Death to Shakespeare in the High School Curriculum

shakespeare outdatedBy Shannon Bentley – I was having an interesting conversation with my boyfriend about my students at Hamilton High School, and I was telling him how they were struggling to get into Romeo and Juliet.

My students would ask the big question: “WHY Shakespeare Ms. Bentley??” I used every reason I could from “you will learn about him again in college” to the “we can still relate to Shakespeare.”

I told my boyfriend, “I hate teaching Shakespeare!” and he was very intrigued at my reaction. He wanted to know the reasoning behind my belief that Shakespeare should no longer be taught in high school.

I am an English teacher, but I had multiple reasons as to why I didn’t like Shakespeare that much.

Archaic lexicon and syntax is very hard to read.

No matter how hard you try to teach the vocabulary to students ahead of time, it is a very hard language to decrypt right away. The students would need to be 100% focused in order to catch on to what is going on. I find myself summarizing more than getting the students to think critically about what is going on.

Shakespeare can get boring.

No doubt – he is boring. The most interesting aspect of learning about Shakespeare is discussing his history and how that history relates to his plays and sonnets. I found my students more engaged in discovering his lifestyle than reading the play.

His plays are not as relatable to younger students in the 21st century.

I can’t imagine how many times I was stressed in an education class about the fact that students today are “21st century learners,” and that we as teachers should be tending to those 21st-century learning needs. Unfortunately, Shakespeare is nowhere near the 21st century, and I find that his morals/themes are pretty outdated. In Romeo and Juliet, the students talk about how much the teenagers were stupid and that they should have done things that only teenagers today could do. It is hard for my students to realize that this was a play based on 16th-century values.

The real question is: Can there be a compromise with teaching Shakespeare? Contemporary novels would be more appropriate with students these days. Education should be about making students more aware of their surrounding community, and they are not as apt to learn if nothing relates to them and the language is completely over their heads. Also, there are many contemporary versions of Shakespeare’s plays such as Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio and Lisa Klein’s Ophelia.

Honestly, must we all continue to suffer the pain of reading Shakespeare? No matter what, the education system should continuously update and uplift the educational curriculum. We should fully acknowledge that our students are 21st century learners to ensure their learning needs are met and that they can succeed.

3 Responses to “Death to Shakespeare in the High School Curriculum”

  1. 1 Karen Berg April 29, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    Oh…my first reaction is…maybe you are trying to teach too much. I know I “don’t get” much meaning from Shakespeare’s references to the past, but…I love hearing the language of a short piece, spoken well, and then interpreted for me. Maybe that’s all you need to do. It’s like a painting that looks rather common-place but is exhibited in a museum. If someone explained to me the intention of the artist I could appreciate it for the skills involved. It still may not be my favorite painting, but I could look at it with greater understanding. Sometime only a single verse or painting can tempt me to become more curious about other literature and art. Sometimes “little or less” is better.


  2. 2 Clare Kennedy April 29, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    Shakespeare definitely has a lot of value in a highschool education. Most of Shakespeare’s plays have great themes that can be discussed. Othello alone has themes on Racism, human duality, the role of women in Venetian society, isolation, ect. It’s also allows leaves room for debates that can allow student to analyze characters actions. I remember writing an essay on what I believed Othellos fatal flaw really was, and many of my peers had different, but well argued ideas. Shakespeare does an incredible job with metaphors, symbols, and imagery. Yes, the material is difficult to read but because it is so well known there are a lot of sources to help students understand the material. Sparknotes has a great translation and many books have translation keys as well.


  3. 3 Ben Juzwik April 30, 2015 at 8:00 am

    I taught Shakespeare to 7th graders (Much Ado About Nothing and Othello) using No Fear Shakespeare. They loved it! We would go and look at soliloquies in the original text and compare them to the no fear version. I found it to be much more successful and accessible to them.


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