Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Not Irrelevant

Over the weekend I attended a friend's birthday celebration where I fell into conversation with a woman who I see about once a year at events like this party. We were catching up on each other's children which lead her to a well-practiced rant about the irrelevance of Shakespeare: she didn't see the point, her 16-year-old hated it, weren't there more contemporary playwrights to study? She was seeking agreement, but didn't get it from me, at least not about Shakespeare. After all, my father-in-law was once considered a top Shakespearean scholar, my daughter is studying to become a Shakespearean actor, and I consider him to be a part of my family.

It's not the first time I've heard her argument, so I gave her, in turn, my rather practiced response. I conceded that Shakespearean studies can indeed be dry and tedious when taught as words printed on the page, but that I disagreed about his significance. After all, more than 400 years later, not only is he the most produced playwright in the history of the world, he continues to be, in any given year, including this one, the most produced playwright on earth, by far. At any given moment, A Midsummer Night's Dream or Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth is being performed on a stage somewhere, in fact, probably on multiple stages, by actors of all ages and abilities. It's not a stretch to assert that he's the most influential artist of all time, inspiring generation after generation over the centuries. We quote him daily without knowing it; we've built the entire Western canon around his plots and characters. There was no such thing as a "teenager" until Shakespeare gave us Hamlet and the sentimental sensualist Falstaff was the first of a type that now regularly populates both stage and life. Leopold Bloom, the great critic, even argues, convincingly, that Shakespeare invented the modern human, a case that I find myself embracing. 

And yet, as central as I find the works of Shakespeare, I don't disagree with this woman. Forcing 16-year-olds to slog through those histories, tragedies and comedies written in Elizabethan verse is a sure-fire way to guarantee that most of them find it a complete waste of their time, or worse, an abuse of their time. Shakespeare was writing plays, they are meant to be seen on stage, to be acted with those words in one's mouth, to be enjoyed without the pressure of academia. That's how his work was meant to be experienced, not while being lectured or slumped over a desk. But beyond that, Shakespeare isn't for everyone. In fact, it probably isn't even for most people, even if his work is inextricably woven through our daily lives. I mean, computer programming isn't for me, even though I've come to rely on those computer programs to live my life. There is an infinity of important things that any one of us find uninteresting.

So I agree with the woman at my friend's birthday party. Her son should not be made to "study" Shakespeare, even if it's probably a good idea for everyone to at least be exposed to it -- on stages where it was meant to be enjoyed, just as I've been exposed to computer programming. Our job as adults is simply to make things available. Beyond that, it's up to the kids.

When our daughter was eight, we enrolled her in a two week summer program offered by the Seattle Shakespeare Company called "Camp Bill." She wasn't sure she wanted to do it, but two of her best friends were also enrolled. At the end of those two weeks, during which she acted scenes from Shakespeare in the company of friends, she fell in love while her friends went on to find other things to do with themselves. That's how it ought to work: we surround our children with beautiful, interesting, and useful things then leave them to pick their own path.

I will say, however, that I continue to disagree with that woman on one key point, Shakespeare may be many things, but he is not, nor will he ever be, irrelevant.

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Stuart Lloyd said...

As a substitute for not being able to see Shakespeare on the stage, I would suggest the Chop Bard podcast. The guy who presents it knows Shakespeare inside out - he explains all the lines and gives the context of the play as well as making modern parallels. His passion really shines through.

Viv W said...

I've always felt that Shakespeare is an important component of our school curriculum, but that students should get used to reading contemporary American plays first, to become familiar with the layout of playscripts before being thrown into language from a different time and place, on top of the unique (speaker name, then text) format. [As I wrote that, I realized that young people today may not find that format as unique as I did in high school, as texting is organized similarly.] We are perhaps scaring off potential theater patrons by giving them the complexity of Shakespeare as a first impression. That is such a shame, as theater has always been a valuable tool for education, political discourse, and stress-relieving fun.

I would also argue that educators need to consciously share a love of works by people across a range of diversity, whether or not they are doing so with a diverse group of students. Playwrights aren't all dead (straight) white guys. Try August Wilson, Maria Irene Fornes, Jordan Harrison, or Suzan-Lori Parks, to name some of my favorites.

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