Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Place of Shakespeare

Some of the responses to the last post got me thinking about how different departments organize curriculum, and how differently we Shakespeare folks teach in response.  And that got me thinking about Shakespeare in the curriculum.

When I was interviewing for this job, one of the interviewers asked me if I thought that Shakespeare should be a required course for English lit majors.  Now there was a time when the vast majority of English phuds would probably have answered with a certain and sure "yes, of course!"  But that time is not now, and that time was not even then.  At least not for me.

I answered that I didn't think it should be a requirement because there were lots of good literatures and texts, and that what we should focus on was helping students learn to really read and analyze texts, and understand them, and that students could learn those skills well with Shakespeare, certainly, but also through lots of other texts and literatures.  I still feel that very strongly.

I can't speak to the situation at very elite schools, but for our situation, we really aren't preparing our majors to be graduate students in English literature.  And we shouldn't be.  What we're preparing them for is a lifetime of being able to read critically, to analyze, to solve problems, and so forth, and hopefully, also, yes, to find joy and pleasure in literature.  Our majors graduate relatively poorly prepared to take on graduate work in earlier British lit.  We just don't have many opportunities for them to take earlier British lit courses; a lit major might, with real care and luck, be able to fit three earlier British lit courses in a curriculum here, but it wouldn't be easy.

Partly, this is a matter of curricular design.  We don't require many specific courses, and those we do are skills and theory focused rather than focused on geography, chronology, or specific authors.

When I got here, I learned that the department had made two hires in Shakespeare/early modern, to replace two retiring faculty members.  Those to faculty members had pretty much divided up Shakespeare (which was required of all lit majors) into two courses based solely on which plays each person like to teach most.  (Evidently they'd gone through the canon together and chosen their "teams" and that was that.)

Among the first votes taken when we got here was a curricular question about whether we should require Shakespeare, and that requirement went away with overwhelming support.  (I sometimes felt, when I'd see one of the retired folks, that they were both very disappointed that we new Shakespeare faculty hadn't fought tooth and nail to keep the requirement.)

We two set about revising the Shakespeare courses, and made one a sophomore level surveyish course, where we agreed to teach across genres, 8 or so texts, and another junior level topics course, where we would teach some topic in Shakespeare.  That was almost 15 years ago now, and I've taught the topics course I think twice, once Roman Shakespeare and once Shakespeare's and history.  (I thought I'd get to teach it more, but things haven't shaken out that way; my colleague has taught it maybe one or two more times, but certainly neither of us teaches it very often.)

At about the same time, the department as a whole worked through a massive curricular change. 

And now we're thinking about some new changes.

And as a Shakespeare person, I'm thinking about how Shakespeare and earlier British lit might fit into those new changes.  So I'd love to hear from others about how Shakespeare fits in their curriculum.  Is it required?  Do most students take it if not required?  Is it mostly thought of as a general education course or a strictly majors course?

And broadly speaking, how do you think of a literature major?  What's the point of a lit major?  And how does Shakespeare fit that point?


  1. Here, both English and theater majors are required to take one semester of Shakespeare, although English majors were allowed to substitute Elizabethan and Jacobean drama the one semester that I taught it instead of Shakespeare. (Normally we run Shakespeare every semester because there are always students who need it to graduate. I think I have FINALLY talked my chair into letting me teach Early Modern Poetry concurrently with Shakespeare, so maybe I'll be able to do Liz / Jac concurrently at some point, which would do away with the need for substitutions.) Most of the students just take the one required section, but a few take both semesters.

    I'd probably be OK with an early British lit requirement for English rather than a Shakespeare requirement (my medievalist colleague is always grumpy about her upper-level courses not making, and I feel like mine often have TOO many), but this obviously wouldn't work so well for the theater students.

    Shakespeare doesn't count toward the gen ed requirements; the only lit courses that do are the big surveys (Early or Late British, American, or World Lit). Sometimes I get elementary ed majors counting it toward their English concentration, or general studies majors who need to take 300-level classes in two or three different disciplines, and (less often) a random student or retiree who's just taking it out of general interest. The second kind of nonmajor is always welcome; the first kind can be a pain, since virtually all of the general studies majors and an alarming proportion of the elementary ed students can't really read well enough to handle a Shakespeare course.

  2. Our major has very few requirements--everyone has to take an intro theory course, and everyone has to take a senior seminar (small, topic-based course), and there are requirements for how many lower-division courses can count toward the major. Students have to take one modern course, one 19th/20th century course, and one 18th century or earlier course, and one course in the miscellaneous everything-else we teach: creative writing/rhet-comp/film/theory. In some ways I think it's too loose--I do think the major should offer more of a chronological overview of literary traditions, and the free choice in our major means someone could really miss that.

  3. Here, we're a little different, since one of the main venues we're prepping students for is a career in teaching, which means they have to pass the Praxis, which means they have to know a certain amount about various specific sorts of literature.

    We require both Chaucer and Shakespeare, as well as 26 hours in other categories (Genre, Historical, American/British Lit), and another 12 hours that deal with things like Cultural Studies, grammar, and research skills.

    That said: Shakespeare and Chaucer are in the box labeled Major Authors, and it's not too hard for a student to sub in some other Major Authors class for one of them. For instance, when I taught Octavia Butler as a Major Author, three of the students were taking it and substituting it for Shakespeare.

  4. We require either Shakespeare or Chaucer, and each is offered every other spring. So in four semesters, I teach Shakespeare only once. That's what I was hired for. That said, Chaucer has been canceled due to under enrollment the last two times it was offered. Shakespeare always makes because the ed students feel like it's a better bet for future high school teachers than Chaucer.

    Should it be required? Our department is so tiny and the upper level offerings are so slight that it's a hard question. If it weren't required people would probably take it anyway because there are so few upper level options being offered. I taught Shakespeare, History, and Ethics as an honors course, but I will likely be unable to teach it again. Too bad. It was the best class I ever taught.

  5. I feel much more strongly about our Shakespeare requirement than I used to, on a few grounds.

    One is that, at a school like mine, students *won't* take Shakespeare unless it's required, and that's true often even of very good students. At a more elite institution, you can count on majors feeling they ought to. (And the reality is, most LOVE it once they're in--and my former colleague and I wound up inspiring a lot of students to take both semesters, comedies & romances and histories & tragedies. That was really gratifying.)

    Relatedly, I think our students need the cultural capital. A kid who majors in English at Harvard and who has never read Shakespeare can make a joke out of it, and no one thinks less of him for it. A student who majors in English at a regional comprehensive and doesn't know some big names can be more readily dismissed as stupid and/or for having majored in something fluffy and impractical. And our students, honestly, are *proud* of themselves when they read texts they know are famous and that others are intimidated by.

    And finally, I make the pitch for Shakespeare as a required course on the grounds of the English-major skills it develops. I really emphasize close-reading and poetics, which reinforces the things students learn in their Intro to Lit Analysis course. If a student is able to read early modern English, that's a very good sign that she'll won't be intimidated by a poem--and that she'll be able to read Faulkner, or decipher legalese on a contract, etc.

    So, my two-fold reason is cultural capital and practical skills. Neither alone is totally sufficient, but both together are.

    (We also require a pre-1800 British class, which a single Shakespeare course does not fulfill, though a second one would--as would a course like Brit Lit I, Chaucer, Milton, etc.)

  6. Since I don't teach English, I have nothing significant to add, except that Shakespeare is, I understand, the only author named in the Common score requirements. I'm not sure that means it should be required, but certainly for students who plan to go into teaching, it would be helpful!

    1. Anonymous9:12 AM


      Shakespeare is pretty common in high school even without the common core, at least the comedies and dramas, if not the historical plays.

  7. Another vote here for requiring Shakespeare -- on the cultural capital grounds Flavia describes, and certainly for aspiring English teachers (who should be able to teach Shakespeare for some of the same transmission-of-cultural-capital reasons). I think one could, however, make an argument that many students might benefit as much or more from a course that emphasizes viewing/hearing Shakespeare's work in performance (on film/video, or, preferably, in person) as from one that emphasizes reading it (or at least silently reading it). That class could be housed in several different departments (and would probably, ideally, be interdisciplinary). And of course I realize that many Shakespeare classes in English departments already take something like this form.

  8. I have not much read about the great aurthor. At that time education was zero and he become a great aurthor. Now we called cultured educated due to those people who were not much educated and belong to a illirate society. Ah we educated and moderen people, how much we are illirate.