The Good, The Bad, and The Bard


Elise Stouffer

Shakespeare is regarded by Guinness World Records as the world’s best-selling playwright, with sales exceeding four billion copies of his poems and plays; he’s also the third-most translated author in history.

Knee-deep in “doths” and “thees,” struggling to understand exactly why Lady Macbeth is such a staunch advocate of third-degree murder, it’s easy to wonder why English classes across America remain in the thrall of Shakespeare. Is the bard’s widespread usage in high school classrooms merely an attempt to lower the GPA of thousands of students or is there a deeper reason as to why his plays remain so popular centuries after his death?

According to LHS teachers and literary critics alike, Shakespeare’s works still have much to teach us about our world and ourselves, although other troubling aspects of his legacy have garnered increasing scrutiny in recent years.

“Not of an Age, but for All Time” – Ben Johnson 

While the sentiment that Shakespeare’s works simply aren’t accessible or relevant anymore is frequently echoed in school corridors, his proponents argue that the genius of Shakespeare lies in his ability to convey themes that transcend time and culture.

According to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, many phrases used today are attributed to Shakespearian works, including “in my heart of hearts” from “Hamlet,” “what’s done is done” from “Macbeth,” and “wild-goose chase” from “Romeo and Juliet.”
According to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, many phrases used today are attributed to Shakespearian works, including “in my heart of hearts” from “Hamlet,” “what’s done is done” from “Macbeth,” and “wild-goose chase” from “Romeo and Juliet.” (Elise Stouffer)

“Themes like love and betrayal and pride and ambition…those are all very relevant today,” said English teacher Greg Pedersen. “So it’s very interesting to me to see people 450 years ago…going through those very essences of life that our kids go through every day.”

According to English teacher Kurt Hironimus, “Had Romeo and Juliet said, ‘Let’s stay awhile, figure things out, and maybe go slow’…they wouldn’t be dead,” a lesson he uses to teach his students about the dangers of rash decision making.

The bard’s reach extends far past students. In a nation recently plagued by election anxieties, Shakespeare’s emphasis on the connection between the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of a nation in “Hamlet” may ring true for many American voters. 

“He Breathed Upon Dead Bodies and Brought Them to Life” – Ralph Waldo Emerson 

It’s nearly impossible to talk of the bard’s accomplishments without mentioning the truly memorable characters that inhabited his dozens of plays. According to the Harvard Business Review, Shakespeare was able to create such vivid characters “by endowing [them] with complex inner worlds.”

This psychological complexity was often created by Shakespeare through his unique use of soliloquies, in which a character shares his or her private thoughts directly with the reader. These soliloquies allow for readers to see the division between how characters truly feel and the way they present themselves to the world, making them more identifiable to the reader. 

For example, it is in these soliloquies that Hamlet provides visceral descriptions of his inner grief, which University of Virginia professor Arthur Kirsch argues opens the door for the reader to understand and even empathize with Hamlet as he slowly descends into madness. 

In reference to Shakespeare’s sonnets, Mr. Hironimus emphasized that these poems remain impactful because the subjects of the poems are physically imperfect, much like real people, allowing Shakespeare to reveal that “[love] is not about physical appearance.”

“The Greatest Poet in the English Language” – James Baldwin 

One of the most expansive theories on why Shakespeare remains such a staple of Western literature is shared by Neema Parvini, senior lecturer at the University of Surrey, who claims that “the dramatist’s key facet is empathy without political or moral judgement.” 

Under this position, part of what makes Shakespeare so remarkable is that not only are his characters complex, but he extends this complexity to every character. 

Mr. Pedersen echoed this idea, emphasizing that, “Whether you have the crown or whether you have a shovel in your hand, it doesn’t matter because the character is presented with goals and with problems and reactions.”

In fact, many would argue that it is precisely this diversity in the perspectives of his characters that allows for so many different and even conflicting interpretations of Shakespeare’s own beliefs when analyzing his works. 

“Not only not Moral, but Immoral” – Leo Tolstoy 

Regardless of how well one might believe that Shakespeare was able to portray the human condition, it is undeniable that he did not extend this humanity to characters of marginalized groups, creating a legacy more complicated than the one often taught to students. 

“Othello,” one of Shakespeare’s better-known tragedies, is perhaps the best evidence of the racism inherent in some of Shakespeare’s works. According to Ayanna Thompson, the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, “Othello” is intentionally structured differently from Shakespeare’s other tragedies so that Othello, the title character of color, is arguably made “the butt of the joke” even as he faces serious trauma. 

Furthermore, Thompson mentioned that Shakespeare wrote all of his characters of color with the intention that they would be performed by white actors in blackface, providing inspiration for later minstrel shows in America. 

Shakespeare’s plays have also come under fire for apparent sexism, although there is considerably more debate about Shakespeare’s intentions in his portrayal of gender equality. 

For example, the British Library explained that some view Petruchio’s “taming” of Katharine into submissiveness in “The Taming of the Shrew” as an implicit endorsement of patriarchial authority while others see the play as ironic and having feminist undertones. 

“All the World’s A Stage, and All the Men and Women Merely Players” – William Shakespeare

In recognition of the toxic material present in much of his work, many teachers have reconsidered teaching Shakespeare’s plays at all. 

English teacher Ryan Ebling described the problems with both the “cancel” and “canon” cultures in regards to Shakespeare, stating that “When you create a monument to something and you don’t allow for inquiry or interaction with the problematic parts…the backlash becomes to throw them out completely.”

He employed this idea of inquiry in a project he designed for his AP English Literature students, in which they were asked to critically examine the way that Shakespeare has influenced common beliefs about gender in his comedies. 

He feels that this project fostered a new appreciation for Shakespeare in many of his students because it might have been one of the “first times in their lives…that the invitation to Shakespeare wasn’t, ‘Come enjoy this brilliant, brilliant person.’ It was, ‘Let’s examine this person just as somebody who’s introducing thought…and let’s leave room for criticism.’”

“Macbeth”, the story of a Scottish general who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will be the King of Scotland, is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy.
“Macbeth”, the story of a Scottish general who receives a prophecy from three witches that he will be the King of Scotland, is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. (Elise Stouffer)

Other teachers are attempting to combat growing feelings that Shakespeare is irrelevant by framing his works in a more modern light.

Kristen Hawver’s World Literature Honors class studied “Macbeth” last year with an emphasis on the way in which traditional hyperaggressive notions of masculinity are partially responsible for Macbeth’s descent and how characters such as Macduff offer a more emotionally intelligent alternative.

In addition, according to Belmont University professor Jayme Yeo, Shakespeare plays such as “Measure for Measure” stress that “inhuman behavior lies not in violating the law but rather in witholding a mercy,” inspiring her to use the bard’s works to reduce the stigmas around youths and adults in the criminal justice system. 

Nevertheless, it appears as if the debates over studying Shakespeare and whether his works still hold relevance will continue to rage on for some time, perhaps another 400 years.