One of the authors with the biggest impact on the study of literature today in the 21st century is an English playwright from the 16th century, named William Shakespeare. Despite many ancient aspects of Shakespeare’s work, his plays are one of the core topics covered in English classes, especially in English-speaking countries. A majority of middle school students read or at least know the major plot of “Romeo and Juliet.” As they enter high school, they get exposed to more of Shakespeare’s work, such as “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and “Othello,” just to name a few. Since learning Shakespeare has been an undisputed agreement for most high schoolers, students and even teachers, they rarely ask why they are learning the medieval language, culture and characters. Even though Shakespeare should always be a part of studying English literature, the requirement of reading Shakespeare’s plays in schools needs to be reconsidered.
Students begin learning the Shakespearean language in middle school, which continues until the end of high school. Still, one of the words they most commonly use to describe his plays is “confusing.” Shakespeare’s plays are written in Early Modern English, and most of his vocabularies imply different meanings than what modern readers think they would mean. Moreover, his plays often include unusual sentence structure, interruption in the middle of sentences and omission of words that English sentences generally demand. Due to this outdated nature of Shakespeare’s language, most students reading it experience difficulty understanding the text. Interestingly enough, even though the school curriculum teaches students how to interpret the plot, settings and characters’ behaviors, it barely puts emphasis on comprehending the Shakespearean language itself. Regardless of students’ overall understanding of the play, when they have problems reading the text, they usually end up losing interest in the play and everything becomes boring.
During classroom discussions over Shakespeare’s plays, students spend much of their time investigating the meaning of certain words and reasons behind his specific word choices. However, Shakespeare’s work was never meant to be analyzed; it was created for performance on stage, not even for reading. A good example for comparison to Shakespeare’s work is “The Great Gatsby,” another literary work that most highschoolers are required to read. In the novel “The Great Gatsby,” almost every sentence matters and each vocabulary is carefully chosen to arouse emotions. In contrast, Shakespeare’s word usage did not matter as much as people believe it did when he wrote his work. “Hamlet,” for example, existed in four different versions during his time, each version with divergent word usage and distinct lines; even Shakespeare himself did not care which text was performed by actors. Even though students are told that they need to learn how to “interpret” things, it seems clear that students are rather just adding nonexistent significance to every single line than interpreting what Shakespeare intended to convey.
In addition to problems with Shakespeare’s language, reading multiple plays from the same writer limits students’ view to the perspective of one white male figure. Even if Shakespeare was a famous figure during his time, his life was short and he lived in a small world. Even though he had some good lessons, there are many other writers with the same lessons that are coming from Africa, Latin America, Asia or any other remaining parts of the world. The general expectation that students learn Shakespeare prevents them from experiencing diversity of the literary world. In fact, many students learning Shakespeare come from different cultures, but they only get to study Western literature. Instead of putting so much focus of the entire high school English curriculum on Shakespeare’s work, including the literature of mixed groups of people will help expose students to a wider range of language, customs and perspectives.
It is true that reading Shakespearean literature is helpful to get familiar with classic writing and learn about human nature. But his work was designed to be interpreted through plays that present universal themes that are relevant to this day, such as love, ambition, death and fate. In “Macbeth,” for example, Shakespeare depicts how ambition causes a tragic hero, Macbeth, to lose moral consciousness and eventually face his downfall. Even when watching the plays that Shakespeare has created, it still creates confusion and difficulty for students, which is why learning Shakespeare should not be a requirement in schools.
The importance of Shakespeare is overrated, as there are other ways to learn the same things that Shakespeare presents. Perhaps reading one or two of his plays might be a good experience, but students should not be expected to read his plays all throughout high school. They should rather read something that is comprehensible, consists of true complexity and portrays greater diversity.