Why I’m Rethinking Teaching Shakespeare in My English Classroom
Romeo and Juliet is on my syllabus this year, as it has been for the last six years, in two different schools. I’m not alone—William Shakespeare is one of the most widely taught authors in U.S. English classrooms, and the only author required by name in the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts. But in recent years, my Shakespeare assignments are tinged with guilt.
I’m not the only person who is starting to question Shakespeare’s prominence in our classrooms. In 2016, students at Yale University petitioned the school to “decolonize” its reading lists, including by removing its Shakespeare requirement. Teachers are realizing that a lot of the curriculum in our classrooms privileges white, male, European voices, and are beginning to question Shakespeare’s relevance for students.
Yet the idea of removing Shakespeare from schools is fraught. A teacher who wrote a piece in The Washington Post calling for Shakespeare to be removed from the classroom was lambasted in the comments section and called a “buffoon,” among other names. Many view Shakespeare as classic literature, inherently good for everyone to read.
Five years ago, I would have agreed that teaching Shakespeare is inherently good. The English-and-theater major in me would have considered it sacrilegious to remove the Bard from our collective educational experiences.
Now, however, I feel guilty when I agree to another year of Romeo and Juliet. I still feel excited about diving into language I love with my students or helping them parse a difficult line. But at the very same time, I wonder if Shakespeare is actually good for my students to read.
Weighing the Role of a Classic
As I’ve grown as an educator, I’ve begun to question the merit and relevance of the canon, the historically white-and-male-authored list of “classic literature” works that includes Shakespeare, in my classroom.
My kids deserve to study stories that represent and validate their experiences and cultures, something I know is important for their development. Questioning how well Shakespeare serves that goal is crucial, especially considering that, as National Public Radio’s “Code Switch” podcast recently explored, some of his stories perpetuate problematic and outdated ideas about gender roles and historically oppressed cultures. The Merchant of Venice’s treatment of its Jewish character, Shylock, for instance, is widely criticized as anti-Semitic.
All of this leads me to ask: How important is it that my students read Shakespeare? Arguments about Shakespeare in schools often end in diametrically opposed solutions: Either continue to study his plays with zealous infatuation or strip them completely from classrooms.
I struggle with the idea of completely removing Shakespeare from our schools. It’s not because I love his work (though I do). And it’s not because I believe his plays are the only texts that allow students to grapple with complex or poetic language; Gabriel García Márquez or Toni Morrison, among others, provide those opportunities for students as well.
I struggle because Shakespeare’s institutionalization in our education system reflects how pervasive he is in society. His work is referenced in novels, movies, Levi’s commercials, and board games. If I remove Shakespeare from my students’ experience, I remove access to cultural capital that could help them understand some aspects of American society. Yes, our classrooms can be the place that begins to shift cultural values and introduce other voices, but I can’t ignore the fact that the world I send my students into is permeated with Shakespeare’s language and stories.
I am turning my guilt into search for balance in my own use of Shakespeare’s works. Studying Shakespeare doesn’t have to be solely “exposure to great literature.” It can be an opportunity for students to interact with a text in the American zeitgeist and form their own opinions. Our kids should interrogate the merit of Shakespeare’s plays and the amount of attention his work gets. Students can better disrupt the narrative of Shakespeare as inherently good, classic literature if they have some knowledge of his work and the history of his influence.
A Question of Balance
One way to find balance is to consider how frequently Shakespeare is required during a student’s time in school. Because of his place in the canon, Shakespeare may be over-represented in a school’s curriculum (some schools, I discovered, have students reading one play a year from 6th grade to graduation). We should question the amount of time we require study of his work compared to other writers.
At my school, I plan to ask if it’s possible to require that students read only one or two—instead of the current three—Shakespeare plays in their time with us.
We can also rethink how we use his texts. Can we involve students in the conversation, teaching them to interrogate why Shakespeare is more prevalent in our society than James Baldwin, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, or other writers from nonwhite backgrounds? Could we use excerpts of Shakespeare’s works as supplemental reading in conversation with other texts for critical analysis? Could we provide students experiences with Shakespeare while still making space for authors whose voices should not be ignored?
I believe we can and should. Additionally, we can leverage Shakespeare’s power in the literary world to discuss important issues like race and gender roles with our students. I use Romeo and Juliet to have conversations about toxic masculinity and how men are treated when they show emotion. Why does Romeo say love has made him more effeminate? What can we learn from this language about masculinity at that time? Why is Romeo berated when he cries after being banished?
One way this could work, at the high school level, is to share that NPR "Code Switch" episode, called "All That Glisters Is Not Gold," with students. In it, Shakespeare scholar Ayanna Thompson says there are “three toxic [Shakespeare] plays that resist rehabilitation and appropriation.” Students could choose one play to research (read excerpts, scholarly works, see parts of the film, etc.). Afterward, students could share whether they agree or disagree with Thompson, and possibly recommend an alternative play.
The Folger Shakespeare Library provides a good resource on using The Merchant of Venice and an adaptation called District Merchants to help students grapple with identity and difference. The Tempest can be taught through a post-colonial lens, comparing Caliban’s search for belonging and anger at Prospero to the feelings of historically colonized people. Othello is ripe for discussions about racism now, the history of racism, and how we treat “the Other.”
We must “give up Shakespeare worship,” as the Folger Shakespeare Library’s education program says. Simply because Shakespeare is prevalent does not mean his writing is sacred. Believing and teaching our students that all his works are fundamentally “good” is a disservice to our kids.
Teachers must be upfront about the problematic aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. We must call out the misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew, the racism in Othello, and the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. When I read Romeo and Juliet with my students, I pause, give a thumbs-down, and say “Boo” when the play says something misogynistic. Then, we discuss why it’s problematic. Students deserve to interrogate, disagree with, and even dislike Shakespeare’s plays.