Should We Still Study Shakespeare? An Exploration

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Should we still study Shakespeare? There isn’t a simple answer. For one thing, it depends what is meant by “study” — perhaps a better question, at least as far as answerability goes, is should we still read Shakespeare? Yes, read Shakespeare if you want to. Essay over.

Should academics still analyze and interpret and research Shakespeare? That is a little less easy to answer. Certainly there are not likely to be new discoveries made at this stage, but why limit new people from asking “Who was Shakespeare?” as if he didn’t write his own dang plays, as if we haven’t been down this road a million times. But why not, right? Academia does not inherently object to repetitiveness in subject. If anything, it thrives on it.

Should Shakespeare still be taught in high school? Now that is interesting. And the answer is: Maybe. But I would argue that the value of his writing is not as much its historical importance (though that exists) but its lasting influence. What can we learn from Shakespeare? Quite a lot, actually. Should we still read Shakespeare? Eh, whatever. Should we still learn from his work? Actually, I don’t think we can avoid it.

I truly cannot overstate the influence Shakespeare’s work has had on the English language. He invented — or is the first recorded usage of — over 1700 words, some of them compound words or verbed nouns, others wholly original; these include eyeball, bedroom, and…kissing? Was he the first person to call a dog pup a puppy? Apparently!

But he also invented common phrases and idioms. If you’ve seen better days, you’re quoting As You Like It. Haven’t slept a wink? Cymbeline. If what’s done is done, Macbeth, but if it was a foregone conclusion, Othello.

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And what about the various adaptations and retellings of Shakespeare’s plays? From West Side Story to These Violent Delights, students are exposed to Shakespeare’s words, stories, and ideas every day. Not to mention that they are still among the most produced plays on earth, and specifically in high school. Whom among us has not seen a high school or community theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? So whether it is the originals or newer, more relevant versions, we are studying Shakespeare, on a spectrum of intentionally to coincidentally.

Now, I am not arguing that because Shakespeare exists in the world and we are exposed to it anyway, we have to study his work. There are quite a lot of things we are exposed to that we absolutely should not study! I am not convinced that Shakespeare falls into that category, but I am a huge proponent of eliminating outdated work from curricula and meeting students where they are in the world.

There are some good reasons to avoid Shakespeare. He was iffy on Jewish people, his only Black leading character (Othello) was a murderer, and his other definitively Black character (Aaron in Titus Andronicus) was the villain. He gave women vastly fewer speeches than men — Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra has the most of any female character, while Rosalind and the women of As You Like It have the most speaking time overall; the female characters in Julius Caesar are practically nonexistent, with the men speaking for over 96% of the play.

On the other hand, it seems to me that students who see the various film versions of Shakespeare plays and teen movies based on them might be interested to know how they differ from and adhere to the originals. Likewise students reading romantic retellings of his plays may like to see the same things.

Should we still study Shakespeare? Look, I’m just a writer with an opinion, but yeah. I think we should. Especially if that study looks a little different than it did when I was in high school and we treated the Bard’s word like it was immutable.

What’s Shakespeare? it is nor word, nor phrase,
Nor pun, nor rhyme, nor any other part
Belonging to a play. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a play
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Shakespeare would, were he not Shakespeare call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Shakespeare, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
I study myself.

Romeo and Juliet, act 2 scene 2, modified (poorly) by yours truly

Why is Shakespeare still relevant today? Because we make him relevant.

Looking for more? Check our Shakespeare archives, or take the hardest Shakespeare quiz.

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