Marveling at Shakespeare’s Work: What If the Texts Were the Standards?

“Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither…” –Edgar in King Lear

As a high school English teacher who has endured at least three rounds of educational standards reform in almost thirty years, I can’t help but think we should actually look to the great texts of the past as our educational standards. This summer, I’ve been purging, recycling, donating, and reorganizing my materials and books–at home and at school. The vast majority of disposables involve state standards and instructional strategies while the collectibles and keepsakes tend to include content-rich material as well as the rich content of thoughtful authors from times past. No doubt there are other authors and works beyond Shakespeare to include as part of those enduring standards, but three very good recent books about Shakespeare have me thinking about the Bard’s role in developing better education.

In a previous post, I briefly mentioned Scott Newstok’s How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education in relationship to thoughtful creativity. Upon further review and reflection, I’d like to upgrade that recommendation as an aid to authentic professional development–or amateur professional development as I’ve said elsewhere, implying that we should actually love the subject(s) of our professions and promote such affection in our students. Among many gems, Newstok’s focus on “copia” as progressively learning by imitation could help us bridge and extend the practice of using “mentor texts” in earlier grades while also helping students learn how develop increasingly complex and interesting forms of communication and art. (Relevant curriculum development question: What texts do we want students to read, imitate, and reflect on in each grade level and in different disciplines?) Such practices might mend the too-much-separated notions of knowledge and skills, subjectivity and objectivity, past and present, and other unhelpful splits that are much on my mind as I’ve been rereading Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. (You might adapt that to “The Courage to Teach Shakespeare” with Scott’s help.)

Around midsummer, I finished James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future. Shapiro provides me with intriguing, diverse, Shakespearean-connected historical details and dilemmas to discuss with my history teaching colleagues. I’d say that one of the most striking is his account of the young Ulysses S. Grant so effectively playing the role of Desdemona in his younger days (Othello is one of my favorite plays, by the way) that he likely grew his beard to offset his effeminate charm in the role. Shapiro also samples fascinating Shakespearean-connected conflicts throughout America’s history involving government, gender, and other topics that resonate with some of our deepest concerns and debates today. (Two quick thoughts: Here is a book to use for some interdisciplinary English and history work! & This is really helpful for thinking about how in the world might one integrate Shakespeare in the 11th grade with American Literature, a challenge I’ve wrestled with since the 2010 Common Core Standards nudged us in this direction.)

Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare reviews many of Shakespeare’s most important works and models how to read and reread them with a healthy sense of “What if?” Smith’s approach to Shakespeare helpfully guides us in minding the ambiguities and the gaps in Shakespeare’s texts that give us space to imagine, direct, and create varying interpretations and applications of his texts: Note how well this emphasis on gaps can dovetail with Newstock’s focus on creative “copia” and Shapiro’s insights about how different interpreters leverage Shakespeare’s texts for the concerns of their own times. (Smith’s book, like the others above, can help us help our students understand and practice with issues of interpretation–quite a bit more helpful than most of the literary and literacy theory that I’ve read of the years.)

Before the pandemic, I was feeling pressure and a bit of guilt for including four Shakespearean plays in my senior English course, but Smith and the other thoughtful scholars noted above support a cumulative case that Shakespeare has plenty of form and openness that can fit exceptionally well with our wide range of contemporary concerns about human identity and relationships.

Personally, I resonate with Smith’s introductory notion that we should think of Shakespeare as someone we could have a drink with rather than some unapproachable genius of canonical literature. Indeed, as part of my own homework for a course in Shakespeare back in the 90s, I sat down in pleasant solitude one Friday night to have a beer and watch Laurence Olivier play the role of King Lear via a VHS tape. I was intrigued (and blessed) by Shakespeare’s portrayal of the micro-politics of family love, not to mention some important realizations about mental health. Without delving into details, I can say that it helped me understand some issues in my own extended family concerning love, authenticity, and misunderstandings. Later that semester, while reading Othello, I came to a spiritually conservative realization that something rotten, much like Iago, dwells in me, and I have (along with other humans) the potential to become diabolical in simply enjoying pulling things and people apart.

Deeply-felt insights from Shakespeare’s texts were humbling experiences that I needed for gaining some realistic maturity (too easily lost if one leans on Sparknotes, etc. and stops at a merely informational plot level of reading). There are a few other noteworthy, personal experiences of reading Shakespeare’s plays, and with apologies to Rod Dreher, I’m tempted to develop a longer piece about “How Shakespeare Can Save Your Life.”

With our school’s quarter-block schedule, I’ve been forced to reduce my Shakespeare selections down to two for the year with my seniors, and with the 110-minute class compression, I feel a bit like I’m coming way too close to the comic pace of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).

As we think about helping students grow and be ready to grow through their stages of life, some of the best educational standards emerge from the best and most enduring texts that we can find from the past. Such a claim will no doubt invoke a bit of a conflicted discussion about what those texts should be, but the multi-sided arguments about what we should think should take a central role in our teaching and learning, a valuable approach for our time that I think we would find in Shakespeare’s own education.

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