illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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