This morning, I received a book that I ordered online, ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ by Charles and Mary Lamb. Written by brother and sister and originally published in 1807, it is a retelling of some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays in language and form accessible to young readers. As Charles and Mary wrote in the Preface, “What these tales shall have been to the young readers, that and much more it is the writers’ wish that the true plays of Shakespeare may prove to them in older years – enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity: for of examples, teaching these virtues, his pages are full.” (p.7, ‘Tales from Shakespeare’, Wordsworth Editions, Hertfordshire, UK, 1994). All of the above are certainly admirable reasons to study the Bard, but if you need five more, perhaps less abstract and more ‘modern’, than read on!
Cultural Significance: Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in history, and his works have had a profound impact on the development of English language and literature. Studying his plays can provide students with insights into the cultural and historical context in which they were written.
Literary Analysis Skills: Shakespeare’s plays are complex and challenging, requiring students to develop strong critical thinking skills and an ability to analyze literary texts. This can help them to become better readers, writers, and thinkers. This is an especially important skill for high school students, as many of their subjects, particularly the humanities, require essays which show a student’s ability to dig deep into a text.
Universal Themes: Shakespeare’s works explore universal themes that are still relevant today, such as love, power, jealousy, betrayal, and morality. Studying these themes can help students to develop a deeper, contextual understanding of the human condition and the complexities of human relationships. Having the ability to draw comparisons between the universal themes in Shakespeare and popular literature and film (many of which are based on Shakespeare’s plays or characters), is a valuable skill. Viewing in this way helps young people to ‘step outside themselves’ and assess their place in the world and the meaning they see around them.
Language Development: Shakespeare’s language is rich, poetic, and often challenging. Studying his plays can help students to improve their vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, and can also help them to appreciate the beauty and power of language. In fact, an appreciation of the richness of Shakespearean language is what drove the Lamb siblings to write their book. As they remark in the Preface, “If…the question and the reply, should sometimes seem tedious to their young ears, they must pardon it, because it was the only way in which could be given to them a few hints and little foretastes of the great pleasure which awaits them in their elder years, when they come to the rich treasures from which these small and valueless coins are extracted; pretending to no other merit than as faint and imperfect stamps of Shakespeare’s matchless image. Faint and imperfect images they must be called, because the beauty of his language is too frequently destroyed by the necessity of changing many of his excellent words into words far less expressive of his true sense, to make it read something like prose..” (p.5-6, ‘Tales from Shakespeare’, Wordsworth Editions, Hertfordshire, UK, 1994)
Career Opportunities: This may be a surprising reason and certainly one that did not initially appear to me as relevant. However, a strong understanding of Shakespeare can be beneficial for students who are interested in pursuing careers in fields such as literature, theater, film, or education. Some of the world’s most famous actors are classically trained, Shakespearean performers; Sir Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Laurence Olivier (perhaps the most famous!) and many more. Studying Shakespeare can also be useful in other fields that require strong communication and analytical skills.
So the next time your child comes home from school, complaining about the Shakespeare play they have to read, maybe try some of the above reasons on them! You never know, they might even become future lovers of the Bard!