In this article, Fintona's English Learning Leader, Michelle Maglitto, explores why Shakespeare's works are still a relevant and vital part of the modern English curriculum.
Throughout our lives, we have all read a novel, seen a play performed, watched a film, become engrossed in a short story and subsequently identified with a character on screen or on the page. In this way, literature in whatever form, resonates with us all. Literature is integral to the human experience because ‘engaging with literature is fundamentally to question how we humans behave – how we survive – and also to examine through the artistry of writers and their texts what makes our lives more meaningful’ (Goodwyn, 2021, p9). Central to all literature is the examination of who are we as humans? The ultimate question is what universal experiences unite us in humanity? It is precisely for these existential reasons that Shakespeare’s plays are still relevant in the modern English curriculum.
At Fintona, from Years 9 to 12 the study of Shakespearean plays in Term 1 is the cornerstone of our curriculum. While the main event is Shakespeare Day, the study of his plays provides our students with a literary platform to reflect upon, query and discuss the universal elements of what makes us human. Pride, honour, love, prejudice, revenge, and ambition are not confined to a period of time in history or a geographical location, but rather transcend time and place. Hamlet’s extreme grief and despondency in life following his father’s death is not confined to the pages of the play. Romeo and Juliet’s passionate love and impulsiveness are not uncommon amongst youth, though perhaps young people are not prone to marry in three days. Macbeth’s hubris and hamartia are seen in many political leaders in the world today as much as in the chronicles of history. Shakespeare’s words may be written in Early Modern English and he may have used iambic pentameter but the sentiments expressed in his stories call out to us all. The emotional journeys of his characters speak to us intimately because they tell the story of humanity with all its fatal flaws.
Another important reason why Shakespeare is still relevant is intertextuality. While at the time, Shakespeare was considered to be one of many talented playwrights and poets, since the late 17th century he is considered to be one of the greatest playwrights and poets. In this way, his work has influenced literature considerably. Thus, in order to understand many contemporary texts, we need to expose our students to the works of the Bard of Avon. For without an appreciation for his works our students’ capacity to understand the messages conveyed in the other texts we study within the curriculum is compromised significantly. Modern writers often reference his works, and many adaptations of his plays can be found in literature today. Added to this is the fact Shakespeare himself referenced classical Greek stories in his plays. Literature breeds more literature.
The study of Shakespeare challenges our students to move beyond their comfort zones, to think about the human experience, and to make links between the canons of literature. It is incumbent upon us as educators to provide our students with the cultural capital the study of Shakespearean works provides. For without it, who are we?
English Learning Leader
Goodwyn, A. 2021. ‘What Does Literature Mean to the Human Species: Will It Help Us Evolve and Survive?’ English in Australia, 56(1), 7-15.