To Bard or Not to Bard
In the last several years, an alarming trend has developed on many prestigious college campuses. Universities such as Dartmouth, Amherst, and Georgetown have dropped Shakespeare as required reading for English majors. These universities encourage students to eschew the Bard in favour of contemporary authors and pop culture theory. The displacement of Shakespeare on college campuses represents a grievous error. By marginalizing Shakespeare and encouraging students to champion the mundane, great universities will become marginal themselves.
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An oft-cited argument for dropping Shakespeare focuses on the “difficulty” of his language. Students and some educators argue that Shakespeare is too difficult to understand. In fact, people use Shakespeare’s language all the time. How many people say “for goodness’ sake!”? Have something “vanish into thin air”? Won’t “budge an inch”? “Have seen better days”? Felt “tongue-tied”? Students who say Shakespeare is “Greek to me” reject him with his very words.
Besides enriching our language with these vivid images, Shakespeare also introduced a myriad of new words into our vocabulary. Because of Shakespeare, we can exclaim over the “obscene,” weep at an “assassination,” loathe a “premeditated” crime and marvel at the “submerged” Titanic. Shakespeare serves as a progenitor of Modern English. Those who study the English language and literature are remiss if they ignore the vast contributions of Shakespeare.
Additionally, having a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare ensures that a student recognizes many of the touchstones of English literature. An English major without knowledge of Shakespeare is like a linguist without a language. Artists refer to Shakespeare so often that to be ignorant of the Bard is to miss the significance of many other works. Authors expand the dimensions of their works when they allude to Shakespeare: witness Brave New World, Kiss me Kate, or To Be or Not to Be. Students unfamiliar with Shakespearean allusions cannot appreciate fully an author’s intent.
Another argument offered against Shakespeare attacks his relevancy—Shakespeare is too old to be studied. If we believe this argument, we reject love, laughter, betrayal, murder, tyranny, and loss as facets of our lives. What tabloid shies away from the latest Hollywood romance? Who did not weep over the tragic loss of our dreams of a new Camelot? Who will deny the frightening power and cruelty of Bin Laden? When we reject Shakespeare, we reject our humanity. We lose the ability to know about ourselves.
Finally, while college campuses eagerly push aside the Bard, one community consistently recognizes the universality of Shakespeare: the film industry. Intellectual institutions reject Shakespeare as popular culture embraces him. In the last ten years, Hollywood has produced numerous films based on Shakespeare’s work. There have been direct adaptations like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Romeo and Juliet, as well as movies like 10 Things I Hate About You, which borrow from Shakespeare’s plots. From Kenneth Branagh’s word for word production of Hamlet to the highly derivative Shakespeare in Love, Hollywood recognizes the timeless appeal of a Shakespearean plot.
In studying Shakespeare, English majors fine-tune their intellectual and emotional capacity to understand a work of literature. Students do themselves a great disservice to ban Shakespeare from their course of study.
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