Why is there such a strong focus on reading Shakespeare?Why do we place such a focus on studying Shakespeare? I'm not saying that I don't like it, or that we shouldn't read it. (In fact I've read...

Why is there such a strong focus on reading Shakespeare?

Why do we place such a focus on studying Shakespeare? I'm not saying that I don't like it, or that we shouldn't read it. (In fact I've read quite a bit, outside of school requirements & enjoyed it.) I understand that the stories are still relevant, but to the average high-schooler they're "lost in translation," like my  english class, where it's always the topic but the few of the  understand when we finish. Surely there's other more recent great works we could study, that deserve more attention?

23 Answers

billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I have read many questions and answers about Shakespeare in eNotes, but I don't remember seeing a single reference to the beauty of the language in his plays. Even in discussions of his sonnets, for that matter, the emphasis is on something other than the beauty of the language (e.g., What does this word mean? Whom is he addressing?). I have answered a lot of questions about the plays and sonnets but have never been able to quote Shakespeare at any length because eNotes has restrictions about the proportion of quotes to original text. But perhaps in this discussion I might offer a few examples of the amazing poetry that appears here and there in his plays.

I will start with Othello, which is not one of my favorite plays. He comes into the bedroom with the intention of murdering the sleeping Desdemona.

Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have plucked the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again;
It needs must wither. I'll smell it on the tree.
O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword!


Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep" -- the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
Still it cried "Sleep no more!" to all the house.
"Glamas hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more."

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.


There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger.


O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers.
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy --
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds;
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry "havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.


Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in thy sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.


Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.


Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, -- and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate...

Why is there such a strong focus on reading Shakespeare?

docholl1's profile pic

Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Shakespeare's plays continue to be read, studied, and produced not necessarily because the writing is first-rate, which it is, but primarily because Shakespeare's plays concern themselves with aspects of personal and public life that apply to men and women of every century.

For example, we read Macbeth, in part, because the play deals with such basic human problems as pride, ambition, obligations to family and one's leaders, bad counsel, loyalty and politics (including murder for political reasons).  If we want to learn how to motivate men in battle, we read King Henry V and discover how a king learns what will motivate his men to fight a demonstrably superior force under horrendous conditions.  And win a battle that, on someone's battle plan, he had no right to win.  People read Othello to understand how race, jealousy and evil councillors can undermine a good man.

In essence, Shakespeare wrote about human existence, pure and simple, and most readers or playgoers walk away from Shakespeare with some knowledge about the human condition that they may not have understood as fully.  And although Shakespeare's language can pose problems for modern readers, those problems are easily overcome with judicious (and limited) translations.

kiwi's profile pic

kiwi | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

Shakespeare's writing was designed to appeal to the highest and the lowest of his audience, but was not meant to be read. I find that students appreciate Shakespeare more if there is a build up: I teach extracts from elementary school and draw attention to where Shakespeare is used in a modern context (the choir singing 'hubble bubble' in Harry Potter goes down well). Students then understand that Shakespeare is an important cultural reference. Paring the plays back to their basic themes - love, jealousy, ambition, etc - helps students appreciate the context. The language is an aspect for later study.

There is no writer who rivals Shakespeare in terms of social, cultural, historical and literary importance. We owe it to our students to teach them what we know, an, if taught well, they will know and appreciate the works too.

shake99's profile pic

shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

As an English teacher, I certainly appreciate Shakespeare's skill. But ove the last 15 years I have come to believe that his brilliance is almost completely lost on the minds of today's students. I don't believe that any except the very, very few highly advanced students get enough value from reading Shakespeare to make it worth the time spent.

I get a much higher level of involvment from students when we read things like Night and Of Mice and Men. I'd do away with Shakespeare except to AP type students.

bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I agree with the previous post from mwestwood. No one author has yet to reach the heights of acclaim as William Shakespeare, generally regarded as the greatest writer of the English language. Why a writer of such stature should not be studied would be a better question. College English courses are also heavily laden with the works of Shakespeare, and English majors are required to take multiple classes on Shakespeare. There are certainly other writers who may deserve similar accolades, and others may be recognized in the future, much in the same way Shakespeare was rediscovered in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many high school students are turned off by the outdated language and difficulty of Shakespeare's 16th and 17th century vernacular, but that is no reason to discard the reading of The Bard's classic works.

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

In truth, there has not been anyone to rival Shakespeare.  As the renowned critic, Harold Bloom writes, there is an incredible universality to Shakespeare's writings.

[Shakespeare] has been universally judged to be a more adequate representer of the universe of fact than anyone else, before him or since....We keep returning to Shakespeare because we need him, no one else gives us so much of the world most of us take to be fact....

Shakespeare will abide, even if he were to be expelled by the academics, in itself most unlikely.  He extensively informs the language we speak, his principal characters have become our mythology, and he, rather than his involuntary follower Freud, is our psychologist....

Of all the writers of the English language, Shakespeare, indeed, is our greatest teacher, our greatest comforter, our greatest entertainer.  There is a richness and variety in his writings that knows no rival.

rrteacher's profile pic

rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I love Shakespeare, but I agree with your point that there is an overemphasis on his works. In some states his works are read at each grade level in public high schools. Obviously they are timeless and brilliant, and I love them as much as anybody, but I do think in some ways its a case of simply being part of the canon, which curriculum writers are reluctant to change. On the other hand, as I said, one could do much worse than studying his works. 

lsumner's profile pic

lsumner | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted on

Shakespeare had such insight into the ways of the people. He understood human nature profoundly and could expound upon it like no other. If people would take Romeo and Juliet to heart, there would more people trying to get along. Prejudices kill and that is what Shakespeare was trying to relate in Romeo and Juliet. In Othello, jealousy is truly a green-eyed monster and the rage of a man. If readers would study and analyse the evil character of Iago, there would be a better understanding of how evil can destroy, thus readers could better prepare themselves to be alert to certain people's evil ways. These are just a couple of examples of why we should study Shakespeare. The list goes on and on. 

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I'm not a literature teacher so I can't give you the "official" answer.  I agree with you in many ways.  The one thing that makes sense to me for why we should read Shakespeare is because it is a "cultural literacy" thing.  If you don't know what "to be or not to be" means or what the relationship was between Romeo and Juliet, you will not really be culturally literate.

billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Once we dispose of Shakespeare in the curriculum, then we ought to go on and get rid of some of the others. Milton? No, he's already a cooked goose. Chaucer? Forget it! I think Shelley would be a good next target because he's so long-winded and hard to understand. Then we could go after Keats, simply because he is associated with Shelley. Gradually we could replace these old-timers with really interesting stuff like Star Wars. I don't remember too many spoken words in Star Wars. They just kept saying, "Go with the force!" But who needs words anymore? A good replacement for Hamlet might be Godzilla. Hamlet talks too much. He even talks to himself when he has nobody else to talk to. Godzilla doesn't say anything.

ladybugenotes's profile pic

ladybugenotes | Student, College Senior | (Level 1) Honors

Posted on

Wow, this thread goes back a bit. I've returned to respond to the above point and reiterate my own - as a high school student, I have studied Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet - twice , Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and Hamlet in depth, with brief experience with Midsummer night's dream, Julius Caesar, As you like it, 12th Night, and the Taming of the shrew (these were referenced but not studied, I invest aged these in my own time, along with his sonnets.) As such, I would like to hope I am justified in presuming I have had a reasonable exposure to shakespeare, and am the first to agree on the beauty of the language. 

HOWEVER - what of the beauty of the other greats you mention? The curriculum makes no time for them. I had to chance upon Keats, Byron, other now favorite poets of mine myself. Chaucer I did not encounter until university, and again had to self investigate, and two universities' qualifications on, I confess I still haven't heard of Milton or Shelley (though if they are American that may help account.)

To be honest, the original question was mostly philosophical, not because I dislike the Bard. (Though it may have been inspired from the depths of a paper on Othello- the one exception to that rule). But when the ratios of studied work is in my experience at least 6:2 in his favor, iI simply think it's time we pause and reconsider; and if you are all indeed educators, that you encourage your students in discovery of a much wider range of classic and quality work. 

(apologies for the over-long point)

sugarsail1's profile pic

sugarsail1 | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

I have had the same issue with Shakespeare and now having been through the entire educational system I've come to realize that it comes to a disconnect between those that determine curriculum and the psychological receptivity of students of a particular age.  It's why school is not as interesting to most students as the latest movie.  The lessons between human relationships that Shakespeare is famous for are far from unique over the entire history of story telling.   How many lines around the block do you see for Shakespeare plays in theater compared to say a movie like Star Wars?  Story telling, no matter how great it was in its time, still must be tailored to a specific time, place and culture to resonate with the masses.

So the only thing I can attest to is that Shakespeare is still shoved down the throats of students by unempathetic sadistic school administrators who are sentimental literary snobs.

missfujoshi's profile pic

missfujoshi | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

I agree with teaching Shakespeare. The language, context, story, message, symbolism and all else are very good reasons. But I too question the intense focus.

Not only are the texts difficult to the point of many of the lower grades not understanding it, but there are so many others. Shakespeare may have been the popular one, but a factor of that is his luck in securing the attention of the wealthy. Shakespeare was not alone in the creation of great texts of literature. Also, if one only studies texts from Shakespeare, they are sure to view it from a biased and closed perspective. Other texts from similar eras and origins should be studied for comparison and contrast as well as to develop a wider, more open view with less chance of bias. A very large weight of total marks in schools relies on Shakespeare. If a student can not understand the work than that heightens their chance of failing the subject/class ridiculously high.

Shakespeare should be studied, but not with such a high focus and it should not be the sole text or author.

manishamishra's profile pic

manishamishra | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Honors

Posted on

shakespear is recognised as advanced dramatist who thought for many suspectable thing of the elizabethen time.he,brought so many concepts of tbad and good things in society which no other writter thought to bring

coryengle's profile pic

coryengle | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted on

We study Shakespeare because he is the greatest English writer of all time. The themes of his works are universally relevant, the language is beautiful, and his characterization is often (as in the case of Hamlet, for instance) unrivaled. Not to mention, he has contributed so much to Western culture that it is impossible to escape him. Ever seen The Lion KingWest Side Story, or 10 Things I Hate About You? Ever said, "my own flesh and blood," "all the world's a stage," "to be or not to be," or "there's a method to my madness"? The list goes on. Western culture is heavily indebted to Shakespeare, and as stated above, the better question would be why we should not study him.

Of course, this is not to say we shouldn't study other writers as well. There is excellent literature dating all the way back to Gilgamesh, and it is all worth examining, but since most of us will not become English PhD's we tend to stick to the superstars.

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