Shakespeare Just Won’t Go Away, And That’s a Good Thing

It might be summer break here, but I can still hear my students whining, “Miss, why do we have to read this old stuff?” or “Shakespeare is so old. There isn’t anything in here that could possibly relate to me.”

Getting students to read, especially to read Shakespeare, is no easy task. In fact, when the so-called “Shakespeare unit” comes around each year (now with the Common Core standards, students are required to be exposed to Shakespeare every year from junior high through high school), I look forward to it with both excitement and an ominous sense of foreboding. I love Shakespeare, but my students – many of whom will never take another English class after high school – do not share the love.

The language is difficult for them, to be sure, but they do get past that after the first act of whatever play we are reading. What’s the most difficult for me is to relate the plays to their lives. They see The Bard as they see black and white films: archaic and un-relatable. My primary job when I teach Shakespeare’s plays, then, is to make it relate to their young lives.

As it turns out, Justice Ginsburg may have unwittingly helped me out. She quoted The Bard in her dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act last week. She wrote:

Congress approached the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA with great care and seriousness… The same cannot be said of the Court’s opinion today. The Court makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled. Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if that were the whole story. One would expect more from an opinion striking at the heart of the Nation’s signal piece of civil-rights legislation.

According to Colorlines, she then quoted two literary figures: “Ginsburg also quoted Shakespeare, telling the Court that ‘what’s past is prologue,’ and the Spanish-American poet and philosopher George Santayana who said ‘[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’” Reportedly, this caused Justice Alito to roll his eyes. Maybe he didn’t enjoy learning about Shakespeare in his high school English class, either.

The phrase, “what’s past is prologue,” is a famous quote from Shakespeare’s last play, “The Tempest.” It comes from Act II, scene I when Antonio and Sebastian are just about to kill the king, thus ensuring their inheritance of the throne. Now, it is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington D.C. Interestingly enough, Joe Biden also used the phrase against Sarah Palin in the vice-presidential debate of 2008.

We don’t just owe this one famous phrase to Shakespeare. In fact, he invented over 1700 words and phrases we commonly use today. Well, maybe he didn’t invent them, per se, but his plays are the first cited uses of them, which is good enough for me. So when else might you be quoting the bard and not even know it? Here are a few examples.

“I will wear my heart upon my sleeve”

No, this isn’t a phrase from your latest favorite song from that hot new boy band. Shakespeare actually used this phrase in “Othello.” It is the deceitful Iago who utters this line as he is explaining to Roderigo that he follows Othello not out of love or duty, but because he feels he can trick him for revenge. Not quite the romantic notion we think of today!

“Sweets for a sweet”

Another saying we think of as romantic did not originate as such. This phrase came from Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy, “Hamlet.” The queen, Hamlet’s mother, is throwing flowers over Ophelia’s grave after she has killed herself, lamenting that she wished to rather be throwing flowers over her and Hamlet’s wedding bed.

“A laughing stock”

This phrase came from Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” when Sir Hugh Evans says to Doctor Caius: “Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humours; I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.” The phrase comes from a time when people used to be put into the stocks and laughed at as punishment. It still means pretty much the same thing today.

“Send him packing”

We first see this phrase in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1″ when the hostess at a tavern announces that there is a messenger at the door to see the prince. Falstaff replies, “Faith, and I’ll send him packing,” meaning he’ll tell him to get lost. We use this the same way today.

See? Who says Shakespeare is un-relatable to today’s youth?

Photo Credit: tonynetone


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 months ago

thanks for the article.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

I love Shakespeare

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra3 years ago

Thank you Ashley, for Sharing this!

Christine W.
Christine W.3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra3 years ago

Thank you Ashley, for Sharing this!

Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith3 years ago

Seems I got cut off:

A lot of the students never even bothered finished the book, but ran off to buy the Cole's notes versions, or failed the section, and made the marks up latter when there was less difficult and hated content available.

In fact, my 2nd meeting with his works was my grade 9 advanced English class, in which there were perhaps 10 of us. We were the only students allowed to read 'The taming of the Shrew' because of the concerns of the social problems the work could cause amongst the male and female school populations.

The bottom line is, Shakespeare seems to turn more students OFF reading then get them into reading, and that is overall, a bad thing.

Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith3 years ago

Angela R. - Yeah maybe, BUT spelling =/= reading. I can settle down and read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in a day when I feel like it. I don't recall ever saying I was good with names, and I bet I can't even think of a quarter of the names of the author's who's works I've read over the years because I read SO MUCH.

And the fact that I can't spell doesn't take away from the fact that if I hadn't developed such a strong love for reading BEFORE Shakespeare was shoved at me in school in Shakespeare hell, I would have loathed reading.

This is my issue with teachers. They teach what they think is important. But if you can't engage the kids, then you just turn them away from a lifelong love of certain things. Reading and Shakespeare are prime examples of this.

You need to engage kids on some level before you throw something like this that could very well backfire, and turn them away from reading. That's why I love it when something like Harry Potter or (And I can't believe I'm saying this) Twilight comes along. No, it may not be the greatest material in terms of intellectual content, but it engages the kids. That way if they come across something they hate, such as Shakespeare, then at least they know not all reading is horrible, and they have something good to turn back on.

I had to go though at least 6 years of Shakespeare in school, and clearly if the goal was to make kids love it, it backfired, BADLY. A lot of the students never even bothered fini

Angela Roquemore
Angela Roquemore3 years ago

Also thought some of you would get a kick out of this:

Angela Roquemore
Angela Roquemore3 years ago

Jennifer S.: It's also obvious that you can't spell the "Lewis" in C.S. Lewis.

Kevin B.: Yes there is...a lot of it and since when is the bawdyness and sexuality in Shakespeare unrelatable to today's oversexed teenagers?!

vee s.: I don't read him as often as I used to but I still read him.

Colin W.: I voluntarily picked up both Tolkien and Shakespeare in 2nd grade, couldn't understand it then so I ut them down and picked them back upo in 3rd. WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES! Now I still read both regularly.

Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith3 years ago

I've read a lot here, and it changes nothing.

I was ALWAYS an above average reader. I was reading adult novels when the rest of the class was getting into reading short novels.

Shakespeare is dull, boring, and pointless. Give me C.S. Louse, or Tolkien, or George R.R. Martin, or anyone over him any day. I've even read a few of his works that have been per-translated, and they don't get my attention at all.

The only way I'll even THINK about touching another one of his stories is if someone pays me.

Of course, I suspect a lot of hatred was from having it shoved down my throat too many years in university, getting more frustrated with the nonsense language I couldn't grasp as each year passed, and wondering why we couldn't work on something remotely interesting.