by Kathleen McGunagle
At a 2008 Freshman Convocation for the Catholic University of America, English professor Michael Mack delivered an address entitled: “Why Read Shakespeare?”: A Real Question and the Search for a Good Answer.” In his thoughtful address, Professor Mack emphasizes Shakespeare’s relevance to basic human existence.
“[Shakespeare] is for anyone who is interested in navigating the real world,” Mack asserts. “By getting to know Shakespeare, you have a tremendous opportunity for getting to know yourself.”
Other blogs, articles, and columns (including one shy thread on Yahoo! Answers) cite Shakespeare’s use of complex characters, brilliant lyric, intriguing plots, and the plays’ historicity. Lars Nilsen, in Badass Digest, even goes so far as to say: “You should read Shakespeare because he tells a better story than any other author, any filmmaker, anyone at all, because he tells your story.”
But at the end of the day, why should you pick up that dusty copy of Much Ado About Nothing? Why soldier through the life-and-death pondering of Hamlet? What do a pair of star-crossed lovers have anything to do with the 21st century with its i-phones and i-schedules and i-don’t-have-time-for-xyz’s?
Everything. Professor Mack is right: Shakespeare teaches you about the world, particularly the one that will be opening up for you very soon. College. And I don’t just mean in English 101.
[Continue reading to learn about HOW Shakespeare teaches you about the world]
‘Quick, my tablets!’: Shakespeare for Collegiate Thinking
Shakespeare prepares you for a way of thinking about the world that exists predominantly in contemporary collegiate lecture and seminar rooms. Hamlet’s reasoning in the famous “to be or not to be” speech is precisely the type of compare/contrast rhetoric you will be using when arguing about the death penalty in ethics class, or formulating a thesis for your literature essay. Portia’s courtroom logic in The Merchant of Venice—notwithstanding the play’s controversial religious overtones—still comes up in law students’ notes. Even, arguably, Iago’s slippery rhetoric in Othello closely aligns with the ‘art of public speaking:’ used in all sorts of political, academic, and even religious contexts.
‘The play’s the thing:’ Shakespearean Psychology 101
Not to mention the psychological complexity of Shakespeare’s characters. A lot of Shakespeare’s plays hinge on figuring out another characters’ motives, desires, and fears. Understanding how other people think—and how you think—is the basic foundation of not only the university room but the work room as well. Learning how to play the social game, be a leader, deal with people you don’t like: all of this is crucial on the Renaissance—and 21st century—stage.
‘O, brave new world, / That has such people in it!’
Not only are these characters relate-able (more so than Harry Potter or sparkling vampires); these characters are altogether human. Most importantly, many are young and figuring out the world, as you will be doing intensively quite soon. Hamlet is primarily a student who longs to go back to school. Juliet is hardly thirteen and yet is experiencing all the throes of coming-of-age. Rosalind and Orlando both experience the pastoral delights of the Forest of Arden for the first time, having been raised in court their entire childhoods. Shakespeare’s protagonists (and antagonists) are experiencing new worlds and new people all the time, and often for the first time. Their reactions to these new experiences inform as much as they delight.
‘The truest Poetry’
Beyond all this, Shakespeare is primarily poetry. Reading Twelfth Night or King Lear will certainly prepare you for any literature you will encounter in college, but these also contain some of the most exquisite lines in literary history. Who says you can’t enjoy it?
So what are you waiting for? Dust off that Complete Works that is currently next to College Survival Guide 101. It might prove more helpful than the latter. After all: Ignorance is the curse of God; / Knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven. (Henry VI, part 2)
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and early modern materialist psychology. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.