Why Study Shakespeare?

n between wondering why you have to study algebraic equations, the Vietnam War, parts of a dissected fetal pig, and problems of a democratic government, you may have had opportunity to wonder why you have to study Shakespeare. If you want reasons, here are reasons:

1. He’s considered to be the greatest poet in the English language, or at least among the top five in just about any list. There might  be a reason for it–aren’t you curious?

2. His plays have been performed, discussed, parodied, adapted and analyzed so much it’s hard to escape 10-thingsreferences to them in popular culture. Would you care to meet the mastermind behind O and 10 Things I Hate About You? Have you ever read, “If you prick us, will we not bleed,” or “Some have greatness thrust upon them” and wondered where the quote came from? Should you be insulted if someone compares you to Ophelia or Romeo? Are you sure you can make it through life without knowing this stuff?

3. No writer in the world has created more enduring characters. That’s often said, but one reason why people like Beatrice, Juliet, Hamlet, and Falstaff seem so alive is that there has never been a definitive interpretation of them. They are never “fixed,” but always flowing. What Shakespeare gives us is not “characters,” so much as character itself. Hamlet (to use the most famous example) occupies a territory we might call Hamletland, with certain well-defined virtues, faults, and personality traits. But it’s up to the reader thinking about him or the actor interpreting him to locate the person. Or (changing the
metaphor) to create a recognizable human being out of the materials given. I can’t think of any other author who demands that much participation from his audience.

R+J4.The plays themselves are wide open as well. Most of them are simple plots told by several speakers in beautiful (sometimes frustrating) poetry. But what’s the motivation of these people? What do they know and when do they know it? What’s not so good about the good guys, and is there any hope for the bad guys? You decide! Created long before video games, e-books, and the internet, this stuff is real interactive media.

5. Even though he wrote for his own time and place, with attitudes very far from ours, Shakespeare understood what it means to be human. It means doubt, despair, envy, ecstasy, rage, revenge, love, lust, triumph, tribulation and occasionally going crazy. Or feeling like it. Connecting with a character who expresses some of your own joys and sorrows is a way of reassuring yourself that you are not alone. All good literature does this; Shakespeare does it in spades.

6. Guys–it’s a great way to meet girls. As Cole Porter said,

Just declaim a few lines from “Othella,”

And they’ll think you’re a helluva fella.”

(from Kiss Me, Kate, copyright 1948 by Cole Porter)

Okay–some of the girls might be weak-eyed English-teachers-in-training who stumble over things and bump into walls because they’ ve always got their noses in books. But they have beautiful souls.

The enduring appeal of Shakespeare is hard to define, but I think it has something to do with mystery. Most authors inhabit their work–they bring a certain point of view, philosophy of life and quality of feeling to the characters and stories they create. These things are not exactly lacking in Shakespeare, but they’re very hard to pin down. He created the structure, but he doesn’t live in it. That’s why his work is so open, so flexible and so rich–because he doesn’t dominate it. He left room for you.

That’s why you should give him a chance, just to see what all the fuss is about.