Should we teach Shakespeare?

I spent a semester of college as Opinion Editor for the Washington Square News, NYU’s student paper, and it was easily the most enjoyable and formative few months of my college years. We did a lot of what we called point-counterpoint, where we’d run two op-eds on the same topic on the same page. The folks over at The Line have done just that on this blog’s favorite topic: the role and place of the Classics in the 21st century.

Here’s Allan Stratton on why we should “Cancel Shakespeare“:

Today’s students aren’t so much studying Shakespeare as learning to do linguistic and cultural archaeology. Or autopsies. Shakespeare is used for purposes of literary “dissection” and “analysis.” That means spotting metaphors and similes, like those kindergarten puzzle games where you find the bananas hiding in the picture. It’s like pulling the wings off flies to see how they work. Or studying a joke to understand why it’s funny.

And, this morning, I saw Sky Gilbert had argued why we shouldn’t:

This is why Shakespeare’s work must remain part of the literary canon; because his work forces students to think outside the box — to explore outrageous and unsettling ideas. Shakespeare’s work is profoundly amoral, his plays and poems refuse to provide us with an objective moral code. They do not tell us how to act, how to think, or how to live.

When I first read the piece in favor of cancellation, I made the point that some hard things are worth doing. That doesn’t help my argument that this specific thing (studying Shakespeare) is worthwhile, and I’d like to revisit that point. I’m not familiar enough to say with certainty whether Gilbert’s points on Shakespearean subversiveness is true, but I do remember reading Macbeth in school and being struck later by how many levels it was operating on.

My hypothesis is that it’s worth teaching if it’s taught well — if you don’t (as Stratton says) get bogged down in spotting metaphors and similes. In short, if you read for plot and character rather than style alone. But then again, I think most things are worth teaching if they’re taught well, and that something ought not to be taught if it can’t be taught well. That brings us to — well, how do you teach it well? I’ll noodle on it, but feel free to drop in the comments below.

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