999 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream stars Michelle Pfeiffer as Titantia, Stanley Tucci as Puck, and Christian Bale as Demetrius, to name a few.
As the plays were written to be performed, showing film and stage adaptations can help to further engagement with the text, and to neglect to do so in an age where students are consumed by technology results in a missed opportunity at increasing excitement about Shakespeare.
To only expose students to the most popular of plays at the most basic level is limiting. It leads to the misconception that Shakespeare only spans one genre of plays, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Deciding which of Shakespeare’s 38 plays to use as a first introduction to students can be daunting and present several dilemmas, as they all prove valuable in some way. It becomes almost more convenient to continue teaching the “classic” three, rather than to branch out and begin something new, but it’s time to start.
It’s already difficult to get people to read when they are surrounded by technology and other distractions that lead them to believe that pieces of literature written four hundred years ago no longer holds any merit. When you factor in the language that can be difficult to grasp for even those who study it on a regular basis, the first few readings of Shakespeare can be frustrating, leading to students giving up, sometimes entirely. By exposing them to a wide variety of content that is completely different from each other, there is a higher chance that they will be more engaged.
These plays have been celebrated for over four hundred years for a reason, it’s time we start showing students why.
What do you think? Leave a comment.