Are Shakespeare’s 500 Year Old Works Still Relevant?

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“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

– King Richard III (Act V, Scene IV).

My assignment was to tutor a seventh grader. Her grade in English had slipped dangerously and now it was time for the final test: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. We were at ground zero. She not only had no idea what the play she had studied in class was about, she had very little interest in finding out. I had twenty-four hours. How could I help a modern teenager, fan of Taylor Swift, Texting, and Twitter, feel empathy for a troupe of actors from the 16th Century? She was, first, surprised to hear that the key players were her age. In As You Like It, the lead characters are teenagers on their own, without adult supervision, adrift in an alluring forest, and falling deeply and madly in love.

Really? This boring play is about the things I am most interested in – friends, freedom, and love? She looked skeptical.We began to read the play aloud together, stopping often to clarify or answer questions. After a short while she was reading with expression and comprehension. “I get it!” she said, with a note of wonder. As we sat in her fuchsia colored bedroom with a spangled cell phone on mute beside her, she read the exquisite lines of passion, rivalry, longing, betrayal, and rebellion, written centuries ago. Lines that will be as true and pertinent hundreds of years from now because the emotions that they evoke are universal. Particularly for teenagers, who feel life so keenly and wrenchingly; who can’t eat, who can’t sleep, who can’t think of anything except the beloved, who rage against the status quo, who grapple with uncertainty and insecurity, whose hearts are quickly broken and quickly mended, who experience bewilderment and bedazzlement daily – feelings that ring true whether they are expressed through the lyricism of hip hop or the pen of Shakespeare:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/12/06/word-kelefa-sanneh

There is a definite prejudice against Shakespeare – one that assumes the text will be too hard. This prejudice probably began for most of us in high school, where the required Shakespeare Unit is often taught by dispassionate teachers. Hamlet is young, unsure, handsome, troubled, vulnerable, angry, fatherless, confused, misbegotten in love, distrustful and suicidal. How could any teenager not relate? Shakespeare plays offer murder, insanity, treachery, fools, fairies, ghosts, humor, prostitutes, thieves, witches, wizards, beggars, and the greatest love stories ever told. His works help us to understand what it is to be human. Noble heroines, like the strong and independent Rosalind in As You Like It, continue to be inspirational. We are encouraged when evil is exposed and punished in a logical way, as in Macbeth’s guilt ridden descent into madness, and we long, in these technocratic times, whether we are aware of it or not, for ephemeral and ethereal midsummer night’s dreams. In an age in which most teenagers communicate with monosyllables, we need such flights of fancy as this:

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” Romeo and Juliet

Or the quintessential Shakespearean rogue’s remark:

“I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed.”

Students should be exposed to Shakespeare in school as early as possible, because the longer one waits, the more daunting it becomes. Get them interested in the story, make it personal, accessible, and relevant to their daily lives, break the text down into understandable parts, and the confidence that the novice Shakespearean scholar will feel will be matched by the enchanted consciousness of having been touched across the centuries by magic:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=72pyUuNLuoE

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“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on,  and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”

Prospero – The Tempest

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