By: Michelle Young, SFU Student
Whether or not Shakespeare should be taught in schools is often widely debated. Many maintain that Shakespearean sonnets and plays are indispensable pieces of English literature, as their themes remain timeless. Others argue that Shakespeare’s works are too boring, outdated, or challenging for students. There are positives and negatives in this discussion, and there’s no doubt that his writing is a valuable part of literature. But in a first year English class, though? Not so much.
First year courses set out to provide a base for the rest of post-secondary education, focusing on fundamental concepts. English classes generally aim to teach students basic essay and writing skills, and the ability to critically analyse characters and themes within a story or poem. This is what the department expects students to do with Shakespeare. The problem is that Shakespeare isn’t entry-level English, so to speak. Students can’t start unpacking his complicated brilliance without some practice with more accessible materials first.
The English language has changed significantly over the years, and in that respect, Shakespeare provides historical insight into that evolution. However, with such a stark difference between Shakespearean (Early Modern English) and contemporary English, his writing doesn’t serve as a good example of how to analyse and craft effective writing in English today. Bringing Shakespeare into first year classes as an early introduction gives students the impression that analysing difficult pieces is just what the entire department is about. So many students have told me they hate reading or English as a subject because it’s hard to understand. In reality they probably just meant, “I hated reading Shakespeare, and that’s the only reading I’ve been introduced to.”
Shakespeare’s writing is typically difficult to read, even for avid readers. He’s enjoyed by literature and history buffs, but his work isn’t for everyone. For students who just want to get that English credit, hone their writing skills, or want to test the waters in the world of English, Shakespeare isn’t a great introduction. Shakespeare’s work isn’t the only example in the English canon that can teach students how to critically analyse English literature. There are so many diverse contemporary poets and novelists that are more engaging, that appeal to a wider audience, and can teach the same skills that professors want students to demonstrate. There’s Natsume Sōseki and Hermann Hesse, who deal with the complexity of change and the human heart in works such as Kokoro and Demain. There’s Sarah Kay and Ocean Vuong, who weave simple words together to create intricate poems of loss and love. These works are easier to read, and in no way are inferior to Shakespeare.
English is more than difficult plays or poems; it can provide students with new worldviews, improve writing skills, and impart knowledge in entertaining ways. Contemporary works can assist students in learning what any introductory course aims to teach, so why not diversify the options and explore beyond Shakespeare?