It’s March 2022… Is The Winter’s ‘Tail’ behind us – Is Shakespeare outdated in today’s classroom?
Shakespeare… To teach or not to teach: that is the question
English teachers are deliberating cancelling Shakespeare due to his unwoke attitudes on race, sexuality, gender, and sophistication. They are also using his plays to lecture on topics like toxic masculinity and Marxism.
An increasing number of academics are refusing to teach Shakespeare in the U.S. and Canada – stating that his work promotes and encourages thoughts on racism, white supremacy and class – and intend to revise the curriculum in order to utilise and adapt Shakespeare’s plays to create a more politically palatable version for a modern audience.
Amanda MacGregor, Minnesota-based librarian, bookseller, and journalist in the January issue of college Library Journal, questioned why teachers were still using Shakespeare in their classrooms today.
MacGregor argued that Shakespeare’s problematic work raises the question “Is Shakespeare more valuable or relevant than the myriad of other authors who have written masterfully about anguish, love, history, comedy, and humanity in the past 400-odd years?” Her query forces educators to grapple with the questions of what stories are to be valued and what voices need to be elevated or silenced with the changing times.
Sarah Mulhern Gross, a ninth and twelfth-grade teacher at High Technology School in Lincroft, NJ, teaches Romeo and Juliet, but states that she analyses it through “the lens of adolescent brain development with a side of toxic masculinity analysis.”
Adriana Adame, who teaches students in Texas that suffer from trauma, said that she used Hamlet to debate coping mechanisms for distress and grief.
Elizabeth Neilson, a High School English teacher at Twin Cities Academy, in St. Paul, MN, uses Coriolanus to teach Marxist theory. “When they read a text written centuries ago that addresses events and people from even longer ago, it is easier for them to divorce their analysis from their biases and inherited beliefs about class in the modern era.”
However, Lorena German, National Council of Teachers of English, Anti-Racism Committee chair and co-founder of the Disrupt Texts forum – which suggests a wide range of literature for study – said that she felt Shakespeare should be scrapped.
And while teachers have little say over their syllabus, there also isn’t the budget in schools. Even if they were able to do something about it, they wouldn’t be able to afford it.
However, others have argued that the newest woke trend is blinded and not taking into consideration the universal lessons that Shakespeare can teach us today. Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and fellow playwright, argued that Shakespeare was “not of an age but for all time.”
Claire Bruncke, who taught language arts classes at a small, rural public school in Washington State, dropped Shakespeare from her syllabus. “I asked my principal if there was a requirement for how much Shakespeare I needed to cover.” She was told that as long as she was teaching the standards, it didn’t matter. She used the time they would’ve spent on Shakespeare for writing labs and reading anthologies and novels not typically found within the curriculum, claiming that her students’ positive feedback to this work solidified her decision.
With new additions, richer conversations may arise, and there is also deeper engagement and more connections with the texts. Embracing diversity in literature will enrich students’ lives, voices, and experiences. The Warwick Journal of Education Transforming Teaching has explored various arguments suggesting that the works of Shakespeare aren’t relevant to the lives of youth today: “as a result, the compulsory study of Shakespeare in schools risks alienating students, many of whom come from different ethnic backgrounds.”
English teachers have long argued that Shakespeare’s texts were never intended to be taught sat down – they are plays after all. This would also offer English teachers a break and Drama teachers a boost; freeing up time in English lessons to cover a wider range of diverse texts from other ethnicities and cultures.
However, it’s still open for debate and plenty of his plays are as relevant today as on the day they were written. The themes and ideas that run through Shakespeare’s work are universal, surpassing barriers like race and class. The Warwick Journal on Transforming Teaching proposes strong progressive solutions to the current issue, stating that “it is outdated teaching practices that limit the advantages of Shakespeare.” They suggest a spread of creative approaches to the teaching and learning of Shakespeare which have the potential to increase student engagement.
Whatever you feel about the issue, it is extremely contentious, more so now than ever. Plays in Shakespeare’s day were subjected to censorship from the monarchy and government – yet he continued to put on his plays regardless. Have we moved backward from Shakespeare’s era? Surely not?