Shakespeare in Liberal Arts Education

by Jonathan Burton

How many of William Shakespeare's 38 plays have you either read or seen performed?

Each semester, I begin my classes with this important question. Typically, one or two students report a familiarity with a halfdozen works or so. A handful have read just one. Most have read two or three, and many have seen popular Shakespeare-on-film iterations—predictably Baz Luhrman’s star-burnished Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Tim Blake Nelson’s O (2001), a post-Columbine adaptation of Othello. There are a few consistencies I can count on with each new batch of students. All are familiar with Romeo and Juliet, most know Macbeth, and the vast majority can attribute “To be or not to be?” to Hamlet.

So, for an English professor, the question naturally arises—is this preponderance of Shakespearean tragedy just unique to my classes, or is there something afoot in American high schools?

Trying to delve into this mystery, I surveyed 400 high school English teachers nationwide to discern which of The Bard’s works were included in their curricula. What I found, not surprisingly, is that their responses reflected what I found in my own classroom. No play is taught more frequently than Romeo and Juliet, which appears in roughly 93% of all ninth grade classes. Overall, tragedies dominate; in particular, the Big Four of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar account for 85% of all Shakespearean plays included in high school instruction. Add in Othello, another frequent high school favorite, and you have roughly 90% of all Shakespeare instruction in American high schools.

Remember, that’s just five of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

So, why have our high schools emphasized tragedies, rather than the mix of comedy, romance, and histories, which comprise Shakespeare’s full repertoire? Are there, as Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream worries, “things in this comedy... that will never please?” Do Shakespearean tragedies—famous for bloodshed and oratory—better suit the education of American teenagers? And if it’s tragedy we want, why not Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, or Timon of Athens? In part we can explain the preponderance of certain works by considering the influence of the textbook industry. Nearly 40% of high school English classes where Shakespeare is taught use a textbook, and 99% of the textbooks used feature a tragedy. But the textbook industry is only part of the explanation, since 80% of those classes eschewing the single textbook for individual texts also feature a Shakespearean tragedy in their syllabi.

So how did we arrive at this roster? And what, if any, changes can we expect to see as teachers move to align their curricula with the Common Core State Standards? As The Tempest’s Antonio remarks, “what’s past is prologue;” answers to each of these questions are suggested when we delve into the history of Shakespearean education in the United States. As students in my “Shakespeare in American Life” class discovered this past spring, our reading of Shakespearean tragedies has a good deal to do with 19th century ideas about Shakespeare.


America’s earliest institutions for public education—the common school—predate the discipline of English as we know it today. Literary works were incorporated into schoolbooks only as examples of rhetorical modes. Consequently, it was not full plays that appeared in schoolbooks, but only excerpts, frequently stripped of their speech prefixes or anything that might call attention to their theatrical provenance. Despite anti-English sentiments in the early republic, British traditions often dictated the consumption of Shakespeare by American students. In fact, the practice of mining literary works for passages to be used in elocutionary readers was inherited from English manuals such as William Enfield’s The Speaker, published in 1774. Here, as well as in early American schoolbooks, Shakespeare’s writing was presented as a means of acquiring the rhetorical skills requisite to participatory democracy in the new republic.

British influence on American schoolbooks is particularly apparent with regard to play selections. Those plays extracted most often in American texts through 1850 mirrored the selections of earlier British texts, featuring a number of histories, as well as the more familiar collection of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice. In fact, the 46 Shakespearean passages included in Enfield’s The Speaker established a de facto Shakespearean canon for American students. 

So does this mean you read Hamlet in school only because 19th century British students read Hamlet? And has it remained a staple in American classrooms because, as publishers like Noah Webster put it, these are selections “calculated to improve the minds and refine the taste of youth”?

Not so. (And in fact, students who take my “Hamlet and its Afterlives” class next spring will emerge able to make the case that Hamlet has appealed to different populations in America, China, and the Middle East for a wide variety of reasons specific to their own time and place.) The real reason for Hamlet’s—and others—continuing popularity in curricula is decidedly more complex.

DRIVEN By Context

Not so much an author “for all time,” Shakespeare has often been adapted for and harnessed to a specifically American version of moral education. In the 19th century, extracts from his plays were liberally altered to engage with questions of immigration and national identity; they were expurgated to avoid secessionist tensions; and they were bowdlerized in response to changing American ideas about women and motherhood.

In the second half of the 19th century, no play was extracted for American readers more than The Merchant of Venice, followed closely by Julius Caesar and Hamlet. But if this history helps to clarify our continued fixation on the latter two, it does not explain the prevalence of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. Nor does it explain the waning of The Merchant of Venice. In order to understand this evolution, we need to take into account three historical milestones: the development of English as a formal discipline of study beginning in the 1890s; the invention of the teenager in the 1930s and 40s; and rising concerns with anti-Semitism after World War II.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, the reigning objectives of Shakespearean education—inculcating piety, patriotism, and eloquence—were supplanted by new goals that arose with the evolution of the English discipline. A first stage employed Shakespeare’s plays in a kind of literary moral science through character study: students were asked to consider the psychology of exemplary characters and pursue questions regarding, for example, Hamlet’s obligation to avenge his father, or Brutus’s culpability in the conspiracy against Julius Caesar. This emphasis on character development would dominate American schools for most of the 20th century, dovetailing with the New Critical emphasis on close reading that filtered into schools in the 1950s and 60s. In a close reading, formal elements such as characterization, imagery, setting, and word patterns are marshaled to illuminate the theme of the text—usually focusing on “timeless themes.” This is doubtless the way you were taught in your English courses, and it remains the dominant mode in American high school classes. More than any other play by Shakespeare, Macbeth fits this New Critical approach: it has no subplot to suggest alternative themes; the protagonist is the subject of every scene; and imagery clusters and word patterns stud and unify the plot structure.

However, the canon of Shakespeare for American education was significantly shaped by historical and cultural movements specific to the middle of the 20th century. Thus, at the same time that critical trends were promoting the rise of Macbeth, the trauma of World War II precipitated teachers to recoil from The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s play about a Jewish moneylender driven to appalling malice. Overall, Shakespeare’s plays tend to raise questions rather than offering clear answers, and educators bent on clear moral lessons found Merchant’s exploration of anti-Semitism too ambiguous in the wake of the Holocaust.

Additionally, the middle of the 20th century also marked what historians describe as the “invention of the teenager.” New laws forbade child labor, so more children were being educated and for longer. The proliferation of automobiles meant that courtship occurred more frequently away from the family. With the recognition that teen life was distinctively formative, educators sought literary texts that might speak to that experience and settled on Romeo and Juliet. That play’s place in American secondary education was solidified after 1968, when Franco Zefferelli cast his Romeo and Juliet film with actual teenagers.

COMMON CORE, Common Direction?

But what will be the fate of the Big Four, and of Shakespeare in general, as American high schools align their curricula with the Common Core State Standards? 

At the core of debates over implementation of these new standards, which emphasizes the teaching of non-fiction, rather than more traditional fare, Shakespeare has become a rallying icon.

In varying tones of alarmism, bloggers, columnists, and teachers have circled their wagons, protecting Shakespeare against a perceived invasion of non-fiction texts.

Ironically, Shakespeare is the sole required author under the Common Core. However, in terms of the selection of his works, nothing (beyond tradition and accessibility to texts) prohibits a creative iconoclast from teaching, say, As You Like It or The Winter’s Tale, rather than the preferred Romeo and Juliet. In fact, the only Shakespeare plays cited specifically in the Common Core are Macbeth and Hamlet, and only within an appendix listing texts “illustrating the complexity, quality, and range of student reading.”

And, although the Common Core specifically discourages teachers from working with excerpts, abridged Shakespeare may be the next trend in high school English classes. As one Kansas educator announced almost a year ago on his blog, he and a colleague had figured out a new way to teach Julius Caesar with the onset of the Common Core Standards: They would teach just four speeches from the play, focusing on rhetorical techniques for persuasion. (In fact, several states have incorporated versions of this lesson in their standards.)

What will it mean for Shakespeare studies, literary studies, or student skills if high schools shift from teaching full plays to teaching abridged versions or return to just excerpts? Certainly, consideration will need to be given as to what passages are selected, and in what ways these shortened pieces might again smuggle ideological freight within lessons about rhetoric and elocution.

For example, of the speeches most commonly extracted from Julius Caesar, each is spoken by a man and is about men. What are we telling girls when we limit Shakespeare in this way? Extracting doesn’t need to reinforce gender stereotypes. In one speech from the play, Brutus’s wife Portia insists upon her right to comfort her husband and reveals a wound she has given herself as an act of radical empathy. It is a noteworthy remonstration, where a woman’s extraordinary affection is used to chide her taciturn husband into consulting her with regard to public affairs. By the scene’s end, Brutus—whose own eloquence is commonly urged in the lesson plans featuring his funeral oration—is convinced to share with her “all the charactery of [his] sad brows.” Portia’s speech offers an important supplement, a lesson in persuasive speech certainly, but also a lesson in empathy, gender, and politics. And it is precisely this kind of complexity and richness that demonstrates why Shakespeare’s works continue to serve as the spine of American high school English.


Back home at Whittier College, Shakespeare classes continue to serve as the backbone for English and Theater majors, and selections from the Bard’s histories are now employed in Whittier leadership courses as a way to illustrate and teach powerful rhetoric (though unlike the Kansas teacher’s curricular strategy, instruction emphasizes lessons in business rather than literature). We faculty don’t necessarily subscribe to Webster’s belief that Shakespeare’s works are simply an instructional exercise to “improve young minds.” And we definitely don’t stick to the Big Four. Among the works students will explore in my Shakespeare class this year are The Rape of Lucrece, The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, Much Ado about Nothing, and The Winter’s Tale

Why these plays? For one thing, a lineup like this ensures that Whittier students will have more exposure to the breadth of Shakespeare’s repertoire than just those American high school staples. They will also learn that part of Shakespeare’s enduring relevance is that he experimented with multiple genres, like a musician who incorporates country, cumbia, hip-hop, and jazz into his repertoire.

But what may be most important is that by studying Shakespeare—particularly in the context of American debates over the Common Core—our students will emerge with the understanding that the real reason we continue to require Shakespeare, is because Americans continue to locate Shakespeare at the core of the American identity.

From The Rock, Fall 2013


Shakespeare On The Whittier Stage
For aspiring Whittier College actors, it might take some convincing, but in the end, most will reach the conclusion that professor Gil Gonzalez led them to, Shakespeare is still king.