Not an English Major

On Twitter the other day some writers complained about being forced to take courses in Shakespeare for their English degrees.

I like Shakespeare myself. I was introduced to the plays when I was about ten by my father, which enabled me to continue to enjoy the work despite boring teachers in high school and an abysmal one in college. It also helps that I’ve seen a number of productions of the plays, some of them very good. Shakespeare is way better on stage or film than on the page.

I’ve even stolen from Shakespeare — my BVC novella Ardent Forest is a retelling of As You Like It set in a post-apocalyptic Texas. I changed the ending. There’s a lot of material to work with in those plays, especially since he stole a lot of his ideas from other stories and plays.

But I sympathize with the complaints. I avoided being an English major in college because the University of Texas forced you to take classes in a number of eras that bored me at the time. I did not want to read 19th Century American literature or 18th Century British literature, and I wasn’t at all sure about Chaucer. (I’ve changed my mind about 19th Century American lit and Chaucer, but I still see no reason to read Samuel Johnson.)

The bad teacher for Shakespeare confirmed my decision. I found much better teachers in the Classics department, so I read a lot of ancient Greek plays instead. Ah, Aristophanes.

Part of the problem the Twitter folks had with Shakespeare is that he’s presented as such an icon. He’s so revered, so lionized, that you really aren’t permitted to question the value of his work, even if you criticize it. And a lot of the so-called “canon” is treated this way.

There’s an interesting recent op-ed in The New York Times on how to deal with anti-Semitism in works by major philosophers that shines some light on this question. The author argues for discussing the problem openly.

Given that much of the literature written in English over the years has similar problems — not just anti-Semitism, but racism and misogyny and a belief in Western “civilization” as the be-all and end-all — there’s a powerful argument for not presenting the authors considered “canon” without wider discussion.

One advantage of doing this with Shakespeare is that you can put on the plays in a way that upends the conventional interpretation. I once saw a production of Merchant of Venice with Hal Holbrook as Shylock that, without changing the words Shakespeare wrote, made him the hero and the men dealing with him the villains.

In this day and age, I don’t think you can teach any older works without paying attention to such issues. And “it was a different time” isn’t going to cut it as an explanation.

It’s also a reasonable time to question why the canon we consider important is so heavily weighted with male European and, starting in the 19th century, male American culture. Sure, not everyone writes in English – an argument for making literature classes about literature in general rather than limiting them by language, even if you’d have to teach many works that are to be translated through Translation Services – but even within English there is more diversity than we credit and of course there are many women authors who should be studied.

But I’d like to make an even more radical suggestion. Most English literature classes seem to be focused on dissecting the work, an important skill for scholars and critics, but not for generalists. Or, for that matter, for writers, who need to learn to dissect the works in a very different way from scholars.

Here’s the thing about literature: As with many other art forms – painting, music, sculpture – the really good work affects you on multiple levels and can upend your life in a way not conducive to scholarly analysis. Most of us need to be reading and listening and viewing art in ways that allows it to do that to us, not learning how to analyze it.

I’ve thought something similar about science education for years. If I’m not going to be a biologist or a physicist, I don’t need to be trained in the steps necessary for becoming an active specialist in those fields. But all of us need to know what is happening in biology and physics. We need to learn to be generalists who can look at such work intelligently and know whether it makes sense, not people who design experiments.

Most of us become writers because we read work that moves us or angers us or otherwise engages us. The act of engaging with a book makes us want to write something that will do that for others. Readers who don’t want to write or do academic study of literature also react strongly to what they read. That’s probably the most important thing they get from it.

Books have changed my life. All kinds of books, from all kinds of eras. Maybe if we approach teaching literature with that in mind – and without too much bias on the part of the teacher about which books are appropriate for changing your life – we might both keep the useful works of the canon and incorporate some very new and different work as well.

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Not an English Major — 5 Comments

  1. In 1971 I was on a 6 month study tour in the British Isles. Somehow I managed to get a ticket to “Merchant of Venice,” in Edinburgh with Laurence Olivier as Shylock. The production was fairly straight in Edwardian costumes until the last scene. While all the young people were celebrating center stage, far stage right on one of the projections, Olivier stood under a brighter spotlight, alone, forgotten, silently weeping. He’d been stripped of everything, even his beloved daughter. And then the audience remembered on the slights and off hand remarks about the Jew and his “pretension” of trying to preserve his religion and his culture. Almost too subtle for many.

    I can still see him standing there.

    Shakespeare is indeed more powerful on stage or film because of the subtleties.

    • That sounds very powerful. What a wonderful opportunity.

      I think the best Shakespeare class at my university was the one a friend took, where the students did an intensive program out in the country and put on some of the plays.

  2. I will point out that when you sign up for a college major, you need to expect that your 19 year old self won’t see the value of everything you’re assigned. If you’re going to call yourself knowledgeable in any given literature, you need read everything you can, boring or not. If you’re not a major, then do what Nancy Jane did.

    One argument for reading all those racist and sexist works is we can see why racism and sexism are such big evils still once we understand their history.

    And some of those people whining about Shakespeare etc are just plain lazy. 🙂

    • I agree that at 19 you do not see the value in everything you’re assigned, but I also think a lot of things that are required are not worth your time. It’s always a challenge to figure that out, and it’s also something to revisit later in life.

      For example, The Scarlet Letter, which I hated in high school, turns out to be a funny satire (though Hawthorne, like all too many male writers, gets a bit romantic in the end). It would be great if high school teachers pointed out the satire, because then you’d know that 19th century Americans were mocking the Puritans and witch trials and that would give you a very different perspective on the 19th Century. (I was almost a history major — except for the joy of not having to major — so I think about things in historical context a lot.)

  3. Thanks for a thought-provoking discussion, Nancy. I agree with both you and Kit — maybe there should be two tracks in courses — one for the specialists and one for the generalists. Both valuable!