As an English teacher in the making, there was a time in college when I was constantly involved with the works of Shakespeare. I’d write lengthy papers about his plays for one course and then plan high school lessons about his sonnets in another. After being asked to include his works in lesson objectives, vocabulary quizzes, and “big questions” for high school lessons, I began to question the role of The Bard in secondary-level classrooms.
Sure, I could plan a lesson and drag unwilling kids along through the dated concepts of romance, crude jokes, or violence that is supposed to make Shakespeare approachable to the younger crowd. At the same time, if you have to explain a joke, then it isn’t funny.
I went ahead and taught Romeo and Juliet to a group of 9th graders at the end of my student teaching experience. While I was still riding high off a capstone seminar on Shakespeare’s works, I quickly found that several problems are inherent with the works when teaching them to a young audience.
For starters, you have to take an inordinate amount of time just to explain the language, history, and framework that goes into the plays. Now, I know a lot of fellow teachers want to slap me in the head. That’s the point. You teach history, language, and writing with just one guy.
With the structure in a modern high school English class, you’re lucky to have thirty solid minutes to teach students. With testing schedules going haywire, students missing days, and having a specific number of days to cram in material, there just isn’t enough time to go over everything. At least, there is not enough time to make it worth the level of effort required for students to make sense of Shakespeare.
That is completely glossing over the day-to-day problems that come with an overall lack of reading comprehension in students with lower skill sets, but time is always a critical factor in modern high schools. Now that it’s harder than ever to convince administrators to assign reading outside of school, that time budget needs to be spent more carefully. If we’re going to trim the time to teach the play to two weeks, it would be better used on a more approachable and enriching text, right?
There are plenty of modern books that can teach unique vocabulary and themes without all the extra baggage that comes with the name Shakespeare.
As I struggled to get the students more invested in Romeo and Juliet, I came up with all kinds of great ideas to get the students’ attention and help them understand the story. Catching a live performance was not possible given time constraints and the school budget, but many of these plays are not meant to be used as closet dramas. They’re meant to be performed and viewed by a live crowd. Viewing the play allows students to see the action and follow along with the overarching plot that can sometimes be lost when parsing the text for its special moments and soliloquies.
In an attempt to make the play relatable, I was encouraged to let the students watch Romeo + Juliet for the first act of the play. The “modern” film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, and I can only consider it to be a hot mess.
It’s fast and cheesy, but I wanted to use it as a talking point. It was definitely a bad effort on my part because I had to go back and re-contextualize the play for them when we read it as a class.
No, Casey. There are no cars in the play.
No, Arjun. The “longswords” are not really guns.
Yet, that is one of the problems that you run into when you’re trying to be relatable with a text that is four centuries old. Getting past the language barriers of “thou” and “dost” can complicate the students’ understanding of the play, especially if they are tasked to read it on their own.
Between the amount of time that is needed to get through the play and the difficulty in helping lower-achieving students understand the basic plot and story, it became clear to me that teaching this play was hardly worth it. Sure, it might improve reading comprehension, but have western writers not made anything that can have the same result after four hundred years? I doubt it.
So why do we teach it? Well, I suppose that we mostly teach Shakespeare because of the relatable characters and themes, multiple means of approaching the work through modern interpretations, and the belief that his plays are seminal works in theater. I love Billy’s works like many other English teachers, but I think the reverence outweighs the relevance.
But what good are those themes to ninth graders that are struggling to read works in modern English? Do they care that young love and not thinking about consequences could affect them at some point? Is it worth all the effort every single year? In my opinion, no. I’d say save Shakespeare for the high achievers in honors and advanced placement courses. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time, energy, and good writing.