High School Shakespeare : Results!

I want to thank everybody for participating in the “What Shakespeare Did You Read In High School?” thread, I got a great deal of detailed responses. Because of the informal nature of the question and the variety of the answers (does “performed it” count as read it? does “read selections from” count? What about home schooling?) I can’t really make statistical judgement on the results. But here’s some interesting bullet points:

  • Romeo and Juliet is still a favorite, with the large majority of responders saying that they either read or teach it, normally as the first play (i.e. 9th grade, or even earlier)
  • Second place, somewhat surprisingly, appears to go to Macbeth. I don’t really know why that is, but Macbeth gets nearly as much recognition as Romeo and Juliet.
  • Hamlet and Julius Caesar split the difference for the next two great tragedies, with Othello pulling up in the #5 spot.
  • There was some love for Lear, Titus and Antony & Cleopatra, but those don’t even registered compared to the “Big Five”.
  • Many people said that senior was split between several plays. I’m not really sure how you devote an entire year to R&J but only half a year to Hamlet, but I suppose we’ll chalk it up to most of that freshman time being spent learning about Shakespeare as a topic in general.
  • Among the comedies, Midsummer wins handily (though still read/taught only about 1/3rd as frequently as the great tragedies).
  • Behind Midsummer comes, in order, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Shrew.
  • Props to the one school that’s apparently still teaching Merchant of Venice as required reading!

Discuss. I think that Julius Caesar is so popular because of the tie-ins to the student of ancient Roman history, also going on at roughly that grade level. Hamlet seems obvious to me as an example of just how great Shakespeare can be (I think that teaching Lear to teenagers is a bit of a disservice, actually, as they haven’t got nearly the life experience to understand it. Familiarize them with it, sure, but I wouldn’t expect most (note, I say most, not all) of them to actually “get” it). I truly don’t get the Macbeth thing, though. It’s got a history tie-in, sure, but I don’t recall that being the major point of discussion. I would have thought that Othello would come next.

6 thoughts on “High School Shakespeare : Results!

  1. I think Macbeth has massive appeal for high schoolers. It's bloody and sexy, a real high-octane thriller. (Mind, that's exactly how I think Julius Caesar *ought* to be taught, but generally isn't).

    I also don't think it's a full year on R&J versus half on Hamlet — the Shakespeare unit in 9th or 10th grade is generally 9 weeks at the most, often much less. I think we only spent 3 on Caesar in my 9th grade class, and about 6 on Hamlet in 10th grade. Those are both "world survey" literature courses in VA high schools, so there's a lot to cover in four quarters.

    A lot of this is down, though, not to what teachers might actually prefer, but to what's in the textbooks. If you're in a school system where the English class only uses one large text and can't afford to get classroom sets of anything else, you're pretty much limited to what's in the book. I've half a mind to start writing to the major textbook publishers to find out why they make the choices that they do, as I've gotten a bee in my bonnet about the tragedy bias.

  2. The word on JC is that it was a staple of curricula way back in the late 1800s, supposedly b/c it lacked doubles entendres, innuendo, off-color jokes, and romance, and became entrenched.

    I'm lucky to be able to teach a year-long course called Shakespeare. I tailor the course — actually, I can even tailor each of the three sections — in nay way I want, based on hte interests of the students, the particular productions that are available in the area, etc.

    This year, we've gone to see 1H4, and are going to see Cymbeline and Antony and Cleopatra, all up in Boston, and are bringing travel versions of both Macbeth and
    Hamlet here to the school.

    In addition we're staging both Twelfth Night and Complete Works Unabridged.

    With the availability of the texts on-line, there's really no reason not to expand the choices of what we teach because "we don't have the books."

  3. R&J and Macbeth were required reading in my high school humanities class. I remember we all had to memorize "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…" and write essays on the meaning behind the speech. This was back in the 1970's so it's good to see they are still going strong.

  4. At my high school, the sophomore year alternated between reading Macbeth and reading Othello. I think they went with Macbeth for 10th graders because it seems like a pretty easy sell – there's witches and ghosts and stabbing and crazy people – and because most high schoolers will at least know about the Weird Sisters and maybe have an idea of who Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are.

  5. One of the other reasons Macbeth is so often taught is that, as far as tragedies go (and we favor them in education), Macbeth is the shortest of the great tragedies. The longer plays — Lear, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Richard III — suffer because of time constraints. This also shows how much importance we teachers place on Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play.

    But, as others have said, the blood, sex and witchcraft also appeal to students, just like teenage rebellion (R&J), jealousy and backstabbing (Othello), and dealing with entering the adult world (Hamlet).

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