Thursday, August 05, 2010


In Nomine Shakespiri, Amen...

I am going to risk being burned at the stake (or, if folks are feeling generous, simply poisoned) and say it:

Shakespeare is usually overrated.

People? We are talking about a HUMAN BEING here. Not a late arrival to the Greek pantheon. Not the savior of the human race. Not even the savior of the English language!

(What's really creepy is that there are probably people who would honest-to-Will try to debate that last one with me.)

I'm not saying that Shakespeare's work is either insignificant or shoddy. Quite the contrary. In fact, given the two genres in which he worked, it would be theoretically possible to structure my entire course around his works and still meet all the state standards.

Hm. That would be a really interesting challenge. However, it's not one I'm prepared to tackle right now ... maybe over spring break or at the start of next summer...

But it's like ... I mean, it's worse than dealing with the Bible. Most people are willing to agree that English translations are a good thing (don't get me started on the KJV-only crowd; that's a whole 'nother... ugh). And there's definitely a lot of debate about how closely you have to follow the words of the Hebrew or Greek, and how much you can kind of work with it to achieve what you believe was the intended meaning.

For example, IIRC the Gospel of John begins en arche kai ton logos which translates directly as in longago was the word, and I doubt you'll find that in any English Bible. But "In the beginning was the Word" is absolutely fine by the very strictest standards.

But when you're working with Shakespeare, YOU MUST NOT CHANGE ONE JOT OMG YOU PHILISTINE!!!

There are several excellent discussions over at the EC Ning that do a really good job of showing diverse viewpoints, mostly without getting hairy. That was kind of what brought all of this from the back of my mind up to the front.

See, there are lots of great reasons for teaching Shakespeare's work. But any time you choose to focus on one particular work, you are by definition also choosing to exclude every other work out there for as long as you focus on that one. Mostly? That's okay. It's a good trade-off; you sacrifice some breadth for some depth. I've deliberately gone that way with my English II course schedule, and I'm ... content with it. Maybe even happy with it. (We'll see.)

But I think that at our school - and probably at many others - Shakespeare takes up more instructional time than is reasonable. We study sonnets and a play in both ninth and tenth grade. Junior year gets a pass because it's American lit, but the senior curriculum more than makes up for it because they study more sonnets and Hamlet AND Macbeth and sometimes also Othello!

There is a whole WORLD of literature out there beyond Shakespeare. And it's a little disappointing to realize that there's no way I can do an intensive unit on Antigone, because I have to teach Julius Caesar. And even if other students are exposed to it with another teacher, there's no way there will be time to do it justice.

What other works are we willing to sacrifice on Shakespeare's altar?

Image thanks to


Clix said...

PS: I also want to emphasize that I am NOT shortchanging my unit on Julius Caesar. I am NOT rushing through or phoning it in. It is a pretty smashing unit if I do say so myself. :)

HappyChyck said...

I agree on this point. There are other authors that deserve some class time. At your school, it sounds like students get a year's worth of Shakespeare over the course of four years. Just think of what other authors could get some recognition!

Penny Kittle said...

So I just have to mention that this structure is not universal, by any means. I was visiting a school this summer that (OMG) has an OPTIONAL course in Shakespeare offered to grades 10-12. So all 9th grade students take a common course and read one Shakespeare play (you guessed it, R&J) and then from grades 10-12 the students choose Literature and the Land or Nature Journals or many other electives for 1/2 the year, and could escape from ever reading Master Will again. And yet... they beat the state and national averages and send kids to all the best schools and are considered successful by most outsiders. So what exactly do we all expect of high school students in regards to Shakespeare? And why?

Clix said...

That sounds super-neat, Penny! So are ALL the 10-12 English courses themed? Or do they do a traditional English class for half the year and pick an English elective to fill the other half?

Since we have American Lit 11th grade and British Lit 12th grade (both required by the state) I don't know if we could drop Will after 9th entirely - I feel kind of wrong about excluding him from the Brit Lit course! ;D

Knighton said...

Actually, I was told that only American lit (not it and Brit. lit.) is required by Georgia (which is where I thought you were teaching). My problem with teaching Shakespeare is that I think people focus far too much on his tragedies and not enough on his comedies. My school, too teach R&J, JC, and either M or H. I bucked the system and taught A Comedy of Errors instead of JC, which I have NEVER read!

Clix said...

Actually, over at the GPS website, it doesn't say that any of them are required, from what I can tell... but I think you may have to have four different ones, maybe? So Lit & Comp, World Lit & Comp, Multicultural Lit & Comp, and say Brit Lit & Comp would work. Or switch them out as you wanted.

Knighton said...

I think they thought that because 9th lit/comp and American lit/comp were the only ones with EOC tests. So, at JCHS, students can substitute AP lit or college English as their fourth English. But I never understood their (my higher-ups) argument for the requirement of American lit when we have students who take AP lang in its place. Those students who do are still required to take the American lit EOCT! Even thought we don't teach World lit/comp, we were told it could sub for the tenth lit/comp we do teach. I don't know where Multicultural lit/comp or Contemporary lit/comp fit in. They used to be year-long choices here, but now they are just semester classes. But I just try to keep to my little island. :)

Clix said...

Oh yeah, that makes sense. I need to avoid typing early in the morning. LOL!

lulu said...


We went from a semester elective model to a 10, 11, 12 grade model to an IB model. The elective model can be great, but at our school it became a way for teachers to teach only what they wanted to teach, ie, sports lit, women's lit, etc, and to avoid teaching grammar, vocab, etc. When we went (back) to the yearly classes, we incorporated a lot of the books from the electives, but were able to increase accountability in terms of the unfun stuff.

Lauren B

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