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No Holds Bard: Overcoming Barriers to Teaching Shakespeare

When English scholar E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was called upon to try to figure out why the communication skills of contemporary Americans were deteriorating, he answered that call by bemoaning this generation's lack of "cultural literacy" — a cultural knowledge base that previous generations of well-educated folks supposedly shared.

One example of the type of cultural literacy Hirsch believes the current generation is lacking is a basic understanding and familiarity with literary classics, such as the work of Shakespeare. In the opening chapter of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch points out that his father sprinkled Shakespearean allusions in his business letters regarding commodities trading (and, according to Hirsch, they actually worked):

"For instance, in my father's commodity business, the timing of sales and purchases was all-important, and he would sometimes write or say to his colleagues, "There is a tide," without further elaboration. Those four words carried not only a lot of complex information, but also the persuasive force of a proverb. In addition to the basic practical meaning, "act now!" what came across was a lot of implicit reasons why immediate action was important.

For some of my younger readers who may not recognize the allusion, the passage from Julius Caesar is:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

—E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy

Our students don't necessarily share Hirsch's vision of what it means to be "culturally literate." They may not be thinking about how they could use apt quotes to pursue business. They define cultural literacy on their own terms and work hard to acquire the cultural knowledge that earns them status in their own social interactions. Unfortunately, that may not include knowledge of Shakespeare.

However, long before E.D. Hirsch told teachers to teach Shakespeare, they were doing it. It would be difficult to find a high school English department in the country that does not include at least a few Shakespeare plays in its curriculum. But what perhaps E.D. Hirsch is not addressing is why our students are so reluctant to read Shakespeare. 

Students surely recognize "to be or not to be" and are able to supply the following "that is the question" but if we want Shakespeare to offer our students more than these popular sound bites or one-liners, we are going to have to overcome one of the greatest barriers to our students' understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare: vocabulary.

Hirsch uses the term vocabulary frequently in Cultural Literacy but instead of referring to a knowledge base of particular words, he defines it as a cultural knowledge base: "I mean something broad by the word vocabulary; I mean cultural literacy – the whole system of widely shared information and associations." Unfortunately, it's difficult for students to obtain such a system of associations when they don't have the sheer word knowledge to process what they are reading.

To demonstrate how vocabulary tends to stand in our students' way of appreciating Shakespeare, use VocabGrabber on a single quotation from Hamlet's "to be or not to be" monologue to see how many words the Visual Thesaurus database recognizes and how many of those words might baffle even some of our best students:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

The vocabulary list VocabGrabber generates from this single quotation contains 27 words — ranging from the obscure quietus and contumely to the more standard SAT-league words like spurn, insolence, and pang. So what's a teacher to do? To assign all of the unfamiliar vocabulary would be overwhelming and ineffective. Instead, teachers need to focus their vocabulary instruction on the key words that tie into a literary work's central plot development and themes.

For example, after VocabGrabbing Act III Scene 3 of Othello, you would want to explicitly teach those words that students would need to know in order to understand the plot developments in the scene (e.g., Iago had ordered Emilia to filch Desdemona's handkerchief in order to frame Desdemona; Othello suspects Iago of slander; Othello vows vengeance). In addition, as Shannon Reed points out here, understanding the racial and geographic importance of the word Moor is fundamental to understanding the play's premise and setting.

The expression green-eyed monster, which rises to the number three slot in vocabulary relevance on the VocabGrabber list, is important on two vocabulary fronts. One could argue that the green-eyed monster, the personification of jealousy, is the symbolic main character of Othello. The whole play hinges upon Iago's jealousy of Cassio and Othello's jealousy of Desdemona.

Not only is the expression green-eyed monster thematically significant, it is linguistically significant as well. Since this expression was first popularized by Shakespeare, it serves to highlight Shakespeare's influence on the English language in general (something your students might not realize about Shakespeare's resume). If you scan the VocabGrabber display for two-word phrases in the Othello scene, you'll notice that both green-eyed monster and foregone conclusion make the list – two expressions that have demonstrated such staying power in English that they are now considered clichés. You can have your students explore more idioms that have Shakespearean roots with this Visual Thesaurus worksheet of sixteen Shakespearean idioms.

It's a bit of a misconception that what prevents our students from enjoying reading Shakespearean drama is its Elizabethan or archaic English. Most students can intuitively figure out the pronoun system of thou's, thee's, thy's and ye's and the verbs with the funny endings (e.g., doth, dost, hast, etc.). Ironically, it's the words and idioms that have lasted four hundred years that trip them up — vocabulary that they unfortunately seldom hear outside of an SAT prep course. Perhaps these are the missing links that impede their basic literacy, and have broader repercussions for their cultural literacy.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 26th 2011, 8:59 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
Now, at the age of 78, I find myself grateful for the teacher of high school English who forced assignments of reading and memorizing on us as students.
I thought at the time the sole purpose was to torment us.
She did explain meanings of passages forced upon us. Our final examinations always asked for a quote, primarily from Shakespeare and occasionally other authors. I remember her, I remember her demands.
Thank you Miss E. Layton

What a great reawakening this article brings to me.
Thank you G. Scurletis
Wednesday June 1st 2011, 6:36 AM
Comment by: Philip C. (Absceon, NJ)
I also am 78 and was never aware of Shakespear, other than as a company that made fishing tackle. It was not until much later that I stumbled across Mr. S as a source of appropriate phrases and expressions suited for a management web site. Now I am into it again for a gardening web site and have found 758 of the gems. Some examples:

Aeration: where air comes out, air comes in CYMBELINE (ACT I SCENE II)
Aphid: I will drain him dry as hay. MACBETH (ACT I SCENE III)
Espaliered Plant: this is my right hand, and this is my left OTHELLO (ACT II SCENE III)
Roots: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below HAMLET (ACT III SCENE III)
Vegetable Garden: We go to gain a little patch of ground, That hath in it no profit but the name
HAMLET (ACT IV SCENE IV)

Phil C.

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