I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently (and over the past few years) about why studying Shakespeare is important: people question the relevance of the plays to modern students and whether the difficulty of the language is worth pushing teenagers through weeks of potential frustration.
Those aren’t the only problems people raise, but they are the most common. For me, these aren’t problems. These are the reasons I think reading Shakespeare is important.
Students need to understand that Shakespeare is relevant. The questions he asks in the plays are often universal; the characters are thought-provoking; and everyone needs a good penis joke now and again. Students need to understand that their questions and struggles in life are part of being human. Can this be demonstrated in modern literature? Of course. Shakespeare demonstrates the familiar human experience hundreds of years before our own.
The language poses another problem: it can be difficult, but if students never do anything difficult, how will they learn? That’s a short version of a much longer answer, but students need to experience some frustration and know that it’s alright.
As a side note to that, it’s also time to shift how Shakespeare is taught. He wrote plays. Not books. It’s time that students experienced Shakespeare: they should read it aloud, act out scenes, become involved creating the world of the play.
Students need to experience the play as a play.
Let students fall in love with Shakespeare. Let them discover what it might mean to “tread the boards.”