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
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