Is reading Shakespeare essential?

Scott Esposito points to this post, which speaks disparagingly of the trend in U.S. colleges to not require Shakespeare of their English majors.

But is it really a trend? I majored in English at the University of Chicago 20 years ago and never took a “Shakespeare” course. Actually I started taking a Shakespeare course but I dropped it because I hated it. Not Shakespeare, the class. The teacher, who was supposed to be a great one (David Bevington, who has his own Shakespeare anthology), wasn’t. He was so “popular” that he admitted anyone who knocked on his door into the discussion class that was supposed to be capped at 20 students.

Try having a discussion with 70 people. Just doesn’t work.

I have a Master’s in English, and I think I only ever actually read one Shakespeare play for a grade — The Tempest, in grad school. Even then it wasn’t a dedicated class on Shakespeare.

I like Shakespeare as much as the next guy, but I’m not sure it really is essential to read Shakespeare in the classroom. I’ve read Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, and Austen in the classroom. My education has prepared me to handle reading (and watching) Shakespeare on my own.

Does Shakespeare occupy such a privileged place in English literature that every English major must devote fully one tenth of his/her studies to him? What if you specialize in 20th century fiction? What if you are primarily interested in old English epics? How does Shakespeare inform that?

I really do enjoy Shakespeare; he’s a witty, elegant writer. But if I prefer to read novels, or short stories, or non-fiction, or works by women or Irishmen or African Americans, I’m not sure if spending an entire semester exclusively on Shakespeare is the best way to prepare myself for grad school — or for whatever other career I end up parlaying my English degree into.

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One Response to Is reading Shakespeare essential?

  1. Imani says:

    That’s a good point that was raised in the posts done by Little Professor on how crappy that study was. If one has ready, say, Chaucer, Milton, Eliot, Ford, Keats etc. does the lack of Shakespeare really doom one to crappy readerdom? I doubt it.

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