Maybe we’ve been teaching it all wrong…


You might remember Daniel Davis as Niles, the sarcastic butler on the TV show The Nanny, but he’s also a fine Shakespearean actor. His British accent is so good that the producers of The Nanny wanted him to work with Charles Shaughnessy, who played Maxwell Sheffield on the show. Shaughnessy is from London; Davis is from Gordon, Arkansas. He’s an expert in acting in Shakespeare’s plays, so if he makes a statement like the one above, I would tend to trust his judgment.

I read the ROW80 post of Mike Roberts, who runs the blog Anything but the Best is a Felony. Mike makes a comment in his post that got me thinking about what Davis said. Let me share it with you.

If I were ever to, in another life, become an English Lit. Prof., I would teach the classics like a Writer, rather than a scholar. I would point out HOW Austen paces her novel and how we get to know the characters. (Emphasis mine.)

I learned more about how a novel is put together after reading some of the hundreds of how-to books on the market today than I did in eight years of secondary education. If I had known half of what I know now (and I’m no expert on the subject, believe me) when I was in high school, my grades in English would have improved and I would have enjoyed the assigned reading much more. If I had known about character arc, or three-act structure, or what to look for when I read a novel, I’d’ve had a ball. Maybe some of you were taught those things; I wasn’t.

Likewise, Shakespeare wrote plays. Plays are meant to be performed. They’re meant to be heard and seen, not read. I can think of one brief scene we acted out in high school, the assassination scene in Julius Caesar. (All right. We did have a very entertaining class where we put Shylock on trial.) On the page, they’re dry and dusty; on the stage, they come to life.

Most high school English teachers haven’t appeared in a Shakespeare play. Most of them haven’t written short stories, novels, poetry, or plays (screen-, tele-, or other). They might have done one or the other, but for the most part they have an academic understanding of all of these. Compare this with the sciences. You don’t often see a chemistry teacher teaching biology, or a physics teacher teaching earth science. You have world history and US history teachers. Why don’t we have Shakespeare teachers, poetry teachers, novel teachers?

What do you think? Am I just ranting for no reason? Or do you see what I’m driving at?

9 thoughts on “Maybe we’ve been teaching it all wrong…

  1. The sort of specialization you describe can be found in college, but may be impractical to present in the high school setting. Since our El-hi system is geared toward preparatory education I think a focus on the composite education makes the most sense with advanced opportunities available in high schools if there is a budget for it.

    I was fortunate to have teachers who mostly did a good job of presenting the materials to me. But more importantly I was motivated to learn on my own concerning English and Literature. The real course of study I think should be approached is teaching motivation, purpose, values, and those things that make students more open to learning.

    I think teachers have a pretty tough job on their hands as it is and there is a lot of competition to capture the minds of young people. The arts and literature are usually on the losing side.

    Tossing It Out


    1. True, especially with the emphasis placed on STEM classes. Not to say we don’t need them, but I am saying that I see it as a classic overreaction to the rest of the world getting so good at the STEM subjects. All sense of balance has gone out the window for the sake of creating more engineers.


  2. Funnily enough, I learned to love Shakespeare–and character, and Aristotle’s Incline/Three Act Structure, and basically all things writerly, in the THEATRE program. Everything I use today, I learned from being on that stage, from one of the best directors ever. I had great English teachers, too, but you’re right–coming at it from a writer’s standpoint would have made all the difference in the world. When you put on a play, you deconstruct it into manageable bits. In English class, all the bits just sort of happened at the same time.


    1. Exactly… breaking it down into manageable bits (or beats) and understanding what each one adds to the story clarifies the story. Having it explained by someone who has done it before would make it come alive. The entertainment value is completely ignored, too. Going to a Shakespeare play then was like going to the movies now. Dickens wrote serials for magazines that people read and discussed while they waited for the next part to come out, like with TV series today. Gathering them into books is a relatively recent development, as is the notion that these things are to be treated as sacred writings.

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      1. Mercy, YES. It always tickles me pink when someone or other goes on about low brow entertainment playing to the lowest common denominator–because Shakespeare was the Grandmaster Pubah of mainstream entertainment! (Excluding the Greeks, of course.)

        You should check out the live performance of the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) on YouTube. I first saw it in high school, it was a game changer for me (not to mention highly entertaining.)


        1. I had a teacher in freshman year of high school who had us reading the plays of Aristophanes, specifically “Lysistrata” and “The Birds.” Very funny stuff, and delightfully lowbrow. To us 14- and 15-year-old boys who had spent the previous 8-9 years under the tutelage of nuns, it was like being allowed to read “Letters to Penthouse.”


          1. HA! Lysistrata was one of the first plays I did in Community Theatre out of high school, and we had tremendous fund. I also vividly recall being assigned Canterbury Tales freshman year in AP English, and all of us skimming through it like mad in search of the Naughty Bits. 😀


  3. I’m 100% with you here. When I was taught Shakespeare in school I hated it, I didn’t understand it. Then they took us to see Hamlet at the Old Vic in London and suddenly the light clicked. To be or not to be is about suicide and so on. Same with Macbeth and several other plays – at least it was the school who took us. I found the same with history which I was useless at. Once I left school I saw a movie of the Battle of Bannockburn my immediate reaction, why didn’t they show us such movies in school Not sure what the do today.


    1. Shakespeare’s plays were lowbrow entertainment when they were written and performed. The stories of Charles Dickens were serialized in magazines before they were gathered into books. History was lived by real people and didn’t happen in a vacuum. All of this is forgotten in the schools, and that’s why kids have a hard time connecting with it.


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