As English majors, we tend to be questioned about what we do in the classroom and how it is valuable to an overall learning experience. This is especially true when reading contemporary “fantasy” novels such as Zone One, which Erin tackles in her post, How To Teach Colson Whitehead in College Classrooms. Reading Shakespeare for the first time since high school (unless you count HUMN I last year where I read “Hamlet” again), I was brought back to the groans of my classmates who were perplexed by Shakespeare’s ancient language. I was actually even surprised when Beth admitted she had a tough time in graduate school being able to comprehend and appreciate his work. Beth did remind us, however, how important his work is.
Something that I want to reflect on is, just like Erin mentioned how important reading Whitehead and contemporary novels is to our learning experience, it is just as important to turn back to why we study older, preliminary texts such as Shakespeare. It may seem obvious to mention considering that the basis of a lot of more traditional English classes is to read older texts like that of Shakespeare, which is, like Erin mentioned, thoughts people have. Yet, regardless of what the text itself is, reading “ancient” texts as English majors is beneficial to enhancing our critical reading skills. Additionally, the things that Shakespeare mentions in his texts are relatable to any time.
Firstly, I remember when I read my first Shakespeare text, “Romeo and Juliet” in eighth grade. I was drawn to buying the “No Fear Shakespeare” version of it for my class. For those of you who may not know, the “No Fear Shakespeare” books publish the original Shakespeare play alongside a modern English version of the script so that readers can better understand the work. As an eighth grader not yet drawn to following the English discipline, I bought this book and found it extremely helpful. It was less work for me!
But flash-forward a year later to when we read Macbeth and my English teacher warned us to stay away from “No Fear Shakespeare” and SparkNotes in general. Needless to say, her words stick with me until this day; her words echo in my head as I (admittedly) look through the site when I need help.
She (roughly) said, “When you depend on materials like ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ or SparkNotes, you will not develop your reading level. You will stay at the same reading level for the rest of your life.” Although this was a little dramatic, she was right. “No Fear Shakespeare” and SparkNotes are only helpful to an extent. They can be a life preserver when you have no idea what specific phrases mean, but it cannot be the only thing you read. You always have to refer to the original text.
Just like we mentioned in class (like I have for the last couple of my blog posts) about what grounds us in reading Zone One, helpful resources can ground us, but there has to be a certain amount of effort from us that can help us grow as readers and intellectuals. We read harder texts to stretch our minds, to get us thinking. Not only is the style of writing itself difficult which can help us read more dense and harder content in the future, but it can also help us make connections inside and outside of class.
A lot of these conclusions came to me upon reflecting today, specifically when we looked at our self-reflective essays for the English department. The more we read and the more we are connected to the past, the more we are able to connect general concepts to others. Beth also mentioned that it may seem completely absurd that we’re reading a text that takes place on an abandoned island when the course focuses on metropolises. But it is obvious that on the surface, as we saw already today, Shakespeare relates so much to course concepts and other things happening today.
As Roach writes in Echoes in the Bone, “From the heritage of tragic drama in the West, I believe, circum-Atlantic closures especially favor catastrophe, a word rife with kinesthetic imagination, which carries forward through time the memory of a movement, a ‘downward turning,’ redolent of violence and fatality but also of agency and decision” (33). Roach mentions a common theme in circum-Atlantic works that is relevant to the works at the time of their creation and in the future. Concepts like “memory” and “catastrophe” will always be important and relevant. Again, memory and catastrophe are relevant to readings from “The Tempest” today, and by extension, they are relevant to our course concepts which are fairly rooted in Roach’s work. “The Tempest” and Shakespeare’s work also shows its importance in its many adaptations, specifically right here on-campus.
Last year’s Shakespeare on the Green featured Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with two female main characters as opposed to Romeo being male. This was a modern twist that both reflected and enhanced our modern day society. To see a more modern relationship exist in a work with a time period from so long ago makes the text much more valuable today because we can see that the work doesn’t have to exist in a vacuum. This is a similar effect to Shakespeare’s work reflecting our course concepts.
Shakespeare is influential and important to read because it’s a foundation of so many pieces of literature and other media out there. It is also relatable to so much in our lives even if it’s just about royal hierarchy and what not. So yes, as English majors we read Shakespeare and we will probably continue to do so forever. Just like Erin gave justification to our reading a modern zombie literature book, I thought it was only fair our old man Shakespeare got one too.