I read recently that Shakespeare is the only writer mentioned specifically in the Common Core Standards (CCS), the latest attempt by the we-can-measure-it crowd to trivialize education. I guess that's true about Shakespeare, though--I just looked at the CCS online site and found this (for 11th and 12th graders--the underlining is mine):
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
Have I told this before? Here it is again. Not long before I retired from public education (January 1997), one of my eighth graders asked me one day (I was going over something weird--a writer, an event or something--can't remember), "Is this going to be on the Proficiency Test?" I said I very much doubted it. He asked (without any rancor--just wondering), "Then why are we talking about it?"
Let me rant, just a little, about Shakespeare. First of all, no one ever went to a Shakespeare play to improve his or her vocabulary. (Oh, sure, someone probably did--just keep things in perspective!) For more than 400 years people have gone to the plays to be both entertained and edified--to learn some things about human ambition, about love and cruelty (sometimes they're the same), about the capacities of the human heart. How would you like to emerge from a production and have to take a standardized test on some very limited objectives? Well, that's what we're asking kids to do. Only it's often not a production they've seen; it's a text they've "read"--or snippets they've seen (or heard) of "important" moments in a play. We insist so often on treating the plays as if they were words on a page instead of lives on a stage.
Second, does it really not matter which Shakespeare play we use? The CCS seems to think so. So, instead of, oh, Hamlet or Twelfth Night or Othello or Macbeth, I could use King John and Pericles, Prince of Tyre? Really? Sure, those latter two plays have some interest, but don't we want our kids reading/seeing/discussing the best of the Bard? The plays whose characters and lines and messages are everywhere in our culture? Because part of knowing Shakespeare, of course, is recognizing allusions to his work that are, well, everywhere--from Bugs Bunny to Ulysses. I haven't seen a lot for, oh, The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Yes, Shakespeare can be difficult. But a teacher's job is to help students enter his 400-year-old world. As I've said before, he would be even more lost in our world than we can be in his. If he were to sit down in a Starbucks for a few hours, he would not really understand anything he was seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting. So, we help students find ways into his plays (I'll be blogging more about this a little later), where they can be puzzled, sure (who isn't?), but where they can also be moved, dazzled, entertained, and edified beyond any expectations.
The Bard's vocabulary is different from ours--but sometimes it plain doesn't matter. Take this passage from The Taming of the Shrew--a passage I might have posted before (tough teabags). A servant is describing the arrival of Petruchio, the groom, at his wedding. He is dressed weirdly, mounted on an odd horse. But look at the language!
Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an oldBAPTISTA
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta'en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless;
with two broken points: his horse hipped with an
old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred;
besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose
in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected
with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with
spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives,
stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the
bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten;
near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit
and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being
restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been
often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth
six time pieced and a woman's crupper of velure,
which hath two letters for her name fairly set down
in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread.
O, sir, his lackey, for all the world caparisonedI don't know too many people who can read that and understand the details. I know the first time I read it, my eyes were hopping around (up and down from text to footnotes) like a cat on a hot tin roof. So what would the CCS advise us to do here? Pass out a vocab list. Teach the meanings of the words crupper and mose in the chine. Give a test? And does it matter if we understand every word of this?
like the horse; with a linen stock on one leg and a
kersey boot-hose on the other, gartered with a red
and blue list; an old hat and 'the humour of forty
fancies' pricked in't for a feather: a monster, a
very monster in apparel, and not like a Christian
footboy or a gentleman's lackey.
I guess one of the aspects of the arts--including literature--is that the effects on people are widely variable, definitely difficult (impossible?) to measure, and sometimes greatly delayed: the effects, in other words, may show up later, down the road, when you least expect anything.
And I believe profoundly that young people should read a lot in school--for fun, for edification. They should read enduring things, evanescent things, things in between. And they should read them because important literary works, in some ways, are like viruses. They lie in your mind--sometimes for years--before their effects become evident.
Another comparison--maybe, a night-blooming cereus--that gorgeous plant that blooms only once a year, a single night. (Check out this time-lapse photography on YouTube: Link). An idea, an image, in a literary work can do that. Lie quietly in you. Then blossom. And change you forever with surprise, and beauty.
Test on Friday.