Shakespeare and Literature are not Synonyms
I have heard my students in school saying that they don't want to study English Literature because “it is Shakespeare”. On surveying I deduced that they have developed the idea that Literature means Shakespeare. When I told them that I had studied Shakespeare only in two courses out of the 36 in my Honours and not at all in my Masters level, they stared at me with disbelief.
From my own experience as a student and later as a teacher in schools, I figured that students form a strong antagonism towards Shakespeare, mostly because of the words- 'thee', 'thou', 'art', 'doth', and etc- and the complex and rambling sort of speeches. Students have often bluntly said, “Why couldn't he have just written in simple language?” I smiled at the rebuke and laughed heartily when my explanation turned futile. Students don't seem inclined to absorb the simple fact that Shakespeare had merely used the English language that existed back then had been; the people then did not use the language we use now. I have repeatedly tried to explain, but they just glowered back at me (for making it so simple, I suppose). I really can't blame only the children for this. The school authority and the teachers teaching this subject are both guilty in turning the students hostile towards Literature. I remember hating Literature back in schools days. Even when I sat for my O and A levels in Literature, I had little respect for this discipline, which I do dearly love now. I guess it was a choice I made that led to the golden realm of literature.
The authority must realise that Shakespeare is no good in improving students' English Language skills. Seriously! Shakespeare wrote in an age when English was still evolving. By now, it changed most radically. Besides, though the philosophical aspects of Shakespearean writing are rich, it cannot be fully comprehended or appreciated until the context is known. How can you expect a 13 or a 14 year old to understand national politics of such complex manner and one that existed over 500 years ago?
The teachers do not make it any easier or interesting for the students. (I do not intend to offend some teachers who do their best despite the limited scope). They usually throw in a few explanations here and there and expect the students to understand the play or story on their own (or from private tutors). They give some questions to answer and some word meanings to memorise- as if: “It's just a subject till you can choose your subjects for your O'Levels. Memorise, and get a grade." Some teachers again display their knowledge on the subject by rambling on and on about things the students are expected to relate to the texts. Students, unsure of the relevance of the issues discussed usually lose their concentration and interest. Some teachers look for insightful answers and references. Some cannot seem to think beyond their own limited understanding and look for reflections of their own thoughts in the answers of the students. The teachers often expect such outcome without even disclosing their ideas; do they expect everyone to become Edward Cullen and read the teacher's mind for answers?
I wish no offence to any teacher, but these things happen, not only in case of Literature but also several other humanities subjects. Students fear the approaches and cringe back to the familiar world of science and business- stepping forward to become materialistic.
If we really want to make Shakespeare an iconic figure we better not destroy the student's interest by introducing him so early that they won't be able to appreciate him at any length.
Literature is a multi-dimensional world in itself. Shakespeare is just one of those dimensions, not the whole of it. The task of literature is not to teach Shakespeare but to enter the world of many worlds. I hope to see more and more students exploring this glorious world of Literature. I hope to see belief in the students' eyes the next time I say Literature and Shakespeare are not synonyms.
(The writer is a Junior Lecturer, Centre for Language, BRAC University.)