When I try to remember my high school English experiences, I remember very distinct things about each of my teachers.
My 10th grade teacher focused on American literature. I remember we had those anthologies that so many schools use and it used to irritate me that we read such small selections of books. We’d read a small excerpt of an expansive piece of literature and then be expected to make an analysis of the author’s intent, character motivations, etc. Writers spend years crafting each detail to give a full picture of the characters and their movements but yet we were to base all our answers on a few hundred words.
My 11th grade teacher loved grammar and diagramming sentences. I thought it felt like a puzzle to be solved and I grew to love it too. I also remember particular books. Like so many other high school students, we read “A Separate Peace” and I remember writing a paper on war imagery in “A Separate Peace” and “A Farewell to Arms.” I also remember writing another analysis comparing “A Clockwork Orange,” “A Brave New World,” and a third book I can’t remember.
My senior year was British literature. I was really excited about it. We learned a great deal of British history. (Henry the VIII and his wives will always stick in my head — divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.) I remember being assigned “Heart of Darkness,” hating every single word. (Then the teacher told me she assigned it to me because my brother hated it and she figured I would too. Thanks.) I also remember that she refused to teach any Shakespeare. A whole year of British literature and no mention of Shakespeare.
I made up for that by signing up for a Shakespeare class in college, which, as one might imagine, was not a typical pick for a Biology major. I absolutely loved it.
I know many people dislike reading Shakespeare. The language is complicated and confusing at times. There are often dozens of characters to keep track of. What do I love about it?
I love the poetry of it — that even before I could fully understand the words, I could grasp the feel and emotion. I felt the story, more than I was reading it. This is how I encourage my kids to experience it right now.
I love to imagine them being performed on stage — picturing each scene and conversation. It is why visiting the Globe Theater replica in London was one of my “musts” on my last trip. Standing in the oak and thatch structure, imagining the actors on stage, and viewing the costumes, was so moving.
Finally, Shakespeare’s plays have inspired so many other stories and I love to see the roots of these tales and the phrases that have become part of
our lives long after people have forgotten the source. According to this article, scholars credit Shakespeare with creating as many as 1700 words we use regularly.
Whether you are on the “love it” or “hate it” side, it might be time to dip back into a collection of Shakespeare’s plays.