On the Importance of Shakespeare

Shakespeare has been under attack for a long time in our universities. Yes, he’s still mostly required reading, especially in high school (where he’s least likely to be understood), but many question whether or not Shakespeare deserves the attention he gets, primarily because he’s one of those infamous Dead White Males who haunt the hallowed halls of academic Hell. Which is why so many English departments no longer even require taking a course on Shakespeare.

If you believe that the past is nothing more than a hindrance to creating new futures, especially utopian futures, then it makes sense to just stop reading some Renaissance-era British poet-playwright–or anyone who died before you were born. But if the past is in fact important to understanding the present, and to creating a viable future, then how can you just ignore tradition?

Why, then is reading Shakespeare important?

We can start with the fact that Shakespeare introduced over 1700 words to the English language. With over 170,000 words in the English language, that means Shakespeare introduced 1% of the words we use in the English language today. People don’t seem very interested in words today, and treat them the same way as they do anything from the past: insisting we can just ignore their past (etymology, origins, etc.) because the only thing that matters is how we use words today. The problem is that words aren’t completely set free from their past–and studying the origins and relations of words can help you understand much greater things than mere vocabulary. What, for example, does it say to you that “discipline” and “disciple” (which means “pupil”) have the same origin?

And then there is the ever-growing range of Shakespeare’s influence. We’re not just talking about movie adaptations, though we could talk about that for a long time. Just consider the use of Shakespeare quotes (or near-quotes) for titles: The Sound the the Fury by William Faulkner (from King Lear);  the choice in the first English translations of Proust to use a quote from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets for the English title, Remembrance of Things Past; and many others.

And then, there are idioms. Ever use the phrase, “All that glitters is not gold”? How about “All’s well that ends well”? Have you ever waited with “bated breath”? Did you ever “refuse to budge an inch”? If you think it’s “a foregone conclusion” that “even the Devil can quote scripture” is found in the Bible, you would be wrong. It’s found in The Merchant of Venice. Providing more would be “too much of a good thing,” so let me simply refer you to a good source of such quotes here.

And that’s not all. With Sister Miriam Joseph you can learn how to learn the trivium through Shakespeare, with Frederick Turner you can learn economics through Shakespeare, and Howard Bloom even goes so far as to suggest that Shakespeare is responsible for the invention of the human.

Whether or not Bloom goes a tad too far in his claim, the fact is Shakespeare is important because his works have helped create Modern English; British culture, the Western cultures, the cultures of all of Britain’s former colonies, and, yes, world culture; and they can continue to educate us in a variety of ways. And when you see them performed, you also realize just how much fun they are.

This isn’t just a bunch of bardolotry. No, Shakespeare is woven into our culture, through the influence his works have had on our literature, theater, and films. Shakespeare is woven into our language, in our words and our idioms. If you don’t know your Shakespeare, you cannot call yourself educated–and not just in the formal sense. You cannot say you understand the language you use or the culture in which you live.

If “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (George Orwell, 19841984; not original to Rage Against the Machine), then you have to ask yourself why it is that English departments want to control that past in such a way as to exclude Shakespeare? What is so scary about him that they see him as a threat? For you may rest assured that if one seeks to censor someone’s works, directly or indirectly, it’s because they fear the influence. They fear the connections that will be made.

Did Shakespeare invent the human? Perhaps not. But perhaps he did help create the liberal human–and it’s precisely that which the illiberal forces in our culture and in our universities fear from knowing Shakespeare.

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