Filed under: education, Shakespeare | Tags: Ira Glass, Pizza, Shakespeare
Every few months or so, my social media channels light up with outrage about the latest article or blog in which someone declares that s/he hates Shakespeare or thinks Shakespeare is over-rated or that they just don’t want to teach him anymore. The first of these that I read made a little angry, I confess. It was a pretty bone-headed look at work that is complex and intelligent. But the subsequent ones have barely registered with me. I had to check the dates on each new post. Was this the same one or some new one? They all sound the same.
I think sometimes with these sorts of essays, people feel like they’re saying something revolutionary and edgy when they declare their dis-allegiance with Shakespeare. Like when Ira Glass declared that Shakespeare sucks. To me it just seems silly. It‘s like someone writing a post every few months declaring that pizza is no good and we should not have to eat it anymore.
I feel about Shakespeare like I do about pizza. They’re both delicious, classic constructions full of infinite possibility. If you don’t like pizza, that’s fine. You don’t have to eat it. If you haven’t had it, though, you should try it. Try it maybe more than once. If you just have school pizza or frozen pizza, it’s probably not gonna be terrific. Get yourself to a high quality pizzeria that uses fresh ingredients and it will be hard not to find SOMETHING you like.
I realize that, in schools, people sometimes forcefeed folks their Shakespeare – that in that context, it’s a little like that cardboard stuff they call pizza in school cafeterias. Of course people don’t want to eat or teach that. . .but there are dozens of ways to approach teaching Shakespeare that don’t require swallowing it like medicine. (If you need help finding those ways, I know many organizations who could help, not to mention a Shakespeare Consultant who’d be glad to be of assistance – full disclosure – it’s me.)
There are a million pedagogical reasons to teach Shakespeare in schools. Working with Shakespeare can teach you such educationally valuable skills as close reading, text analysis, poetic devices, narrative structures, empathy, motifs, themes and so on. It is rigorous, complex and interesting text. Engaging with it can expand your view of the world. But for me, all of that is beside the point. I teach it because it tastes good to me. It’s the best pizza. And people have continued to teach it for centuries, not because it’s their medicine and they have to take it, but because it gives back when you engage with it.
I have, on occasion, started my residencies with students by asking them to tell me why they think people are still reading and performing these plays 450 years after the writer’s death. Their answers (once they get a taste for it) are never “because it’s part of the canon” or “because we have to.” They point to the richness of expression, the power of the words. Those things work across the centuries.
Are there other plays, other writers, other stories we could be and should be exploring? Absolutely. Explore them too. No one needs to eat ONLY pizza every day. But a world without pizza would be emptier – and less delicious.
I will say, though, that if pizza doesn’t float your boat, then maybe you don’t need to be the one to introduce it to people. Let someone who loves pizza take a newbie to their first pizzeria. And if you honestly hate Shakespeare, it’s fine with me if you don’t teach it. It’s probably better for everyone involved if you don’t have to force something you don’t like down the throats of your students.
But, if you’re an English teacher, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find something to love in it, too. Its basic ingredients include some of the most exciting uses of words in the language. If you love words and hate Shakespeare, it’s a little like loving dough, tomato sauce and cheese but hating pizza. But anything’s possible. If you were forced to eat pizza as a child or there’s just something about it that doesn’t suit you, there’s no need to feel like you have to have it. I’ll be happy to bring your students the Shakespeare. And we can all have pizza together.
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