The Case for Reading Shakespeare
What I’d like to hear more of — and have failed to see so far in any of these essays — is a coherent theory of why we bother to teach any writers at all. It seems to me that we need to know that before we can decide whether Shakespeare is one of the writers we ought to teach, or whether we ought to give up on the project entirely and just let the students spend their time watching YouTube videos, or reading Shakespeare, as they please.
It’s a fair question. Sadly, it’s also a question with a rather obvious answer. Even more sadly, the answer is so obvious that previous generations internalized it too well. As a result, they did a very poor job of teaching us the answer. As usual, our generation has to learn it all over again, unable to learn from the mistakes of the past.
And that, in a nutshell, is the answer. As Nassim Taleb points out repeatedly in his various works, an older book that is still widely read is more likely to have real truth in it than a widely read modern book. The classics are valuable not because they are old but because they have withstood the test of time.
Of course, the list of “classics” is not immutable. It changes over time. But the longer that a work has been on that list, the longer that it’s continued to be read, the more likely it is that the truths contained therein are universal rather than specific.
There’s a reason that some of our older classics never go stale. Shakespeare is a slog, no doubt about it. I’m a voracious reader with an oversized IQ and a master’s degree level education. To put it bluntly, I still have to work at it to read Shakespeare. I don’t fill my entertainment hours with nothing but Shakespeare because it’s too much work. But I do continue to read the bard because the bard speaks to the truth of the human condition – not the truth of the early twenty-first century American condition.No, we won’t absorb every bit of this truth on every reading – and certainly not on a single reading in our teenage years. But that was never the point. The point is to ensure that the future is at least exposed to it, so that when the need for that truth arises they know where to find it. That’s why our children should still be reading Shakespeare.