I remember the first time that Shakespeare got me. It was in Mr. Calhoun’s English class. We were reading Macbeth and discussing the Great Chain of Being. Suddenly, the veil was lifted, and what had been opaque and esoteric ramblings in the text became, if not clear, clearer. It was as if someone had given me the secret decoder ring and I had been initiated into some sort of club. That might have been the moment that I became an adult. Since then, reading and watching Shakespeare’s works performed, have been a great delight of mine. Sadly, however, acquaintance with Shakespeare is becoming increasingly less common in our culture. In this article, I want to recommend that Shakespeare should be a focus of the education that you provide for your children. In fact, I would argue that teaching your children Shakespeare is an essential part of their education.
Why is Shakespeare essential? Presently I can only give you a survey, but there are three important reasons to consider it essential: reading Shakespeare, more than any reading but the Bible, connects us to our literary forefathers; reading Shakespeare introduces us to human nature in an unparalleled manner; and finally, reading Shakespeare sets the great issues of human life before us as he considers these issues from an unflinching Christian worldview.
Connecting our children with the past is something that hardly has to be argued for among those practicing classical Christian education. The faith that we believe and practice connects us to the past, and not just to the years 3 BC to AD 30. As members of the Church, we are connected to those that have gone before. With our Old Testament fathers we can rightly say, “We were slaves in Egypt.” With Athanasius we say, “. . . God of God, Light of light, begotten—not made, being of one substance with the Father.” With Luther we say, “Here I stand” as well. We, who are attempting to recover the Trivium, have added emphasis on attempting to know, understand and even stand on the shoulders of our great forefathers.
Nothing outside of the Scriptures connects us to the past like the writings of Shakespeare. Reading his works is, therefore, essential to a classical Christian education. The Bard accomplishes this task by telling stories about the past. His histories unveil the story of our culture. In them, we stand with Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day; we see the corpse of Caesar; and we spy Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane as Macbeth trembles. Also, Shakespeare in his drama and poetry connects us to the history of our language. Again, only the King James Bible is a more fruitful source of English language and phraseology than Shakespeare. Here are a few: “All that glitters is not gold;” “All’s well that ends well;” “Beware the Ides of March;” and “Give the devil his due.” These are all inventions of Shakespeare. I could list many, many more. Trying to make a comprehensive list would be a “wild goose chase.” Shakespeare is the key to understanding so many of the best English phrases in their natural habitat. Shakespeare connects us to subsequent literature because all later writers using English are conversant with his works. Recently, I was teaching Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book The Guns of August. Time and again she refers to Shakespeare. This is quite common. If we do not read and understand Shakespeare, we find ourselves handicapped, unable to make the connections to the past that we should.
Shakespeare’s stories are also essential to a classical Christian education because he presents characters who teach us about human nature. He does this with some stunning heroes and heroines. Two of my favorites are Portia from The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. Portia is a breathtaking character: beautiful, intelligent, gracious and strong. She reduces to an open mockery our often pared-down version of Christian femininity which makes submissiveness the only virtue. Still, she bursts through all the welcoming embraces of the modern feminist as well. She goes out to save her man, and after she does it, she is ready to take on all of the blessed duties of being a wife—happily. Hamlet stands as a giant amongst the heroes of literature. Unlike so many heroes, we can connect with him not because he possesses some sort of super-human knowledge or strength, but because he is so much like us—torn by doubt, betrayed by fear, uncertain. In Shakespeare’s heroes we see what we are and what we could become.
Shakespeare’s picture of human nature is perhaps even keener when he portrays villains. Macbeth and Iago from Othello are my favorites. Macbeth shows us the fall of a good man whose ambitious failings lead to murder and, eventually, insane pride. He is trapped by the witches who lead him to his destruction. How many times do we see this sort of pride replayed in our own culture or in our own lives? Iago, however, is his most striking villain. He is apprehended at the end after he has destroyed Othello and the innocent Desdemona, but—evil to the end—he gives us no answers for why he has done what he has done. Shakespeare sees that the heart of evil does not seek to justify itself, to explain itself, or try to ease our fears by giving us understanding of its motives. It simply hates—and that is enough. As our children face a culture intent on self-destruction, Shakespeare helps us to face evil in stories so that we will not be overwhelmed by it when we stand against it face to face. In his villains, Shakespeare unveils man’s depravity and helps us to see what we could become and must resist.
Shakespeare’s magnificent grasp of characters, however, is not just villains and heroes. Across his pages strides all of life. The profligate Falstaff and the naïve Juliet amuse us and stir our hearts. The monstrous Richard III is balanced by playful Puck. Everything is there. I have heard it said that all of us are just rearranged parts of characters in Shakespeare. Knowing Shakespeare then is a primer on everyone we will meet.
The Bard also deals with the great issues through the vehicle of powerful stories told from an uncompromising Christian worldview, and by doing this he helps us to think through how we should think and live. In the Veritas Press Omnibus curriculum, some of my favorite chapters are on Shakespeare’s plays. In Omnibus II, Peter Leithart’s essay on Henry V pointed me toward issues that I had never seen. Shakespeare sees and even-handedly portrays Henry’s virtues. But he sees and says more. Leithart makes the point that Shakespeare’s play is a subtle attack on the manipulative “press-the-flesh” politics evident in Henry—whose claim to the throne is dubious. Today, we live in a world full of Henry’s. Shakespeare’s critique of the best of demagogues prepares us for the slick talking, amoral politicos of our day and age. That essay is going to cause some politician a lot of trouble some day. This is just one example of what reading Shakespeare can do for us.
Some have objected to the sex, violence and wickedness evident throughout Shakespeare. Denying that this is an issue is foolish. At the end of many of his plays dead men and women unjustly killed litter the stage. This is hardly “G” rated. The fact of the matter, however, is that the Bible is not either—and neither is life. Read Judges 21; read Song of Solomon. The world is fallen, but it is being redeemed. This fact is evident both in Shakespeare and the Scriptures.
Others might turn away from Shakespeare because there is some evidence that he was not a believer. Ironically, there is even some evidence that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare—but that is another article. What matters when considering this objection is that often writers’ worldviews are determined by many factors, including their culture, and Shakespeare’s worldview is definitively a believing one, and it’s possible that he was a believer as well.
Finally, some might object to spending a lot of time reading Shakespeare because they could use all of that time to read the Bible. While this might seem pious, it certainly is not what Paul did. On Mars Hill, he quotes the pagan poets Epimenides and Aratus. He seems to quote them from memory, which would at least imply that he took time off from Torah classes and read pagan poets. That said, he certainly did not neglect the study of the Scriptures, and neither should we. The Scriptures are the standard by which all writings are considered, affirmed and judged. If Christians use the Bible correctly as the ultimate standard, we do not diminish our knowledge of it by correcting other writing with it, but instead we deepen our knowledge of the Scriptures by reading other works and thinking through them biblically.
Reading Shakespeare should be considered an essential part of a classical Christian education. By reading Shakespeare’s dramatic works and poetry, we are connected to our fathers in the faith, to our own language and are made ready to read the English informed by Shakespeare’s writing. The Bard gives us a strikingly biblically view of human nature, history and storytelling.
Just as in Julius Caesar, the Ides of March are upon us. But there is no need to beware. Instead, give yourselves a treat and go out and find some Shakespeare to read. Better yet, find a local theater production of Shakespeare’s work and watch it. Education has never been so enjoyable.
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