A majority of English speakers have most likely read or — at the very least — heard of William Shakespeare. Whether it was reading Romeo and Juliet in class or partaking in a discussion of his impact on the modern playwright, almost every student has encountered Shakespeare in an educational setting.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust places William Shakespeare’s importance on the legacy of his works. They conclude that the root of his importance is his plays’ “enduring presence on stage and film”, but relevancy should not be the only metric for someone’s talent. Playwrights before Shakespeare’s time were arguably more talented, but a majority of their works are unfortunately lost.
The Greek playwright Sophocles has seven surviving plays, but he wrote around 121. The survival rate for his works is roughly five percent. If he was blessed with the preservation of his works, who is to say he couldn’t have been as prominent as Shakespeare in the education system?
Educators seem fascinated with Shakespeare’s plays and influence. But what exactly is unique about him? An argument in favor of The Bard’s individualism is his ability to incorporate universal themes into stories of the human experience.
Shakespeare is not the first person, historically, to write universally appealing and thought provoking literary works. Playwrights before and after Shakespeare successfully told stories of grief, loss and joy without the unnecessary complexity of his plots and prose.
Sophocles invokes the same audience emotions — in less time — within his play Oedipus the King. One can argue that it isn’t an original work, as Sophocles took inspiration from Greek mythology. However, the public response to his plays can only be attributed to his talent for storytelling and writing.
The characteristics of ignorance, arrogance and grief in Oedipus still resonate with modern audiences, making the play just as relatable to the human experience as Shakespeare’s works.
Another argument regards his invention of vocabulary and skilled phrasing. However, what some may interpret as “skilled” has left modern students locked in a never-ending cycle of confusion and translation. Educators hand students a script of Macbeth and expect their knowledge of the modern English language to assist them in reading the works of an Elizabethan playwright.
All meaning of the story is lost due to the archaic vocabulary. Shakespeare is no longer being studied in school for his work, but simply for his name.
The time spent teaching students how to interpret Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English could instead be spent reading the plays of more digestible, dramatic authors.
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a lighter read than any of Shakespeare’s plays and delves into themes of marriage, social class and societal expectations more effectively. Replacing Macbeth, Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a play by August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry or Samuel Beckett is a more productive use of a student’s time.
Teaching Shakespeare’s writing and using his plays as an educational tool is acceptable — if not helpful — for the enrichment of a student’s literary knowledge. However, reading more than five of his works over the course of one’s education is absurdly repetitive and uninformative.
This is not an argument to stop teaching Shakespeare or to wipe him from school curriculums. Shakespeare still deserves credit as an influential playwright in the history of literature.
However, a majority of today’s students will read his plays and leave their desks with a mild — or extreme — distaste for dramatic literature. William Shakespeare is not cultivating the literary education of students but instead murdering any potential interest in the subject.
Sofia Piolanti is a freshman studying Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Do you agree that Shakespeare is overrated? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.