Shakespeare in School: Boring or Brilliant?

Over the course of my four years in high school English classes, I had to read many Shakespeare plays. While I knew that Shakespeare was a renowned playwright and poet, I never enjoyed reading his plays in school — I found them confusing and largely irrelevant to modern life. However, in college, after taking a class devoted to reading eight of his plays over the course of nine weeks, I completely changed my mind.

I have come to realize that to truly place myself in Shakespeare’s world, I cannot merely read the characters’ lines in my head. Shakespeare’s plays deserve to be read aloud — for it is impossible to hear the meter and rhythm of the dialogue without the spoken word. Even when I am reading aloud, I often struggle to visualize and keep track of the various characters.

A few of my high school English teachers made the mistake to assign Shakespeare for nightly reading. Particularly with plays as dark and complex as Titus Andronicus or A Merchant of Venice, it is crucial to see the work performed to understand Shakespeare’s world — or at the very least, they should have ensured that we read the plays aloud.

Unlike novels, plays are not designed to create an imaginary world all by themselves. They rely on stage directions and the actors’ interpretation of the lines to bring the tale to life. The meanings of the plays are also completely altered by the performance and the director’s decisions— is the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream tragic or hilarious? Is the Indian boy a boy, or is he a young man? If he is a man, does this alter the source of Oberon’s envy?

Shakespeare’s world is not so different from our own. His characters struggle with issues of race, gender, and sexuality just as our society does today. But it is much harder to empathize with Viola, Rosalind, and Othello when their voices are reduced to words on the page. Shakespeare has the potential to teach young students a great deal, but for his work to truly come alive, we must hear and see his plays before us rather than expect reading to do all of the work.

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