The role of classic literature in modern high schools

When I studied Macbeth at fourteen, I could see little point in it. No offence to my English teacher; in hindsight, her enthusiasm for the subject was very inspiring.`

At the time, Macbeth was as interesting to me as spending a Saturday watching beards grow, simply because the level at which we were studying it gave no insight whatsoever into the full intent of Shakespeare. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking Shakespeare had written his plays for some perverse purpose of torturing school-children in years to come. And as he was many, many years dead, there was no way to exact my revenge. Maybe his status as a corpse is the resolution to the controversy in ‘Hamlet’. He may be subtly hinting that revenge is some kind of dead-end venture.

Simply, at that level of study, I got very little from the play, except for a couple of flimsy character profiles, as to be able to write: ‘Banquo wants to be king’ in an exam and get the grand total of two ticks for correctly naming the character and his intent. We didn’t even read the whole play. Instead we were shown an odd television-film of the text, which I vividly remember showed topless women roller skating around a cauldron. I’m not sure THAT was Shakespeare’s intent. I was off school for the duration of that video. I would like to say that it was out of respect for Shakespeare, but I get the distinct feeling I was just terrified of more naked roller-skaters wending around a cauldron in a mildly suggestive manner.

To accentuate that point: Studying Shakespeare at that age gave me nothing useful. There was nowhere near the amount of depth that is needed to do Shakespeare justice. Yes, maybe it is preparation for later, more advanced studies. However, I can safely say that all later studies I have done of Shakespeare have not been at all impacted from that experience. It is telling that I can remember the room number/colour/curtains/layout but very little from the play. I am saying that at that level, It is not surprising that classical literature bores students. The level to which they can study IS very boring.

At a higher level in education, classical literature has an incredibly substantial place in curriculum. It presents an actual challenge to students. The socio-historical context of a play is, at this level, important. As is making links between this and the play. It can be said WHY, in depth. It is not just a ‘Hamlet is a very very indecisive character which is why he talks a lot’. It can now become something that justifies Shakespeare’s writing in context. Renaissance ideas, for example. At the point of ‘Macbeth’, I am quite sure I believed the Renaissance was a battle. (metaphorically speaking, perhaps it is) I don’t think it would hurt to equip younger people with a bit of context. It is given that modern literature will be of preference, because it is more identifiable, much easier to contextualise, because it is so recent. It seems slightly patronising not to give a context even for superficial studies, as if they can’t handle the ‘challenge’ of amalgamating history and literature. There is no harm in attempting to contextualise the literature (as long as it’s not reduced to stick figures in crowns and a stereotypical white beard and sandals). Understanding, even if it isn’t to the highest point, is something I think would make classical literature more of interest for younger students. They will then have more of a concept of ‘why’, and this is something that WOULD be useful in further education.