by Jane Tawel
A friend posted an article today entitled, “The Case Against Shakespeare” and the article, (not my friend) both angered and saddened me. The bottom line of this article was that we shouldn’t “force” any one to read the classics like Shakespeare because this keeps someone from learning to love to read. Now if I only take that one argument, all I need is a subscription to Netflix and a video game to prove the author wrong on why people don’t read anymore. However, one thing made my head want to explode, and of course I had to write about it. Of course I wanted to share my meager but impassioned thoughts with my trusted WordPress friends, my community of writers who keep the love of art and life alive in the little corner of the world in which I choose to dialogue with others and the platform upon which I have the occasional soliloquy published on.
I am grateful for the community of like and sometimes unlike souls that I have found amongst you. Keep writing, keep teaching, keep yelling into the howl, or lighting candles on the dark way, or dancing in the rain, or just sharing where you are at and who you are today. And I am grateful to each of you for including me in the “company of fools and players” that we create together here and sincerely and humbly thankful for you, whether you like Shakespeare or not.
Cheers — Jane
My Convoluted Case FOR Shakespeare
The author of this article, “The Case Against Shakespeare”, may have a point about Shakespeare but his analysis of literature and what it’s purpose is and why it should be read and how it should be taught breaks my heart and makes my poor Literature / Writing teacher’s mind go ballistic. I have spent a life time trying to help students and sundry others try to overcome this philosophy. So, as I teach my students to write boldly, I shall simply say, the author could not be more wrong. I hope to encourage him and others to rethink the purpose of reading, much in the way we should all constantly rethink the purpose of our lives.
One point of his only I will take up, and that is the author’s comment that “literature doesn’t exist for its symbols and imagery, nor are they the reason authors write”(Stratton). Woe! (Sound of hair being torn out!) The person who is not taught the importance of symbol and metaphor, imagery and the allusive allure of alliteration is not being fed by the best in our literary history; but instead, in the cause of “getting ahead”. That deprived person is being starved by an education focused on a future practical use of that person’s brain or brawn, not focused on their well-being, their being well, and the fact that every human being has always wanted to be much more than a cog in a well-oiled machine or a pamphlet that is glanced at then tossed in the trash. We long to be poetry, to have poetic justice, to be understood in all of our mystery and meaningfulness, and to think that we can be taught to read without being taught how to learn any of that about the human condition or the world or the universe or the mysteries beyond is a tragedy long in the making.
To be taught and coaxed, goaded and coddled in not books, but literature, not reading, but exploring and expanding the mind, heart, and soul — this is the charge of those of us in the past and present to pass on to our future and our children and our children’s children. We all must keep desiring the wherewithal of how to spend a lifetime in the exploration of the changes in the meaning behind the meaning, the sublimity of poetry, the divine essence beyond mere rational debate of the written word, comparable to that of the played symphony or the painted masterpiece. The person who is not taught and encouraged in this philosophy, is not merely uneducated in the type of classical, heady stuff that endures the passage of time, but unschooled in what it means to be the best human being a person can be. That is what Shakespeare can teach us today, yes, after all these years.
And of course, this poor human who is taught merely to read, and not to delve into the unfathomable treasures hidden in the deeps of the written word, that one will never have those moments of divine revelation, the sublimity of being awed by the essence of “The Why”, nor the hope that we really are more than black and white words on a page; much more than simplistic, useful, practical, or merely entertaining and entertained commodities.
Why one can not even understand what it means to be nothing more than “dust in the wind” or to have “everything to a season”, or to, as the poet read at the recent inauguration of a U.S. President, what it means to “brave the belly of the beast” and be as brave as we must be on ‘The Hill We Climb”(Gorman). No, one can not simply be taught to read, but must be taught how to read and above all Why to read. One can not be left to wade in the shallow end forever, to never know what it is to dive and swim. We must not be afraid of not knowing and not understanding, but we should be terrified of never immersing ourselves in the deep waters of great literature and poetry, never climbing to the apex of the mountain ranges of great artists, past and present, and still always to aim to climb higher and higher, and always finding more mystery there, even on the pinnacles of greatness.
The person who is not stretched early to expand the mind through literature and plays, poetry and Psalms, has a bleak, spirit-less life ahead of him or her. How to read Holy Scripture without being taught how to read poetry? How to listen to Amanda Gorman without first trying to stretch the brain on the poetry of Shakespeare or Frost, Whitman or Hughes or Angelou or the Psalms of David or prophetic metaphors of Isaiah? How to hope and dream for a better world without understanding the complicated but profound works of Dickens or Gabriel Marquez, Dumas, or Dostoevsky? How to understand America without being taught how to read Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck? How to understand China without attempting to understand Wang Wei or Cao Xueqin? How to understand Latin or South America if one hasn’t been taught the poem “They Have Threatened Us with Resurrection”, by Julia Esquivel? How to march for Black Lives Matter without reading the essays of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or the poetry of Langston Hughes? How to know what it is to be from somewhere that you aren’t, to be someone you aren’t, and then how to realize that once you walk in someone else’s moccasins in the poetry of Native American poet Laureate, Jo Harjo or immerse yourself in some other place or time’s literature, and to find that one can turn a corner or turn a page and be stunned by the realization that we are all so much more alike than we could have ever guessed, and we are all much more unique and special than we could ever hope for!
Spending a lifetime trying to read anything without a basic understanding and at least grudging admiration of symbol and metaphor and imagery, is like spending a lifetime trying to dine on steak and potatoes or baguettes and cheese or sushi and cupcakes by trying to suck on them out of a baby bottle. Not being taught the joys of chewing on poetry and imbibing great literature is like having your teeth ripped out and not being allowed to taste when you masticate.
Let alone personal enjoyment, we haven’t even begun to wonder how one would find expression of one’s own deepest emotions and thoughts, in any relationship of love, whether of a God or of a mate or of a friend or of a tree or of cat or dog or garden or sunset — of anything or anyone that awes us. How would we enthuse over all of that which exists beyond the mundane, that which surpasses and endures the test of time?
And why can’t one be entertained by C.S. Lewis, or Lewis Carroll, or Stevenson, or Barrie, or Nikki Grimes or Rowling and still learn about symbolism, metaphor, allusion, and irony (God knows, we need to learn something about irony in America!)
By all means if someone can find writers today who do poetry as well as Shakespeare or Dickinson or Frost or Neruda or the Psalms or even Silverstein, by all means, teach it and read it. Feel free to add to Dostoevsky and Steinbeck and Dickens and Forster and Angelou, some novels by Atwood or Ishiguro for deep thinking. Include with the reading of Wordsworth and Cummings, modern poets like Claudia Rankine or Amanda Gorman, and with Shakespeare and Chekhov, plays by Miller or Shephard, along with the Shakespearean-worthy plays by Tony Kushner or Lin-Manuel Miranda (although on my salary I doubt I will ever actually see “Hamilton”). Teach everything but Shakespeare if you don’t have the heart for it, but for pity’s sake, don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water, nor the metaphors out with the dated conversations or jokes.
If it is tough to read or hard to understand, remind yourself there is nothing harder to understand than the human being; and nothing tougher than going through life without beauty and mystery, or empathy and wonder. Poetry and great literature will help you with all the tough parts, and if it doesn’t always exactly make life easier, it certainly will make it more worthwhile.
The dearth of education today lies in our thinking that all we have to do is teach reading and practical skills, not how to think, or how to feel and express those thoughts and feelings to others. The lack is not in not learning to love reading, but in not learning that by reading great literature, or by attempting to write down ourselves on page or screen, those ideas and ideals that require poetry and metaphor and imagery — in this lies something worth working at, something worth learning, yay, even something to be challenged by, to love and at times even to cherish. We must attempt, first the taking in, and then the expression of those human creative endeavors that try to narrate something more lasting and meaningful than an entertainment interrupted by yet another car insurance commercial. By those excellent and artistic forms of muse-inspired communications, we are enlarged, we are made to be “more”.
We have to learn, or relearn, be inspired by or remember how to find those things worth reading that teach and inspire us to live with meaning into a life that is richer, fuller, and paradoxically, metaphorically more human and more divine.
The world is full of that which we can not understand with a mere glance, nor a nod to being simply knowledgeable. We must teach and inspire within ourselves and others the hope and faith that there is more to living life than acquiring a desire to use and gain more “stuff” by our knowledge.
We will only truly gain the fullness of a life well-lived when we learn to desire to be awed. As the Bard himself says in one of the plays people don’t think we should read, “the time of life is short; to spend that shortness basely, were too long”.
The mystery of that which defies all comprehension but that which is expressed by our artists, by the shared hopes, dreams and experiences of humankind, and by the ineffable faith and progress of our greatest ideas and ideals, the stuff of our lives set to poetry awaits our engagement to be One with the Sublime. Reading the “good stuff” can even just be a rollicking good time, and vastly more fun than the literary junk food we are led to believe we can get by on. Let’s stop teaching others to spit out the good food of great art before they even try it. We all need to know how to look for the tastiest morsels, how to “taste and see that it is good”*.
As for me, to riff on the Bard once more, “if poetry and literature be the food of love, give me excess of it; that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die”.
Here’s to the banquet feast of the written word. Feast on!
(c) Jane Tawel 2021
Quotes from “Henry IV” and “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare
“The Case Against Shakespeare”. Stratton, Allan. The Walrus. March 31, 2021