Vanishing Shakespeare? I don’t think so.

One of the mailing lists I’m on drew my attention to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s
"Vanishing Shakespeare" report. There’s been some conversation about it on The
, too. Quite a lot of this report triggered my skepticism
reflexes. In particular:

  • The claim for an "assault on Shakespeare" at colleges and universities.*
  • The out-of-context Shakespeare quotations.**
  • The tone of horror at the fact that films are sometimes taught in Shakespeare classes.***
  • The way the report data seem to be drawn entirely from course descriptions.

written my share of course descriptions, and they’re a tricky genre: in
a couple of hundred words, you have to give a general sense of
what your class is about while also trying to entice undecided students. There’s not much room for
detailed reading lists; those details may not even be
set when the description has to be written. For all of these reasons, a
syllabus is a lot better than a course description for gauging the
content of a class.

But the writers of this report don’t seem to have looked at syllabi, which might have told them how often Shakespeare’s
plays crop up in classes not exclusively devoted to them. (My
unscientific impression is that this happens a lot. The Little Professor makes a related point: sometimes authors aren’t required because students will study them without being made to.) Nor do they seem to
have talked to any students or professors.
The report reads, instead, like they made up their minds in advance:
Colleges are going to the dogs! Shakespeare’s out of fashion! To the

I took several courses on Shakespeare as an undergraduate, not to mention others on Chaucer and
Milton — which I loved so much that I wrote my senior thesis on
Paradise Lost. So I’m not exactly anti-canonical authors, or
anti-single author courses, either. But I just can’t get worked up by the absence of Shakespeare requirements. I think English majors should graduate
with a good sense of literary
history, of what kinds of works were being written during various time
periods and why, of the critical fortunes of key authors, of the
various vocabularies people have used, over time, to describe how
literature functions. I also think they should gain a great deal of practice in attentive, close, critical reading.

But is a single-author course the only way to study literature "in
depth"? That seems to be a major premise of the report, but I’m not
convinced. You study more of an author’s work in a single-author class,
and gain a stronger sense of his or her overall career, but it seems to
me that you can pay as much detailed attention to, say, Twelfth Night
in a multi-author course as you can in a semester’s Shakespeare survey.

I’m not worried about students never being exposed
to Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is all over the curriculum as it is
— not to mention all over the culture at large. I’d rather make sure
that English majors get a chance to read authors who aren’t as widely known, because English majors are probably a lot more likely than
other students to go on reading Shakespeare after they graduate.

You want to get riled about what’s wrong
with higher education? Start with universities’ use of overworked adjuncts who
don’t have enough time to spend on their students. Rant about
the overemphasis on athletics. (Hey, ACTA, where’s the outrage about
football coaches pulling down exponentially higher salaries than anyone who
teaches great literature?) But don’t tell me Shakespeare is vanishing
from the curriculum, unless you can provide some more substantive
evidence than a bunch of course catalogs.

* I get suspicious every time I hear the phrases "war on X,"
"assault on X," or "X is under attack." War metaphors always seem to signal a certain type of ideologically loaded rhetoric. ("War on
Christmas," anyone?)
When Antony says "This was the most unkindest
cut of all," he’s ostensibly mourning Caesar while calculatedly
stirring up the crowd for his own
political ends.
When Malvolio says "Some are born great, some achieve
greatness…", he’s reading a letter designed to trick him by flattering his inflated ego, and he falls
it. Apparently, part of the value of Shakespeare for ACTA is that he
wrote so many quotable one-liners, which can be detached so neatly from
all their messy dramatic context and used to affirm the value of "The Bard."
*** After all, it’s not like Shakespeare wrote his plays for any purpose as
vulgar as popular entertainment. And it’s not like seeing a performance
ever helped students understand a play, either.

2 Responses to “Vanishing Shakespeare? I don’t think so.”

  1. alan says:

    I was very fortunate at school in the UK to have an English teacher who shared your views (broadly speaking). Our ‘A’ Level English course lasted 2 years and consisted mainly of studying set books (including ‘The Canterbury Tales’, ‘King Lear’, ‘The Lyrical Ballads’, ‘Howards Way’, and so on). But my teacher completely ignored the syllabus for the first year and instead took us on a wonderful journey through the entire canon of English Literature from Piers Plowman to Beckett. This was absolutely invaluable when it came to studying the set books in the 2nd year because we could already place them in a much broader context than just their own time, and could therefore – I believe – study and appreciate them far more easily and quickly. That journey, with so many entertaining sidetracks into the teacher’s own personal literary world, was undoubtedly the most enjoyable year of studying in my life. He loved Shakespeare, of course, but he also loved Spenser and Marvell and Marlowe and Dryden and Swift and Mathew Arnold and Eliot and JD Salinger and Jack Kerouac and James Joyce and Ted Hughes, and he wanted us to love them too. As you say, people will read Shakespeare anyway. How could they not?

  2. brd says:

    I appreciate your thoughts. Shakespeare is fabulous on many levels and certainly should be part of any lit curriculum, but literature is a developing and changing thing. The diminishment of Shakespeare does not equal to the diminishment of the study of quality literature.