Opinion: Studying Shakespeare Four Years in a Row is Unnecessary and Repetitive

Students rely on sites like SparkNotes to make sense of Shakespearean language. Photo by Zoe Sanderson.

Every year, high school students study the works of William Shakespeare. His plays are a big part of English curricula, and that needs to change.

We do not need to focus as heavily on Romeo and Juliet and the love they share, Macbeth and his desire to be king, and more. It is now 2020, society and the general way of life has changed and advanced significantly.

We, as a global population, do not speak the same way, write the same way, perform the same way, or learn the same way.

Because of these advancements, Shakespeare’s works are not as relevant as they used to be, and more plays have been written since then that are considered more relevant to society and, more specifically, high school students. 

Approximately 470 years ago, William Shakespeare began writing plays to be performed in London. It is believed that he wrote 38 different plays from this time up until his death in 1616.

There are differing views among students themselves. While some students think we should not study Shakespeare at all, others think Shakespeare should be studied with the same amount as it is currently. Yet others believe it should be considered in moderation. 

Shakespeare’s works are over 400 years old, and I think he should not be as prominent in our English curricula as he currently is. Shakespeare’s works should be moderated: allow students to still learn about his plays without their entire grade relying on their understanding of Jacobian English. Instead, study more relevant and current media and literature.

In an informal online survey, through an Instagram questionnaire on my story, my friends in Grade 11 and 12 who go to school across Waterloo Region were asked how often we should be reading Shakespeare in today’s English curriculums. More students agreed that Shakespeare should be studied in moderation within each year of high school, suggesting to dedicate time to study it, but not as often. 

Informal data collected via Instagram Story. Histogram by Zoe Sanderson.

Later, some of these grade 12 students, who are going on to learn Shakespeare for the fourth time in their high school careers, were asked more in-depth questions regarding their response to the online questionnaire.

“Why do you believe high schoolers are still learning Shakespeare, over 400 years later?”  

Mikayla B. said, “I believe we’re still studying Shakespeare because it’s something that we’ve done in the past, and it’s easy for teachers as they know it works. Shakespeare does have some good work and stories, along with many options to choose from, so teachers likely use him as someone to study because they know the material.”  

Sadie W. is a grade 12 student who has taken four academic/university level English courses throughout high school and has studied Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet in these classes. She said, “I think it is to simply appreciate the old English, where we used to be and where we are now with the development of the English language.” 

I agree with both Sadie and Mikayla. I believe that we are still studying Shakespeare as it is accessible to teachers, and it is difficult for teachers to collectively adjust the English curriculum across the school boards, after using these texts for so long.

“What do you like and dislike about studying Shakespeare?”

Salma B., explained, “I like the opportunity to study such an iconic and revolutionary artist and his work, learning about old English and how different it is compared to today. I dislike that we study him year after year, [as] it gets repetitive, and I’m seeking to learn about more relevant literature that’s applicable today.” 

Another WCI grade 12 student, Jade M., admitted to enjoying many of Shakespeare’s themes, stories, and comedies. However, she dislikes the translating portion of assignments where she has to put Shakespearean language into “everyday English” as she feels she focuses on this more than the story itself, leading her to miss parts of the story.

Grade 12 Zorro K. dislikes the language as well and shared, “In this day and age, his work seems very hard to understand as the ‘lingo’ and overall how people spoke during that era is far different than how we speak today. Nonetheless, I admire how he was able to relate to the younger audience years after his time, such as having a male protagonist in his teens.”

“How do you feel about studying Shakespeare every year in high school?”

Many students enjoy the comedic and moral aspects of Shakespeare but become extremely frustrated with translation and the repetitiveness of doing it every year. 

Shakespeare should still be studied as it holds so many English resources, such as a variety of literary devices and other important life lessons and morals found deep within the text, that students should be aware of. These plays are also simply entertaining as we can laugh at the old way of presenting plays. But at the same time, why are we reading about a man who will stop at nothing to ensure his prophecy comes true, allowing him to become king. Why aren’t we studying the biographies of global leaders today who will stop at nothing to gain and maintain power?

Salma believes that Shakespeare should be studied in moderation throughout the four years of high school. She suggested, “I still believe that his work is important to study as it shaped the English language and how we tell and write stories but we don’t need to spend so much time on it. Yes, Shakespeare is still relevant to a certain extent, but there are so many other works of literature that we can study and learn so much more from that will apply more to today’s day and age.”

Mikayla described a plan to moderate Shakespeare through each grade of high school: “Focusing on one of his stories every other year would make sense, but for the years in between I think studying literature from another author/style/time period would be beneficial.”

Jade and Zorro think slightly differently: they believe that Shakespeare should be studied even less, if at all, due to the language used and to make way for other texts. 

Zorro explained, “The more distance between that era and modern times, the harder Shakespeare is to understand and the less effective it is to learn. All of his works are written in the [an earlier] form of modern English, and no one in modern time uses “thou” and ”thee” or “thy” and so on. His work is set hundreds of years ago and follows storylines that don’t make sense in the present.”

“I think we could still be taught the history of Shakespeare and why he was important and maybe read some poems, but not his plays,” said Jade. “I don’t think reading his plays, analyzing them, and writing an essay about them is productive because the teacher has to basically explain the whole play to the class sentence by sentence due to the old fashioned English. This makes it time-consuming, and students rarely understand the story anyways.”

“I also think that there are many other books with the same themes that could be substituted for the Shakespeare plays we are forced to read, books that are in modern English and that are more relevant to the current world around us.”

“How can learning Shakespeare be adapted to ensure moderation and less repetitiveness?”

Personally, I would like to dedicate only two of four years to learning Shakespeare, making room for other studies. Then, use this newly acquired time to study literature that is more relevant to today. For example, studying film and learning to be a critical consumer of motion pictures, developing skills I could actually put to use in my everyday life when I watch a film or a television show would be useful, as this is a huge part of many people’s lives in today’s age. Whereas, the knowledge I acquire from studying Shakespeare seems like it is only of use within an English classroom. 

Sadie and Salma suggested similar ideas. “We spend the majority of English class studying Shakespeare and I think we should only dedicate a small portion of class to Shakespeare, instead,” said Salma. “Since we study it every year, we don’t need to spend such large chunks of time on it as it gets repetitive and boring.”

Sadie, too, suggested cutting down on the time English classes spend each year on Shakespeare, as well as completing less significant assignments, such as large essays that count for a rather large part of students’ final grade. 

Mikayla shared this experience: “Last year my class went to the Stratford theatre to watch Othello be performed live, which I loved. It gave us a different perspective on the story, made it more engaging, and we didn’t need to read over the story unless we had further questions. I wish we could learn more this way, as reading the same style stories with the same confusing language every year can get repetitive and tiring.”

Jade reflected on her experience learning Shakespeare over three years of school and says, “I wish that we learned Shakespeare through a more current perspective or way. This could be through film or plays that have been altered to be spoken in modern English.”

For future high school students, the amount of Shakespeare studied within English courses should be lessened and instead studied in moderation. This is simply because the text is so old.

Shakespeare is no longer as relevant in the year 2020, and studying it over four years for a large chunk of an English class is far too repetitive. Focusing on someone who has been dead for over 400 years greatly takes away from the various experiences students could gain from studying different literature and media. It would be beneficial to gain this knowledge by studying some modern pieces that are more relevant to today’s society and overall way of life.