“Step Aside, Shakespeare” ?

31 Aug

Don’t mess with the Bard.

So, maybe we don’t know if “Shakespeare” was an alias, or whether the writer of the plays and poetry was Sir Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere or really and truly the son of a farmer from Stratford-upon-Avon.  What we can agree on, however, is that he was one of the greatest (heck, he was the greatest) writers in English history.

Or at least, I thought we could agree on that.

Apparently not, according to my lovely university student newspaper, which ran an article today stating that the consensus of the editorial board wants a “reform” of English education.  “Learning,” they say:

Should not be a chore.  Rather, it should be a pleasure.  It’s time to reform the way we teach people to embrace reading.  Make way for education, not anguish.  Step aside, Shakespeare.

Now generally, I have little to complain about when it comes to the Crimson White.  Mediocre writing on moderately interesting topics usually makes for a thoroughly mild reading experience.  There’s the occasional angry letter to the editor, of course, and the self-important guest column from some student luminary, but overall—there’s just not much to say about the Crimson White.

Which is why I’m not too surprised to find contempt for “a thick classic filled with incomprehensible prose and old-fashioned themes” within its pages.

I agree with the editorial board that English education in most high schools and elementary schools doesn’t always instill a ravenous hunger for knowledge in its students.  But don’t fault the material for that—fault the completely undeserved stigma that you, campus journalists, are perpetuating in your own columns.

Shakespeare was a friggin’ genius.

You might not understand some of his “incomprehensible prose,” but did anyone ever tell you just how much of the prose we use today, in our most prosaic conversations, was invented by good ol’ Bill?  Here’s a small sample:

“All that glitters is gold” (Merchant of Venice)

“The be-all and end-all” (Macbeth)

“Best foot forward”  (King John)

“Dog will have his day” (Hamlet)

“Eaten me out of house and home” (Henry IV)

“Jealousy is the green-eyed monster” (Othello)

“Kill with kindness” (Taming of the Shrew)

“In a pickle” (The Tempest)

“There’s a method to my madness” (Hamlet)

“Neither rhyme nor reason” (As You Like It)

“Too much of a good thing” (As You Like It)

“Wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet)

And that’s only a small selection.  Along with common turns of phrase we use, he coined words as well:  accused (n), accommodation, amazement (n), bachelorship, bandit, birthplace, cold-blooded, coldhearted, to compromise, dauntless, deafening, dexterously, to educate, enthroned, eyeball, eyesore, fortune-teller, gloomy, hoodwinked, housekeeping, invitation, lackluster, leapfrog, majestic, manager (n), multitudinous, obscene, puppy-dog, bedazzled, and many many more.

(Yes—you can thank William Shakespeare for the name of that staple of infomercials with which you can stick rhinestones on your jeans, or whatever.)

So while the sentence structure might be difficult for us today, just think: people in Shakespeare’s time didn’t know what the heck he was talking about either.

But not only this (and this is no small matter, to essentially reinvent the English language into its modern form), Shakespeare also wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in this language:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts  (As You Like It)

This is by no means the best example, but it does refute the Crimson White’s assertion that “classics” deal only with “old-fashioned themes.”  Read the lines above and tell me that they don’t apply just as well today as they did in Elizabethan England.

Not to mention that Shakespeare was way ahead of his time dealing with issues such as race (Othello) and gender (Merchant of Venice, As You Like It), which a lot of Americans didn’t start thinking about until the 1960s and 70s.

Even the structure of his plays show how far ahead in the game Shakespeare was: Antony and Cleopatra, for example, switches between wildly different settings– Rome, Alexandria, Messina, Syria, on board a ship at sea.  And he didn’t have CGI, either.  Shakespeare was anticipating the screenplay.

Yes, I agree that English education is not always inspiring, but that doesn’t mean we should take writers such as Shakespeare off of the pedestal they very rightfully deserve.  Don’t lower the bar and erect a monument to Averageness: show students that there already are monumental works of literature, and that they are understandable, and that they are incredibly relevant even today.


Coined quotes and words from:



2 Responses to ““Step Aside, Shakespeare” ?”

  1. eebrinker August 31, 2009 at 11:53 am #

    My English teacher in high school spent an entire semester having us read aloud the works of Shakespeare in class. And it was the most well-spent hours of my education.

    The reason he had us read it aloud, was so that we would pick up on the meter a little better, and to ensure that we actually read it. He found it THAT important. And it is.

    I appreciate the listing of coined words and phrases you have listed here. As a modern poet, it becomes discouraging in one’s attempts to mold the language. And Shakespeare is proof that it is, indeed, possible.

  2. CSB August 31, 2009 at 2:22 pm #


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