Opinion: A hit piece on the most overrated author of all time amidst calls for a more diverse reading curriculum
I really hate reading Shakespeare. Touted as the greatest writer of all time, Shakespeare had an incredible influence on English language and English literature. Despite his influence, his plays are no longer relevant for our English classrooms and should be the first to go when we replace them for a more diverse reading list.
William Shakespeare was one playwright, only one perspective from one moment in time and space. Much of our time is spent reading his plays, with one seemingly popping up every other year [since as early as 7th grade in FUSD]. Reading only one of his plays would be enough, which brings me to another point: Why are we reading plays that were meant to be watched?
Shakespeare never intended for his plays to be read, they were meant to be performed and viewed by an audience in a theater. Much of the writing in place was meant to exaggerate what would otherwise not be obviously known in a play setting. Many visual aspects were converted to dialogue or monologue in order to make sure the theater could hear, if not see, what was taking place. This results in poorly aged lines such as “O, I am slain!” when Polonius is stabbed to his death in The Tragedy of Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 4). Actions and setting, in Shakespeare’s time, had to be verbalized, resulting in awkward and wordy dialogues. In addition, the style of language employed in Shakespeare’s plays is now obsolete and outdated. Why force students to read early modern English when even modern slang would be more appropriate for future use?
Most importantly, many of the common themes in Shakespeare novels are antiquated and poorly varied. The most recurring themes are misogynistic and classist, perpetuating harmful ideologies without correcting them. In The Tragedy of Hamlet, the only two female characters, Ophelia and Queen Gertrude, exist to be harmed by men’s actions, much like the female characters present across Shakespeare’s plays. Women’s deaths are the results of men’s actions in the play, and female characters who defy the gender norms and roles in the play are either killed off or tamed into submission as a consequence. Students do not see themselves in the women of Shakespeare; putting oneself in their shoes only limits the full complexities and potential female characters could have. Moreover, the classist narratives skew our perspectives on history and the settings of Shakespeare’s plays. Nearly all the plays focus on characters from upper class backgrounds: lords and ladies, kings and queens, princes and princesses. The narratives are limited by the immense privilege the characters begin with. The struggles of ordinary people are never explored as their circumstances are mocked instead.
Instead of expecting high schoolers to identify with Shakespeare’s flat characters, let’s give them a more varied list of books: books with women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized people taking the lead. Books written by authors from different backgrounds and cultures, and books that challenge the narratives presented to us, rather than those which reinforce them.
Shakespeare’s plays have importance, but far too much value is placed on his narratives and perspectives. Educators must reconsider whose voices are the most valuable and insightful for the future generations to read, and understand that Shakespeare will never be able to keep up with our rapidly changing classrooms and society.