Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?
|Mary Wakefield Buxton|
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— Do schools still teach Shakespeare? For years I’ve heard rumors that in some quarters Shakespeare is no longer considered relevant. This school of thought classifies the Bard from Stratford on Avon among “dead, white, European males” and believes such writers passé. This argument centers on the idea that anyone writing almost 500 years ago in the genres of plays and sonnets couldn’t possibly have much bearing on the advanced, hi-tech society of today.
Back in the days when Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the earth, when global warming was a natural phenomenon and not caused by man, and I was a child going through Ohio Public Schools when the young were still exposed to works of dead, white, European males, I studied Shakespeare. The curricula then called for “Romeo and Juliet” in the 8th grade, “Macbeth” in the 10th, and “Julius Caesar” in the 12th. In addition, our class attended a theatrical presentation of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I can still remember the utter joy of being transformed into Shakespeare’s fantastic green world of forest and fairies and the wondrous magical antics thereof.
Did such early exposure to Shakespeare ruin me? Did my love for this great poet that stemmed from early contact trigger a lifetime distortion of what good literature really is? Was I deprived of numerous contemporary and much more relevant writers because of an archaic academic program that insisted on Shakespeare?
What worthwhile ideas did I glean from such risky exposure? My English teachers of the past would surely smile to hear me opine today that Shakespeare taught me a great deal at an early age about the “Seven Deadly Sins”—lust, greed, envy, pride, sloth, gluttony, and anger—not to mention human propensity for plain everyday foolishness.
I wonder if schools today ever mention the Seven Deadly Sins, which originated in Greek philosophy? Not that children need to learn such lessons in today’s highly-sophisticated world where such a word as “sin” is hardly mentioned. And who knows? It may even be illegal to utter such a word in public today because of dangerous religious overtones.
Shakespeare was a writer who ardently believed our own internal character flaws were the cause of failures in life and not external factors. (What an interesting idea!) And, if human beings could control damaging wrongful inner impulses they might lead more successful lives. Or . . . as a more contemporary writer so well put it when he wrote, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
How refreshing to hear a writer tell us to stop casting blame on others for our problems and look to ourselves to improve life conditions! Oh, dear teachers, bring back Shakespeare!
There are many other reasons for children to study this greatest writer in the English language if not just for simple exposure to the pure genius of this writer’s uncanny grasp of language. Shakespeare is surely the best source for rich vocabulary development and appreciation of beauty of language, along with an introduction to impelling, unforgettable characters and plots that stay with readers for a lifetime.
Shakespeare was the quintessential “canary in the cave” that gives out warning to all those who travel through life to watch out for fundamental human pitfalls that lie ahead. It is not the “stars” that bring us down, but those wild and raucous birds that roost in every human brain—the “Seven Deadly Sins,”—can destroy us if not controlled.
At age 14, I read in “Romeo and Juliet” how premature romance could end in tragedy for a couple too young and immature to cope with problems of adult love—not a bad idea for the young to be exposed to today? Later in high school I read how unbridled ambition in both “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar” had ended their careers in tragedy.
If my generation held firm to the concept we are responsible for our own actions, and if we fail at our endeavors we should accept blame squarely and not try to blame others . . . was studying Shakespeare one of the reasons? If so, would other generations benefit from the same learning material?
“Julius Caesar” taught an even greater lesson—how quickly a popular elected leader can seize power, become a despot, and destroy a republic. Such an idea is so powerful that reading Shakespeare’s great play even today can send chills down the spine of freedom-loving people.
Shakespeare is filled with vastly important ideas that need to be heard by all people in every generation, the greatest is the suggestion to contemporary readers that a modern day Caesar could try to bring down our republic. Could the loss of knowledge of such ideas expressed in Shakespeare from our nation’s collective minds be the very first step?