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Shakespeare Matters -- Writer's Poke #446

In high school I didn’t know much about Shakespeare, and I didn’t care. If we did read any of his work in any of my English classes, I’m sure it was Romeo and Juliet, which is probably one of his most “accessible” plays. I don’t recall if we read it or not, though, as I’ve done a fairly good job of blacking out all memories of English classes from high school.

My freshman year was my last year in Honors English. At that point in my life, I didn’t know the meaning of homework or studying. If I didn’t know something immediately, it probably wasn’t worth knowing, or so I thought. Besides, each English period was a perfect opportunity to work on my novel. I called it a novel, but it was actually just episodic scribbling. I spent an entire year working on my writing, but I have to admit it was crap. I wish I would have had more direction on how to write, but like I said, I wasn’t in the mindset to study craft. That wouldn’t happen until college.

By the time I reached college, I fell into being an English major. This was rather unexpected, as I hadn’t previously enjoyed reading, per se. Other than reading about ten William F. Buckley spy novels, I can’t remember reading any books prior to college. I read a lot of magazines cover to cover, but no books. Certainly not Shakespeare.

If a sign of cultural literacy is being about to identify five plays by Shakespeare, I would have failed the test. By the start of my sophomore year in college, however, I was hooked on books. I was so hooked that I signed up for a Shakespeare class in the summer. As I recall, most of the students in this class didn’t have a serious interest in being there. Some, I’m sure, were English majors, but they were there mainly to knock out a quick class. Who wants to spend three hours every morning for five weeks learning about Shakespeare?

Actually, what could be better than that? Unfortunately, the professor considered himself to be more actor than teacher. He would spend the class time doing “dramatic readings” of each play’s most essential scenes. All his performances did, however, was to remind me of why I hated English classes in high school. In high school, students would be called to read paragraphs out loud, and this could be quite a painful experience to listen to. A lot of high school students, believe it or not, cannot read very well, especially out loud. Their voices are monotone, and they mispronounce many of the words. While my college professor tried to add some passion to his performance, I didn’t find having Shakespeare spoken to me to help my appreciation any.

I have to admit that I had just discovered Cliffs Notes, and although I would read each play, I would immediately read the summary and analysis of the “experts.” For some reason, I guess I still thought that literature could be distilled down into an “answer.” Yes, I had a lot to learn. Shakespeare, or any great author, cannot be captured in plot or theme or symbolism. Reading Shakespeare is an experience, and maybe I wouldn’t realize that fully until I had the opportunity to read his work more thoughtfully as a graduate student.

Does Shakespeare matter? Yes, very much so, but it would take me about ten years of dedicated study to fully (or maybe just partially?) understand why.

Almost 500 years later, William Shakespeare is still considered to be the greatest writer (in the English language) of all time. What is your experience with Shakespeare, and does he “matter” to you?

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” – William Shakespeare


  1. I feel like Shakespeare's works are a bit too worldly and sophisticated for the average 15-year-old. Anything beyond Romeo and Juliet is pushing it. If i read his stuff now, I'm sure I would have a much greater appreciation for it. After all, I have lived many years at this point, and I have developed feelings and opinions and theories about life.

    I didn't know that you dropped out of honors English. I did that with math after freshman year. I just didn't see any point to it. I could do the work, but I really didn't WANT to do the work. I slacked off on my math homework, and it affected my test scores. Essentially, I didn't learn much. When I went into regular math, I spent all of my junior and senior year doing stuff that we had been doing in freshman honors.

    In case you didn't know, we read a lot of Shakespeare in honors English. I believe we read Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth, Hamlet and Taming of the Shrew. I might be forgetting something. We also read Canterbury Tales and Oedipus. I really liked Oedipus. It was twisted! I think we might have read The Odyssey or The Iliad or both. I'm not sure. That means that, if we did read it, I probably didn't like it much.

  2. I agree with Ron that high schoolers are not quite ready for Shakespear. When Hollywoo takes his basic plot and makes it into a movie (Romeo and Juliet with Clair Danes and Leonardo DiCapprio or Ten Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew) with Heath Ledger)the kids can relate and enjoy the story.

    However, those movies do not convey the story within a story that Shakespear is famous for nor do they convey the rich language he uses.

    I like the idea of introducing Shakespear in high school but feel that deeper studies and understanding will happen in college or graduate school.

    In high school I didn't have any appreciation for learning at all. I basically tried to just stay under the radar and didn't push myself to achieve. In college, I LOVED learning. Perhaps because I went to college late in life I had more willingess and desire to learn.

    Ron, we did read Oedipus as well as the Illiad. I am pretty sure we did read The Odyssey as well but I am not positive. What I remember most is Mr. Wilson never got my name right and he used to have us gather in a circle for "critical discussions" which I loved. I love listening to others share their views or opinions.


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