Beware of March 15

In Atlanta, students who are “on track to attend college” but have “poor reading skills” are reading Shakespeare without Shakespearean language. Study guides translate Shakespeare into pedestrian modern English, so students don’t have to struggle.

Leon Allen, a student in Kollias’ class, didn’t understand the original line. But he read the translated sentence aloud with ease.
“It’s nice because all those ancient words aren’t there,” he said. “It is a cool story — what with people making plans to kill one another. It can be difficult because everyone has strange names, but at least it isn’t using any of those old words anymore.”

In one version, “Beware the ides of March” in Julius Caesar becomes “Beware of March 15.”
Billy Bob Shakespeare is better than nothing, says Cobranchi.

I keep wondering about students who are incapable of reading Shakespearean language yet are considered “on track to attend college.” How can they do college-level work if they can’t figure out “lend me your ears” isn’t about organ transplants? Maybe they’ll just “attend” college but not actually pass any courses.

I remember the joy I experienced when I realized that Shakespeare’s “hautboys” were oboes and that the word comes from haut bois or high wood. That was so cool.

About Joanne


  1. Nantoling says:

    Charles and Mary Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare” provided my introduction to his works when I was a young child. Enjoyment of the summaries led to enjoyment of the plays, and by high school I was able to supply my fellow students with all the spicier bits of dialogue missing from our bowdlerized textbooks. How much I would have missed if I had never moved beyond the Lambs’ excellent work!

    I will be giving a copy of “Tales from Shakespeare” to my young niece this year, but I certainly hope that in time she will put away her childish things.

  2. That’s my recommendation, too, Nantoling — give children children’s vesions (my sister and I had Lamb, too!) so they’ll be ready.

  3. Wacky Hermit says:

    My mom has used “Shake Hands With Shakespeare”, a book of abridged and language-modernized Shakespeare plays, to introduce grade schoolers (4th through 6th grades) to the world and ideas of Shakespeare. I think this is appropriate at this age, but I think high schoolers are sophisticated enough to read Shakespeare in the original. Those who read only modernized versions of old texts, or read only modern texts, won’t develop the idea that our language is evolving and is not the same as it was 500 years ago.

  4. The horror! I don’t know how i would have survived college without my knowledge of Elizabethan English!

    I usually get worked up about watering down curriculum, but i just can’t get too excited about this one.

  5. We read Shakespeare in his original language in high school. We did not, however, attempt to do the same with the Canterbury tales – and with good reason. Shakespeare’s English is archaic, even more so than the English that appears in most Bibles. Chaucer’s “English” is nothing short of a foreign language.

    What would be cool would be to look at a series of books from times between Chaucer and Shakespeare (and beyond) and watch as the language evolved into something comprehensible to modern-day English speakers.

  6. Props for Ken. “Canterbury Tales” and “Beowolf” and even Pepys’ “Diaries” are a bit much.

    But Shakespeare? Old Bill invented the language we now speak. The ways in which he borrowed foreign words, assigned new meanings to old local words, punned, ironied, synecdoched, eponymed, and otherwise forced the language to serve his purposes is at least half the lesson. Learning to grasp how such rhetorical and poetic tools are used to craft a memorable “sound-bite” will serve a student well. NOT learning will leave Romeo and Juliet alongside Titanic as simply the lesser of a couple of movies Leo once starred in.

  7. Mike McKeown says:

    When my twin daughter and son were in 9th grade (they are now seniors in college) in an honors class in an upper middle class community, their English class read a modern English version of Romeo and Juliet. My daughter complained vigorously about this, to which the teacher replied that she was right that the modern language just didn’t sing like the original, “but most students have trouble understanding the language of the original.”

    Speaking of low expectations …. Nice guy, but clueless.

    Of course, he has left the classroom to become an administrator on the track to being a principal. That will certainly lead to improved academic performance.

  8. Next, let’s try

    Spanish without Spanish! For college-bound students who have trouble with languages.
    “It’s nice because all those foreign words and grammar aren’t there,” he said. “It’s much easier just memorizing these simple dialogues in English.”

    And it’s much more useful. Instead of memorizing “Lo siento, señor,” they can memorize “I’m sorry, sir” and discuss the anti-egalitarian implications of using the word “sir” instead of “mister.”

  9. Caffeinated Curmudgeon says:

    I’d recommend they use the Shakespeare plays at book-a-minute.

    No need to be confused by weird old words and complicated plots.


    Iago: Your wife’s cheating on you.

    Othello: She is? (kills wife) Damn, she wasn’t really.


  10. Curiously, Shakespeare seems to be much more accessable, or understandable in performance (especially in performance by experts) than on the page. When my daughter was about four years old, we were visiting a neighbor, who had the TV tuned to a performance of one of the history plays by the RSC. Us adults were talking and not paying much attention to the TV, and after about twenty minutes, we noticed that my daughter was sitting in front of it, absolutely entranced, completely wrapped up in it, and hanging on every word. She has liked Shakespeare ever since, and not the dumbed-down versions, either.

  11. Bill Leonard says:

    I first encountered Shakespeare in my sophomore year of high school. I didn’t think Julius Caesar was so difficult. Nor were Hamlet and MacBeth, by the time I was a senior. I certainly will agree that Shakespeare comes alive on stage, and can be challenging for some on the page.

    I also had the benefit of English teachers who knew what they were doing, who would explain some of the difficult or archaic references, and who were capable of explaining changes in the English language since the days of Old Anglo Saxon. But Shakespeare was fun, far more fun than, say, Wordsworth, though parodies by a couple of class wiseasses helped (“I wandered, lonely as a clod…”).

    Chaucer is another matter, or at least it was at the high school level. But like Shakespeare, it’s well worth the effort, because “modern English” translations never seem to capture the funny insights and asides — for instance, the much traveled Wife of Bath, and how “…many a straunge stream she passed.”

    I see no need to dumb anything down, including the King James Bible, which, by the way, is well worth your time if you’re a student of the English language.

  12. Independent George says:

    Here’s the thing that bugs me – if you take away the language, Shakespeare becomes ordinary. His plots were never particularly imaginative – they were rather standard for the day. What separates him from the pack is the manner with which he expressed himself. I can sympathize with those who struggle with the language – lord knows, I went through that myself at first. But the Cliff’s Notes version seems to miss the whole point of Shakespeare.

    I’m with Sgt. Mom on the performance issue, though. Watching it being performed can make all the difference.

  13. Walter Wallis says:

    FIVESOOTH! A combination of Shakespear and Victor Borge.

  14. Eric Brown says:

    I’ve read Chaucer in a facing-pages translation, and it’s _definitely_ a different language – and only 200 years separate Chaucer & Shakespeare, while 400 years separate Shakespeare from us. Why are people surprised that Shakespeare is damn near unreadable?

    John McWhorter makes the (pretty valid) point that our language has drifted _a lot_ from what Shakespeare wrote, and a good translator could retain the majesty of Shakespeare while rendering it intelligible to more students.

  15. Michelle Dulak says:

    There is absolutely no reason that a high school class should have to have Shakespeare Simplified For Greater Comprehensibility. All you need is footnotes.

    But you do need those, sometimes lots of them. We read Romeo and Juliet in 8th grade, and unsurprisingly the hardest part was the very first scene, the one with all the Elizabethan-era raunchy humor in it. If you’ve never heard of a “maidenhead,” and don’t know what it meant to “bite your thumb,” that scene’s absolute gibberish. But I agree with Joanne — finding out what all that stuff meant was extremely cool.

  16. Michelle Dulak says:

    Forgot to add that “hautbois” is still the French for “oboe,” and of course the English “oboe” is an obvious phonetic approximation of “hautbois.” Though I think what Shakespeare thought of as hautboys we’d call shawms today. (Same general range, same basic idea — double reed and all — but different construction and a, shall we say, more penetrating sound.)

  17. Bill Leonard says:

    Independent George has it absolutely right about Shakespeare’s plots, especially the comedies: two sets of twins, mistaken identities, and the silliest of the bunch, it was all a dream (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) must have been old when the Bard wrote them.

    As to Chaucer being a “different language,” yes and no. The point is that Chaucer was writing during a period in which the language was undergoing great and rapid change. By Shakespeare’s time, most of the major changes essentially were completed — which is why Chaucer is considered middle English and Shakespeare is considered early modern English.

    As it turns out, I was very lucky to have had a high school English teacher who spent a couple hours on the history of the English language, including the reasons some of the anachronistic phrases have survived to the present time. It greatly expanded my horizon, and made it substantially easier to understand what I was reading and studying. I’d recommend every teacher who plans to deal with Shakespeare and touch on Chaucer at the high school level do the same.

  18. Oh good, one more marker to separate the educated from the hoi polloi. If your students can’t handle Shakespeare, then….don’t…read….Shakespeare. It is that simple. Separate the text from its language and meter, and you’re not reading Shakespeare. The student editions I’ve seen all have definitions for the more obscure words printed _on_the_page_, so the argument that the students struggle with the language translates to an admission that the students are not college material.

    Do the course descriptions spell out for the parents that their children will be reading BardLite? Or are the parents left with the mistaken belief that their kids are reading “Othello”? I would have grave reservations about a program which considered my kid “on track” for college, but unable to read well enough to handle Shakespeare.

    If plot and character motives are so important that one must read BardLite, why not skip all this confusing “reading” stuff, and watch _O_, a movie based on Othello starring Julia Stiles?

  19. In my high school English class, we read “Hamlet” aloud, with different kids reading their assigned parts. I think this could be improved if each student was assigned to present to the class what his character did/had done to them in modern language (either before or after the reading of the original). And for a real blowout effect, finish up with a stage presentation by the class.

  20. Michelle Dulak says:

    David Foster,

    Heh. We did the reading-aloud thing with Julius Caesar in 9th grade. I got to be Popilius Lena. Not a hell of a lot of drama to be wrung out of a two-line, ten-word role.

  21. Steve LaBonne says:

    The problem here starts with the cruel hoax of pretending that students with “poor reading skills” are nevertheless “on track to attend college”. Not any college whose degree means anything…

  22. When I taught (20 years ago), the consensus was that after the first couple of lessons Shakespeare was quite easy to teach because students generally enjoyed it on its own terms. I have plenty of anecdotes of students who were indifferent or hostile to English but ended up telling me that Shakespeare was the most enjoyable thing they’d done that year. That wouldn’t have happened with a modern paraphrase of the plays.

  23. Based on the fact that Shakespear plays were attended by all classes of people, it would seem that the writers intent was to entertain the masses. It is hard to believe that the less well educated of Shapespear’s time would have been entertained by plays that used language that was confusing or phrases that they couldn’t understand. This would seem to indicate that Shapespear’s turn of a phrase would have been easily understood by the people in his audience. Which would mean that he used common language of the time.

    Today, we live in a completely different time. The Shakespear’s of today certainly don’t use “Shapespearean language” to entertain the masses. They use language that we can understand.

    The article referenced clearly states that the plays are presented in original form on the left hand pages and in modern form on the right hand pages. This allows the students to read a version that they can understand without referencing footnotes as well as gain an appreciation for the original version.

    The article also includes the following. “While her students read the translated text of the play, Kollias had them study the famous speeches in both versions. They discussed how language can be used to manipulate a crowd.”

    I seriously doubt that Shakespear would wish for students to struggle with understanding while reading his work. My guess is that he would provide modern translations to insure that the students would fully enjoy his writing.

  24. Steve LaBonne says:

    Wrong. Shakespeare’s did not use only “common language” by any stretch of the imagination. His vocabulary is enormous, containing many words attested in no other writer, some of which may be his own invention. He was a _poet_ first and foremost, not just a playwright, and was positively drunk on language. Take away the almost childlike joy in wordplay, and the residue is not Shakespeare at all.

  25. Mad Scientist says:

    The argument that one page has the original text and the facing page the modern text is pure tripe.

    When the same technique is used in foreign language classes, the students typically go for the translation and never bother with the target language.

    It’s called the path of least resistance.

  26. I second Steve. In fact, the syntactical inversions that are such a staple of the Shakespearean line were not at all the typical construction of the time, so Shakespeare’s audience was dealing with invented words, inverted syntax, complex metaphors and sometimes courtly in-jokes (like the hat scene in Hamlet). Shakespeare’s plays did have to appeal to his audience, but you have to remember that his audience consisted of representatives from every class, which is why in one scene we find ribald puns about holes and hares while the nexts presents us with complex philosophical treatises of free will and the nature of human agency. Shakespeare appealed to the lower classes and the aristocrats too. It didn’t hurt, of course, that his characters are charismatic and his plots full of suspense and drama.

    Hence the common experience mentioned above — Shakespeare is far more accessible on the stage than in the classroom. Of course. He’s a playwright, not a novelist. All we have in the classroom is his marvelous language, which the teachers in this article don’t trust their students to understand. Shakespeare “translated” is not Shakespeare. I object even to the word “translated” in this context. It is a dumbed-down, illiterate, condescending, offensive crime against those children.

  27. John from OK says:

    I hate Shakespeare — mainly because I find it impossible to understand. Had it in high school and college – never liked it, never will. I read the notes and the summaries and all that, but the plots simply weren’t worth the trouble to get to them. Same goes for the King James Bible. I also never did well with foreign languages. I am intelligent in some areas, but not those.

    Have you ever asked a computer question to a nerd like myself and received a long-winded answer purposely designed to make you feel like an idiot? How about an auto mechanic who won’t tell you what was wrong with your car without puting you in your place as far as your mechanical ability. Many of you are insisting that only those with the inborn talent to translate words as soon as they arrive are worthy of reading Shakespeare.

    I rented Titus once. It was one sick and gory movie. You can have it. I’ll watch Dawn of the Dead instead. I learned in college that R&J is a lot like West Side Story. Chick flicks. You can have those, too.

    Dave W., are you busy Friday? There’s a great movie coming out that’s as gruesome as Titus, but it’s in English. Wanna go?

  28. Brian Swisher says:


    To quote Alexei Panshin, Shakespeare wrote during a time “…when language was wild and whirling, and a man with his words about him could kill with a lightining phrase.”

  29. In grades 5 & 6 we read Shakespeare (Macbeth and the Tempest). We all loved it. What also helped was that instead of one person being Macbeth and another being second gravedigger (or something), we sat in a circle and just read whichever line was next.
    We were also allowed to use (fake and terrible) accents. Shakespeare can so easily be fun.

  30. Michelle Dulak says:

    John from OK, if all the Shakespeare I knew was a movie version of Titus Andronicus, I’d probably hate him too. (For anyone who doesn’t know it: very early Shakespeare, in the Elizabethan “shocker” manner; includes a rape in which the two rapists cut the victim’s hands off and her tongue out, so that she can’t tell anyone who did it; she manages anyway by writing in the dirt with a stick, guided by what’s left of her wrists; her father then kills the rapists (who are brothers) and serves their baked severed heads up to their mother for dinner. And I haven’t even mentioned the other gory bits. Not typical Shakespeare, to say the least, and not what’s going to turn up in a high school English class.)

    but the plots simply weren’t worth the trouble to get to them

    It’s not about plot, it’s about language, which is why removing the language to get to the plot is idiotic. The plots are old and generally plain. The language and the pacing and the subtle development of character through time are the only things worth bothering about. You might as well skip Henry V or Richard III and just read Holinshed. Suitably “modernized,” of course.

  31. As for me, I think any English teacher who does a “translation” of Shakespeare should have his or her license yanked. What complete nonsense. Shakespeare is written in early modern English. It is perfectly comprehensible by children who pick up words like “hella” the first time they hear it — even sophomores reading on a 3rd grade level with language impairments (which I do every year — during their freshman year, they did Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet).

    Shakespeare is about the language. Most of Romeo & Juliet is written in sonnets. The oratory of Julius Caesar is nearly perfect — full of precise diction, parallelism, etc. None of that survives “translation” into contemporary English.

    I’ll keep this thread in mind next time you guys are complaining about the schools dumbing down the curriculum. Or is it that you only want the stuff you have a hard time with dumbed down? Everyday Math is pure evil, but get rid of that Shakespeare crap? Am I understanding you correctly?

    BTW, the “masses” probably didn’t always understand what was going on in terms of language. Shakespeare made up over 5,000 words — words we *do* understand today — like “elbow,” “cold-blooded,” and “gossip.”

    And there’s nothing quite so motivating to a group of 9th graders as to assign them the task of finding the dirty jokes in Romeo & Juliet. Suddenly, they all learn perfect Elizabethan and begin biting their thumbs at each other instead of yelling “shut up.”

  32. I remember, “The Merchant of Venice”, “MacBeth”, and potentially “Julius Caeser”, and “Hamlet” from High School. Perhaps that prepared me for wandering into a movie showing, a few days before the start of my college freshman classes, of the filmed version of “Taming of the Shrew” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton(?). I can’t count the number of times I almost fell out of the chair with my stomach aching from laughter! (It is available on DVD – see it if you can, it’s a HOOT!). Imagine my surprise 20 years later when for God knows what reason or motivation, the producers of the TV show “Moonlighting” with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepard, did a spoof of “Taming of the Shrew”! What a Scream! I remember Bruce Willis riding into the town square on a horse – the horse had sun glasses on , and a BMW Roundel on it’s blanket!! I managed to tape a later re-run of the show and still enjoy both the original and spoof version when I really need a break from reality and a good belly laugh!
    I attribute my earlier “forced induction” of original prose Shakespear as a good part of my ability to enjoy the movie and TV spoof.

  33. Oh Lord – the blessings (?) of the internet and the WWW!! Ref. Moonlighting, a quick “google” led me to this page:


  34. Steve LaBonne says:

    “As for me, I think any English teacher who does a “translation” of Shakespeare should have his or her license yanked.” Too right, and three cheers for Rita!

  35. John from OK says:

    Are you sure EVERYBODY loved it?
    Michelle, Rita,
    Having to expand my already cramped brain with archaic words and phrases is hella-lame.

    In imaginary number theory, an upper division class, we had these equations which required 5 pages of mathematical scribble just to get a simple answer like 2e^i. To a math major it was beautiful. It was also worthless. We did not insist that the literature majors, much less high school students, expand their minds the same way.

    For insightful reading and mind-numbing analysis, I prefer Dr. Seuss; although on a particularly fine point of human nature I must disagree:
    I tried green eggs and ham repeatedly and I still hate them!

  36. Michelle Dulak says:

    Rita C,

    I’ll keep this thread in mind next time you guys are complaining about the schools dumbing down the curriculum. Or is it that you only want the stuff you have a hard time with dumbed down? Everyday Math is pure evil, but get rid of that Shakespeare crap? Am I understanding you correctly?

    Ummm . . what? Are we reading the same thread? I kinda got the rough impression that most of the commenters thought Shakespeare Lite was a stupendously dumb idea. That was certainly the impression I meant to convey in my own comments; sorry if it didn’t come through.

    Shakespeare made up over 5,000 words — words we *do* understand today — like “elbow,” “cold-blooded,” and “gossip.”

    Not quite right, Rita — I think the first known printed appearances of thousands of words are in Shakespeare (and there are a lot that appear only in Shakespeare, and most of those only once), but it doesn’t follow at all that Shakespeare made them all up. He was writing in an age when most people weren’t literate, and he had a taste for language that his contemporaries didn’t. Of course he picked up anything he could use. I am quite sure he didn’t invent “elbow,” for example. But I bet he did invent “bilbow” (cf. the scene in Henry V where Katherine is attempting to learn English)

  37. John from OK:
    Yes. We had a small class, about 12 (which is why the round-table reading could work). Everyone loved it.

  38. Re. ‘ought to have their license pulled’… can’t, union would not allow.

    Re. ‘…won’t be prepared for college…’ colleges are dumbed down just as much as high schools – these kids will be as prepared as they need to be.

  39. Michelle Dulak says:

    Just read the original article Joanne linked (the link wasn’t working the first time I tried it). I loved this:

    Shakespeare can intimidate students because of unfamiliar syntax and strange character names.

    So they’ve hit on the brilliant solution of keeping all the strange character names and altering the unfamiliar syntax. At least, that’s what I gather from the opening vignette, where “Et tu, Brute?” is transformed into “And you too, Brutus?” How strange a character name is “Brutus”? Surely they could have transmogrified him into “Joe” or something.

    But what I really want to know is what they did with the next line, “Then fall Caesar.” That would be “unfamiliar syntax.” What’s the replacement? “OK, I’ll die now”?

  40. Kids named Rashika and Aalyiah are intimidated by funny names? Boy, kids are wimps today. Of course, having a strange Shakespearean name like Kate has scarred me for life.

  41. I think that this is totally appropriate. When I read Shakespeare, it was necessary for me to translate the archaic words into something meaningful. Yes, you lose the poetry of the writing, but you don’t lose the plot.
    The benefit of this, though, is that it helps less gifted students to grasp the meaning. If they do understand the story, they may be more motivated to delve into the real thing. My first contact with Shakespeare was a novlized version of “The Merchant of Venice” when I was in 3rd grade. The poetry was gone, but the story stuck with me.

  42. Reading Shakespeare is not the intended method. These are plays, not novels. My wife’s college English teachers stressed the importance of seeing the plays performed either in person or on a screen.

    Kurosawa did wonders with Macbeth. Titus was a mess. But everyone should see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

    The play’s the thing, but the text is still important.

  43. I once saw a Coles Notes kind of thing where they rewrote Shakespeare in natural language. All I remember was “To be or not to be” was translated as “Should I kill myself or not?”

  44. Michelle Dulak says:

    Half Canadian:

    The trouble is that there’s no point in reading Shakespeare for the sake of the plot. If you want interesting plots in easier language, you can find them by the tens of thousands. The only point in reading Shakespeare in an English class is experiencing the richness of the language. If you don’t preserve that, you might as well substitute James Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Mystery” for Macbeth. It’s very neatly written, and if the plot is what you want, it’s mostly in there.

    And yet, and yet . . . I had Romeo & Juliet in school, and Julius Caesar, but the first time I sat down and read a Shakespeare play for no reason but my own enjoyment was after seeing a performance of Richard III in Central Park. (Jeez, well over 20 years ago; Kevin Kline was Richard, I think.) And it was the drama that caught me, not the language — with the perverse result that I now know the weaker Histories well enough to be annoyed at cuts in the second part of Henry VI,, but don’t know a couple of the great Comedies well at all.

    Moral? Enticing students in with true love or political assassinations involving a few dozen stab wounds or the like is the way to go; but keep the language.

  45. Michelle, obviously I’m not in disagreement with those who think the idea is dumb :).

    jon — I agree about seeing the plays. We read first because seeing it cold, I think, is a steep challenge for most students. I use the DiCaprio Romeo & Juliet and the Marlon Brando Julius Caesar.

  46. The Kurosawa Macbeth is called Throne of Blood and well worth the search. And Kiss Me Kate is better if you know the source.

  47. Michelle Dulak says:

    Rita C,

    Michelle, obviously I’m not in disagreement with those who think the idea is dumb :).

    Well, as you say, obviously. But who exactly are the “you guys” who complain about math being “dumbed down” but think it’s fine with Shakespeare? There have been very few comments so far in support of the idea.

  48. Bill Leonard says:

    I’ve read all the posts thus far, and have contributed a couple. My concern is that there is a great deal of discourse on how difficult The Bard is, or is not. Secondarily, there are factoids to deal with. A contribution of 5,000 words to the language? No, The Bard’s contribution is more like 10,000 words. But that’s not the point.

    People, this is our culture, and it is worth preserving and forcing the young to learn — unless, of course, you believe that western culture is of little value and not worth preserving. And if you believe you’re right, please tell me, who was the Zulu Beethoven? The Hindu Shakespeare? The Chinese Hayek?

    Otherwise, let’s stop wasting time — unless you simply like mental masturbation.

  49. jeff wright says:

    I got kind of tired reading all of the posts. As usual, Bill Leonard focuses this in what I think is the proper direction. If you want to know who we are and whence we came, you need Shakespeare. You also need Jefferson, Milton, Locke, Bacon, Dante, Rousseau, et al. If you don’t want ’em don’t read ’em. But don’t dumb them down. They deserve better. Much better. And don’t pretend to be well educated in the classical sense if you’ve not encountered these folks.

    WRT the schools, well, it occurs to me that the old saw about the inmates running the asylum often applies. You curry favor with students at your peril. Who cares what they think? Isn’t the whole point of the schools, parents, etc., to make them better people? Empty vessels and all that?

  50. Steve LaBonne says:

    Jeff, well put; reminds me of what I used to say to some of my student-evaluation-besotted colleagues in my academic days: “If the students know better than we do what they need, why are _they_ paying _us_?” (You can see why I’m not in academia any more- assistant professors aren’t supposed to talk to tenured faculty like that. 😉 )

  51. In high school, we did one or more Shakespeare plays a year. We got the versions with the definitions of the more obscure words right on the page, and when there was a good movie version (like “Taming of the Shrew”), we got to see the movie (usually AFTER reading the play).

    I think an “Annotated” Shakespeare – with the original language but with glosses and explications of the more difficult passages or the allusions a modern might not get – would be vastly preferable to the “modern English” version.

    Or start them out young on “Lamb’s Tales” and move to the real Shakespeare later on, after they’re familiar with the plots of the plays.

    Like Shakespeare or not, he’s had a huge impact on Western culture. Modern authors still allude to him or use variants of the plots he used (e.g., Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”). Much of that impact is the language and it seems more than a bit of a shame to remove that.

    I will say that Shakespeare was not my favorite author in high school, but isn’t part of education introducing students to authors/music/thoughts/theories/etc. that they might not seek out on their own?

    although, one argument I can see in favor of the “modern English” versions – then, teachers might have more ammunition for requiring their students to speak/write standard English instead of whatever slang is the common currency in that school.

  52. Mega-dittos to the folks who support seeing a staged version of whatever play is studied. Ken Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or “Othello” will work…

    Somebody said” The plots are old and generally plain” — and ditto again. Where they were fresh, maybe in 1590, they have been stolen and recycled since. Frex, Disney’s “Lion King” with Simba pacing back and forth, trying to decide whether to go back and face Scar or stay in the glade with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…

  53. It strikes me that many of those who comment on these pages are willing to go to the wall for those bits of knowledge and ability which they themselves use in their daily work. The mathematician and scientist are most likely to comment on math and science instruction, the historians are most likely to comment on history instruction, and so on down the line. We’re like the wisemen of the old proverb, each of whom can describe minutely the piece of the elephant which we hold in our hands.

    Education is a whole, however, not a collection of parts. In any specific part, the lesson plan is subject to variability. I prefer Shakespeare to Hemingway, but that’s just me. If you wish, drop Shakespeare from the lesson plan. Substitute Aeschylus and classic Grecian odes (translated). Read the Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf and the Divine Comedy. Excellent translations exist of all these works. You will note, however, that the best translations translate the original works into equivalent verse forms. Why? Because no one reads these works for the plot and the character development. If you wish to skip the language and jump to the distinguishing characteristics of modern movies, buy the Cliff Notes.

    Rendering Shakespeare in “modern” English makes as much sense as reading, not singing, an opera. Yes, it is physically possible to do it, but why are you wasting your time? If you are intimidated by Shakespeare’s language, then you won’t have a prayer with Chaucer, Milton, Marvell, Spenser, or Browning, let alone Arnold, Tate, or Thomas. You also will not have built the ground level of knowledge to realize that people have been quoting and referring to Shakespeare for hundreds of years.

    In short, there is a body of expectations which we use to judge an educated person. The knowledge of mathematics and scientific discovery are important, but the knowledge of history and our cultural inheritance is just as important. If the kids in the article to which Joanne refers are truly on track for college, at what point will they catch up? Are they being prepared to enter college on the remedial track? Are they kids of normal ability whose elementary education has not prepared them for high school? Or do the high school (!) English teachers themselves not have the ability and knowledge necessary to explain Shakespeare to their students?

  54. Steve LaBonne says:

    Julia, besides “John from OK” who are the scientists (I’m a scientist) and mathematicians in this comment thread who deserve your reproach?(Same question to Rita C. who made a similar comment.) It has been my consistent experience in and out of academia that scientists and mathematicians are far more likely to be conversant with literature, art and music (I’m an avid amateur classical musician myself) than social science and humanities types are to exhibit beaisc numeracy and scientific literacy.

  55. Steve, I am not reproaching any scientists or mathematicians in this thread. I was speaking of those people who tend to leave comments on Joanne’s blog in general. You’ll note that the threads about math tend to gather more comments from people who can vouch for the importance of numeracy. Likewise, a thread about literature or history instruction is likely to gather more comments from liberal arts majors. It may just be a case of which issue lies closest to any particular reader’s heart.

    I don’t think there are any winners in the old “my discipline has more well-rounded practitioners than yours” argument. I could speculate that many teachers I have spoken with have noted that many students who are strong in math tend to be musical, and to have a gift for languages as well, but that’s better left to the category of “we will never be able to conclusively prove this.” As I wrote before, education is a whole, not a collection of necessary parts. I also applaud movements in prominent universities to strengthen efforts to produce numerate, as well as literate, graduates.

    I am objecting to the general tendancy to attack any particular branch of instruction as “not relevant to life after high school.” Calculus? Knowledge of Photosynthesis? Literature? Almost any discipline has been attacked for this supposed irrelevance, but to take this line of argument seriously would lead to graduates who can read simple texts and do enough math to make change. Please note: I am not stating that any of the people who regularly post here are arguing this. When I read of schools teaching de-versed Shakespeare, however, I do fear that we are seeing this kind of thinking in action. “What do we need this old stuff for? Our kids won’t understand it. Lowest-common denominator language will do just fine.” Of course, if you practice such things long enough, you will make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  56. Mad Scientist says:

    Well, I am one of those scientists. And I think I have a decent background in literature. How many engineers read Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, or Homer’s “Illiad” and “Odessy” on their own time because they just simply wanted to? (Besides me, of course)

    There have been parallels drawn between “Star Trek” and much of Shakespeare’s work. Ditto for “Star Wars” and much of mythology. One is not truly educated until one can find the connections between many different and diverse fields.

    I, however know my limitations. I am not an expert in Shakespeare, and have not really read it in ages. My opinion is that it does need to be studied in the original and performances actually seen.

    Primarily, since I am do not consider myself to be an expert (or at least very knowledgable) in this field, I tend to refrain from commenting on it.

  57. Anonymous says:

    My problem with Shakespeare is simply that I don’t understand the words, and I don’t like the time it takes me to look up all the unknown words as I am reading, while I find footnotes to be a real distraction. And if I don’t understand the words when reading them, I REALLY don’t understand them when hearing them in a play. Some of us simply have a problem with foreign languages, even after 4 years of Latin and 5 years of Spanish. This is not just a foreign language thing. I also don’t read poetry because I don’t understand the words, and whenever I come across poetry in a book I am reading, my eyes just automatically skip to the next prose. I’ve tried, but the enjoyment just isn’t there.

    But I had little trouble with math, and really really did well at computer engineering. I also did well in law school. I now read and write for a living as a patent attorney. But because I don’t like Shakespeare because it’s written in a different language I’m uneducated? “Renaissance Man” was a great movie and explained Hamlet very well, and it was a delight to see Danny Devito awaken a love of Shakespeare in his students, but that’s never happened to me. I finally gave up about a decade ago after reading all the comedies and a couple of the tragedies–and I could tell that I was missing the “good stuff” because I didn’t know the language. I’d much rather read Terry Pratchett.

  58. Anonymous: I am not arguing that anyone who hates Shakespeare is uneducated. Nor is a love of poetry required. I, personally, can’t get excited about opera. I accept that it has a wonderful history, and that it is part of western culture, but given a choice, I would rather go to a movie. I have, however, been to the opera, and I could identify some of the “greatest hits” of the art form. If someone spoke of The Barber of Seville, I do not first think of Bugs Bunny.

    I am not calling people who do not like Shakespeare or poetry uneducated; I note that you know that you do not like Shakespeare and poetry _because you have been exposed to them_. It is clear from your post that you are able to read a Shakespearean play, but you prefer other reading material and other dramatic works. Fair enough. If you _had_ to read _The Merchant of Venice_, for example, you could haul out the old dictionary and have at it. You have the skills to read writing which is very close to contemporary English. It is not modern colloquial English, but it is very close. As an aside, I find legal writing more difficult to understand than poetry, and do not seek it out.

    As I have written in previous posts, however, how would you feel about a school which decided that poetry, drama, foreign languages and history were too esoteric for their students? For your children? Would you accept a “History of Science and Math” course, in which students read accounts of famous Scientists and Mathematicians, but never learned to understand trigonometry, calculus, or chemistry?

    The Germans, for one, do have high schools in which students concentrate on one academic area, such as math & science, or the classics. That has not been the American standard, and I would have reservations about introducing it. I suspect that the great private schools would stick to their academic models, and over time we would have a basis for the slur of, “oh, he’s not a cultured person.” High school is a time for students to grasp the basics which can lead them further in various academic disciplines. Many a prospective pre-med has discovered a love of Medieval History in college, for example, and prospective English majors have decided to become Geologists. I started out in Math and fell in love with poetry. If a student has been adequately prepared in their secondary education, they have the freedom to make that choice. That is a strength of our system, and one which I would not choose to see vanish.

  59. Bill Leonard says:

    Hear, hear Julia!

    It’s our cultural heritage, folks. Exposure to it is a necessity for our society. Of course some folks will love some things more than others; it was always thus. You needn’t love Shakespeare to understand his importance. But you do need to be exposed to him to understand that importance. And then, sometimes, the unexpected happens. I recall from my own high school days that one young man, a stalwart on the wrestling team who enjoyed mathmatics and working with his hands in shop classes, fell in love with literature after reading Huckleberry Finn.

  60. Maybe we need to really just improve Shakespeare.

    For example, Cassius asks:

    “Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
    that he is grown so great?”

    I think this would sound much better in the past tense:

    “Upon what meat has Caesar fed that he is grown so great?”

    The past tense implies a vague, unstated, mysterious or shameful act that has caused his rise in power, not a continuing action which we can currently observe.

    In fact, I amuse myself by improving on Shakespeare whenever his poetic efforts fall below my standards. That would be a great way to get people interested in Shakespeare. Have the class rewrite Shakespeare and explain how their rewrite is an improvment.

    For example, so as not to upset current sensibilities, this line might be better as:

    “What can lie behind Caesar’s rise to power?”

    Like they say, with a great piece of Art, everyone sees something different.


  61. Bill Leonard says:

    Joel, I assume your tongue was firmly implanted in your cheek when you offered that last post above. If not…well, have a good time improving Shakespeare.

  62. I don’t really have anything against Shakespeare, but I do recall that we seemed to spend an awful lot of time on him in high school. Two plays freshman year, two Sophomore, three Senior plus a huge project on the Sonnets. I think Shakespeare should be taught, but I feel it took up a disproportionate amount of my high school English lessons. We never read any of the American Founding Fathers’ writings, nor “Jefferson, Milton, Locke, Bacon, Dante, Rousseau, et al.” as jeff wright suggested above.

  63. Room Mother says:

    The Folger Shakespearean Library in Washington, D.C., has staged a children’s festival/competition for many years. Our daughter was in fourth grade the first year of the competition and she and her classmates in her small christian school competed all the way through 12th grade. They had a great time and won many awards. The language was part of the fun. I think they understood it because they were grounded in the King James Bible.

    A favorite memory of mine was when the small cast members from an “inner city” school performed Julius Caesar in bed sheets – – – printed with large blue roses. Our own Julius was quite dramatic. His robes, gestures, speech, were perfect. However, he walked with tiny, mincing steps because his mother had given him rubber “flip flops” to wear for shoes.

    Some of us are good at math, some at basketball, and some love language. Loosen up and enjoy your gifts.

    “Room Mother”

  64. germankid says:

    In response to what JuliaK wrote about the german schools: they do NOT center on one subject, but the students are free to select a major they would like to go in if they are to continue onto the Universitaet.
    And into what joel wrote: Shakespear wrote the way he did to fit all his plays into Iambic Pentameter. They did not really speak like that back then. In fact, most of the common people had a hard time undrstanding. It was mostly focused toward the reigning queen at that time(i don’t remember who it was). If you take the time to analyze what is being written it isn’t that hard to comprehend. I live in Germany and i had my Julius Caeser book with my on a bus trip when a german friend of mine began to read it. He said that he didn’t know all the words but was able to understand the basics. Shakespear in its original form is the base for today’s literiture and theater. If you were to water it down you would lose this history, and it would not be as impacting.


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