“Why Do We Study Shakespeare?” and Other Shakespeare Questions

Portrait of William Shakespeare

By Meredith DeCosta, PhD
Assistant Professor, College of Education

Posted on February 01, 2016  in  [ Teaching & School Administration ]

By Michael Kary, MFA
Faculty, College of Fine Arts and Production

By James P. Helfers, PhD
Faculty, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Grand Canyon University is celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death with Shakespeare Week, taking place from February 1 – 5, 2016 on GCU’s main campus in Phoenix. Events will take place throughout the week, ranging from passage readings by GCU’s highly ranked Speech and Debate Team to performances from students in the College of Fine Arts and Production.

A highlight of the week includes a talk on Wednesday, Feb. 3 by Dr. Paul Hartle, Fellow and Senior Tutor from St. Catharine’s College at Cambridge University, and an expert on Shakespeare. “Shakespeare Mashups – Adapting Shakespeare for Today’s Young Audience” focuses on best practices for introducing students to Shakespeare and how schools in England make his works relevant for today’s students.

To kick off the week and celebrate the life and works of the Bard, we have asked professors from the College of Education, College of Fine Arts and Production and College of Humanities and Social Sciences to weigh in on the importance of Shakespeare in modern-day education.

Michael Kary: With the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death upon us, his life and work have elbowed their way into the public eye once again. As with any time his name is mentioned, the question has been asked: “Why do we bother with Shakespeare?”

And, it’s a difficult one to answer.

First of all, like most complaints from English students who have been forced to study the Bard of Avon’s plays, I’m not sure I understand it. Is the complaint against the man himself, the language of his plays or the fact that they were written so long ago? Many attempts have been made to spice up what many consider the greatest plays ever written in the English language, each attempting to address one of these issues.

Who Was William Shakespeare?

Jim Helfers: We read in many places about the way Shakespeare is now irrelevant or difficult for present-day audiences, but how was he received in his day? He’s now an icon, but what was he at the time?

For anyone who looks at the record, it’s clear that we’d really like to know more about Shakespeare’s life: We don’t have any plays that are for sure in his handwriting or even any samples of his handwriting in poems or letters. All we know he wrote are the six signatures on his will, which are very messy, and lead many people to think he might have been illiterate. We really know very little about him, except that he seems to have been a shrewd businessman and may have had problems with his wife.

But, he wrote these great plays. Did they seem great at the time? All the evidence we have suggests that, no, they weren’t. Public theaters in the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign were so disreputable that they had to be located outside the city limits of London.

The Puritan city government thought they were sinful, so they were sited near the brothels and bear-baiting pits. Actors, though they came in contact with nobility and even royalty, were a disreputable lot: One of Shakespeare’s colleagues, Christopher Marlowe, may have been a spy and was stabbed in the head in a tavern brawl (he died). Plays were routinely censored, and playhouses were often closed.

So, at best, Shakespeare and his plays were probably seen a notch below the way we might see the writers of sitcoms today, and his scripts were probably seen as just about as valuable (less so, really, because there was no copyright).

What’s amazing is that this lower-middle class country bumpkin, who wrote light entertainment for whoever could pay a penny (quite a few Londoners), is now the most revered playwright in the English-speaking world, and one of the most important global dramatists. The story of how all that happened is an epic in its own right.

Kary: The person of Shakespeare could use a little spice. Frankly, there isn’t much known about his life, not the type of stuff an audience who is used to the titillation of reality television would find interesting. Whether ill-meaning or no, both scholars and the entertainment industry have gone looking for trouble within the scanty clues left behind these past four hundred years. Questions about his religion (was he Catholic or Protestant?), his private life (could he have possibly been bisexual?) or even the authorship of his plays (there are several outspoken scholars who pin the works to others, such as the Earl of Oxford), are often bandied about in various circles.

The dangers of these attempts to make Shakespeare more “interesting” are twofold: First, they are immaterial to the plays and, therefore, take away focus from where it belongs, and second, teachers often like to add these anecdotal bits to their lectures without any factual basis, causing students to come away with misinformation that, again, takes away focus from the plays themselves. Calling into question his beliefs, his orientation or whether he’s a fraud or not, only serves to relegate him into one group or another, separating him from the rest of us.

On the other hand, there have been several films that look at Shakespeare and his time that cause audiences to see this man, who is often set on a pedestal too high to sustain him,  as human. Movies, plays and books intent on themes such as his humanity have the opposite effect of scandalmongering. Instead of segregating him to a demographic, works like “Shakespeare in Love” (now both a movie and a play) lend a modern audience the opportunity to feel empathy for Shakespeare. The magic of empathy lies in its ability to build relationships, which is our best hope of connecting new audiences to these old works.

Why is Shakespearean Language so Hard to Understand?

Kary: Old works. I said it. Old works mean old words. It’s true. The language used in Shakespeare’s plays is at times antiquated, difficult to access or just plain long-winded. However, to dismiss something because it is hard is a poor argument against its value.

It is likely that these indictments of Shakespeare stem from how we, as a culture, are introduced to him. Ask the average man on the street about Shakespeare, and his response will most likely have something to do with “Romeo and Juliet,” “Macbeth,” or “Hamlet.” Is that because these plays are the common ingredients in many high school English departments? If so, the American student is encountering these terrific works of art in exactly the reverse order they were meant to be received.

Above all, Shakespeare’s original intent was for these plays to be heard, not studied. It’s no wonder that today’s audiences for Shakespeare’s plays are getting smaller and smaller. It isn’t entertainment anymore – it’s work.

As an actor, the answer to these issues is simple. Of course, it’s work. Entertainment is supposed to be a collaborative experience. The performers and the audience are designed to feed each other in a symbiotic relationship. Audiences should be challenged enough by a production that they can’t help but take the performance with them into their homes and workplaces.

By the same token, the performers are charged with the task of overcoming the obstacles of antiquity, accessibility and the marathon-like stamina it takes to take on some of these characters. They train themselves to use the sounds and rhythms of the language to paint sound pictures (say the words “gallop a pace” and see if you can feel the pounding of horse’s hooves), they painstakingly research the references in the plays to bring meaning where the sense may be lost and they hone their bodies and voices so their instruments can match the height and breadth the language demands.

In other words, at the end of a good show, everyone should be sweating a little bit. With entertainment becoming a more personal and private experience, the demand on audiences has dropped. A large portion of the entertainment industry has moved away from trying to get audiences to think (musement), and it is now moving toward “a-musement,” or an experience without thought. As audiences move away from Shakespeare, actors too have become less disciplined, causing a downward spiral of quality and appreciation for these plays.

Is Shakespeare in the Curriculum?

Meredith DeCosta: A simple utter of the word “Shakespeare” seems to stir up controversy in schools. Much hullabaloo has arisen over the past several years surrounding the Common Core State Standards and its treatment of Shakespeare and other literary giants.

The Common Core State Standards revealed a deliberate movement away from fictional works towards informational texts. Some Common Core advocates argued that the 70 percent nonfiction/30 percent fiction by 12th grade rule meant that Shakespeare’s plays and other important literary texts would be pushed to the wayside. Others decried the fact that Shakespeare was the only author specifically named as worth teaching, arguing that his writing is outdated, not reflective of America’s cultural diversity and out of touch with today’s youth.

However, the Common Core’s 70 percent nonfiction texts refers to the texts read across all content areas, not just in English language arts classrooms. This includes history and science. This means that there’s still plenty of room to teach fictional novels, short stories and plays. Arguably, the Common Core sets the bar high for literary works by asserting that students will “demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.”

So, after all this time, why do we still teach Shakespeare?

  • His plays provide a range of commentaries on human character. “Romeo and Juliet” taught us about the intense, emotional and sometimes irrational sides of love. “Macbeth” proved what corruption and unchecked political and familiar power looks like, reflecting the fall of man found in Genesis.
  • The Common Core has raised the level of “rigor” expected in the English language arts classroom. Shakespeare is the height of reading rigor for many middle and high school students. Its textual complexities, layered themes and symbols, and theatrical basis presents a challenge for all students.
  • The Common Core emphasizes close reading of texts. Shakespeare plays invite critical conversations about words, expression and theater, which affords students the opportunity to examine language in new and unfamiliar ways.

As Matthew Truesdale (2015) so aptly wrote, “To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as ‘NOW.’”

Certainly, Shakespeare’s plays need not be the sole focus of the English language arts classroom. They do not need to be taught in their entirety to be effective and modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Further, they should not replace culturally diverse texts.

Should We Still Read Shakespeare Today?

Kary: Should we bother with Shakespeare? Should he still get the chance to strut and fret his hour upon the stage? I think the answer is both yes and no. He can still challenge us, enlighten us and ennoble us. He can bind us together across racial, economic and religious lines. However, he has to be better represented. Teachers must come to his work with performance in mind, and actors have to be better trained to deliver his messages, or both groups will end up doing more harm than good.

In a way, Shakespeare’s plays are a lot like a wild lion. At the zoo, people can see them, but there’s something missing. However, when seen in the wild, doing what lions were made to do where they were made to do them, that’s when action becomes poetry, and poetry touches the heart.

DeCosta: Shakespeare isn’t the only writer to ever tell stories about love, good and evil, greed, truth and deceit. Countless meaningful texts are culturally relevant and connect with students’ minds and hearts.

But, there’s something to be said about “Romeo and Juliet” and other popular Shakespeare plays that provide collective conversations and narratives in a nation full of diverse languages, cultures, histories, people and some tough-to-meet school standards.

Kary: Like any good storyteller, Shakespeare slides his themes under his characters. His genius goes past his ability to write poetry. His real contribution to the world he lived in (and beyond) was his insight into the human spirit, his appreciation and awareness of the ubiquity of humanity.

His kings may live above their subjects, but they usually find their way back down to Earth somehow. It may cost him everything, but even the foolish and vain Richard the Second will find himself forced to confront his humanity in a dark, lonely prison cell. Young King Henry will join his subjects in the cold wet evening before battle.

It’s not just the elite who get to experience how the other half lives. Nick Bottom, a simple weaver, gets to rub shoulders with royalty and carouse with demigods. Additionally, though separated by centuries, Shakespeare’s England was not all that different from our own time and place. His themes show us his love of justice, honor and love, as well as his warnings of jealousy, revenge and of power corrupted. He asks questions that the poor, the powerful and everyone in between ask themselves every day:

“Am I a coward?”
“Can one desire too much of a good thing?”
“If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

So, to answer the question, yes, it does matter. These plays show us both how little has changed and how far we’ve come in 400 years.

Interested in attending Dr. Hartle’s talk on Wednesday about making Shakespeare relevant in today’s classrooms? Email chss@gcu.edu to RSVP for the event. Want to learn more about an education at GCU? Contact us today to speak with an enrollment representative.

More about the authors:

Meredith DeCosta, PhD
Meredith DeCosta is a former public school teacher and current faculty member, researcher and writer at Grand Canyon University. Her work focuses on literacy education, teaching English as a second language and educational equity in urban, multicultural contexts. She has written more than 12 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, and has a co-authored a book with Columbia University’s Teachers College Press, titled “Real World Writing for Secondary Students.” Dr. DeCosta’s most recent award for her work is the Grand Canyon University Leadership in Research and Scholarly Activity Award.

Michael Kary, MFA
Michael Kary holds an MFA from the University of San Diego. For the past 12 years, Michael has been working as an actor and writer in New York, Los Angeles and San Diego. His credits include: Fame on 42nd Street (Original New York Cast); Hay Fever (New Jersey Shakespeare); Trojan Women, Pericles, Taming of the Shrew, Smash! and Twelfth Night directed by Jack O’Brien (The Globe Theatres); Bandido, written and directed by Luis Valdez (San Diego Rep); Ivona, Princess of Burgundia (Sacred Fools Theatre); and Smoke on the Mountain (Lamb’s Players Theatre). He is co-founder of “Nobody in Particular,” an award-winning production company with whom he has written and produced three television pilots (Deal With It, Little League and Surviving Out of Doors with Louis) and a Shakespeare workshop for high school students. His plays include: The Servant and the Fool, Dial P for Peanuts (with David Hayes) and a one-man show currently titled God Knows What.

James P. Helfers, PhD
James Helfers was born in Illinois and has lived in the Chicago area and in the Little Rock, AR area. After graduating from Wheaton College, he worked as a technical writer in California before returning to graduate school in English language and literature at the University of Michigan. He has worked at Arizona State University and Phoenix College, and directed and participated in the Cambridge Summer Study Program run by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies for five years. Dr. Helfers is married, with two grown children; his hobbies include bicycling and backpacking as well as martial arts.

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