Book Titles from Shakespeare

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When I was receiving my secondary education in a small Arkansas high school many years ago, every student was expected to study four Shakespeare plays before graduating:

Grade 9: Julius Caesar
Grade 10: As You Like It
Grade 11: Romeo and Juliet
Grade 12: Macbeth

Our study included the memorization of at least one soliloquy and numerous shorter passages from each play. Most high school students had at least some of these quotations embedded in their brains and uttered them even when teachers weren’t around. Two favorites were “Out, out damned spot,” and “Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”

Not surprisingly, writers who grew up when Shakespeare was still an important part of the English curriculum made use of some of these phrases when it came to naming their novels. I wonder what store of title material tomorrow’s novelists will draw on. Memorization of passages from the plays has been in decline for some time. I’ve seen episodes of C.S.I. in which Grissom quotes familiar lines from Macbeth or Julius Caesar and his thirty-something colleagues express amazement at what to them is arcane learning.

According to a 2007 survey of 70 universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “only 15 require their English majors to take a course in Shakespeare.”

“Require”? I find it difficult to imagine an English major who wouldn’t insist on being offered a course in Shakespeare. And Chaucer. And Beowulf. And Latin. But I’m a geezer.

Here’s a criticism I came across on the web. I think it’s probably a common view these days.

…Shakespeare is no longer English. It is written in a redundant tongue that nobody uses anymore, and takes quite a bit of concentration to understand. Why are we teaching children in English classes to read something that they will have no use for? These stories are several hundred years old and are no longer relevant linguistically and contextually.

It is a new millennium. Shakespeare has enjoyed a 450-year popularity. Maybe it is time to remove his work from the general curriculum. Twelve years of public education do not necessarily equate to what used to be an adult level of literacy. I’ve encountered college freshman who thought the writing of George Orwell was couched in “a redundant tongue” that took “quite a bit of concentration to understand.” Students who have trouble with Orwell are certainly going to be flummoxed by Shakespeare.

Still, writers of the past knew their Shakespeare. Here are some titles drawn from the plays. Can you spot the play that the title comes from?

1. The Moon Is Down, John Steinbeck
2. Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers
3. Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy
4 And Be a Villain, Rex Stout
5 Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury
6 Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
7 Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose
8 The Dogs of War, Frederick Forsyth
9 There is a Tide, Agatha Christie
10 By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Agatha Chrstie
11 Not in Our Stars, M. M. Marshall
12 Chimes at Midnight, Terence White
13 The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie
14 Twice-Told Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne
15 A Muse of Fire, A.D. Harvey
16 Strange Snow, Steve Metcalfe
17 Walk the Night, Robert C. Reinhart
18 A Plague on Both Your Houses, Robert. W. Whitaker
19 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
20 “Dagger of the Mind,” Star Trek episode

Look for the answers tomorrow.

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22 thoughts on “Book Titles from Shakespeare”

  1. I think it is very sad indeed that this statement “These stories are several hundred years old and are no longer relevant linguistically and contextually.” is even remotely thought of as being true.

    This kind of thinking is the reason that our children are basically illiterate and undereducated when they graduate from high school. Not only do they not know how to do simple math but they no longer know how to write even basic English. To say that the classics are no longer relevant or necessary is appalling to me!

    I may be one of the “geezers” too, but what is the world coming to when Shakespeare is no longer considered worthy of being taught? Is something less important because it is hard to understand? With that kind of thinking I guess it is no wonder our kids aren’t interested in science or math, let alone Shakespeare.

  2. I consider myself very fortunate. My education in a public school system included Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. OK, that was in 1978 in backward New Mexico. This led me to explore Shakespeare further.
    I consider my children to have even greater fortune, for they are enroled in a private classical school where they not only read Shakespeare, but every year the upper school presents one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Just this month my son, a sophomore, played Alonzo in The Tempest. I seriously doubt he would have even read the play if he was enroled in our public school; even the (relatively) high quality suburban public school we have. What joy I received listening to him and his friends discussing which play they want to do next year. “Not another comedy!” “Let’s do MacBeth.”

  3. Thank goodness for backward New Mexico then Ed. You are truly fortunate. My grandkids are in public schools that struggle with just keeping order in the classroom. My son is putting my oldest grandson in a private school next year and I am so relieved.

  4. Shakespeare’s work is one of the building blocks of modern literature, and has a place in all media. That his plays are, on average, adapted once or twice a year at the very least for films (though out of context, and with liberal changes to the plots) we can deduce someone is still reading them, even if it is only to mangle them into teen dramas, musicals or middling SF.

    I had the pleasure of reading the plays when I started high school, though the benefits of understanding the subtle tones are now no longer seen as relevant – how anyone who teaches English could dismiss the plays is beyond belief.

    Chaucer’s work is more difficult to place in the classroom for obvious reasons, but will this “dumbing down culture” extend beyond Shakespeare? Will we soon find that other writers are to be considered less relevant? Do Victorian authors speak to the youth of today? Perhaps not. Are they still important in gaining a better handle on what today’s authors are writing? Absolutely. It would be interesting to ponder how our language and culture could have evolved if Shakespeare’s work had not existed. We might yet find out, if his accomplishments are scrubbed from the curriculum…

  5. I really enjoyed this post. Even though Shakespeare is difficult, the rewards of persistence are great. I just finished the 2007 YA fiction book,The Wednesday Wars, which is about a 7th grade boy exposed to Shakespeare against his will who ends up liking him very much. Hopefully it will influence a new generation of kids to give Shakespeare a try!

  6. The value in Shakepeare is learning to recognize all of the elements for telling a good story, not the language of a previous era. That knowledge is timeless whether the story is fact or fiction. Most of these quotations aren’t just artistry of language, but many contain “pearls of wisdom,” too. Another good source for book titles are quotations from the Bible – maybe another article.

  7. Thanks for this article, Maeve. And I agree with the responses. I am not a fan of every Shakespeare work, but some of it I love.
    The point is though, the infamous “dumbing down” of our future generations. If any of us just engage in activities and learning of things we like and understand on a simple level, we will never grow and never develop a love of words, languages and expressions; we will have no horizons to broaden, no discoveries or appreciation of those different from ourselves. As we are painfully witnessing, our children are becoming apathetic and unable to communicate in speech, in writing, even in facial expression and body language. Heaven forbid they are forced to read! Heartbreaking.
    p.s. I am not even a ‘geezer’!

  8. There is a tide.

    Presently, it is receding. But it will return, as it always does.

    When the others realize their exhaustive efforts of mass consumption, have filled them with nothing, they’ll return to what is pure, and good.

  9. 10 to 1, if you take the plots in the current movies and novels and compare them to Shakespeare’s plots, you will find both groups have a lot in common. Maybe we don’t talk, walk or dress like the characters in Shakespeare’s work, but there is still a good number of similarities between then and now in what happens in life.
    Sure, it takes a bit of concentration to understand the dialogue, but that is something that seems to be steadily diminishing in our school system. Here’s the question, here’s the answer, now memorize it. Don’t try to figure any of it out. All you need is here, quick and simple. No wonder kids don’t have the ability to sit and try and figure things out. Instant gratification/answers available by the push of a button. Sad.
    I consider myself an “Old Learner” and am happy about it. A mind is a sad thing to waste.

  10. I’m currently in Grade 10 in Ontario, Canada. We actually just started reading Macbeth yesterday. At my school, which is, admittedly, the prep school of the area, we are taught one Shakespeare play per year. If I remember, it goes as follows:

    Grade 9: Romeo and Juliet or Merchant of Venice (teacher’s choice)
    Grade 10: Macbeth
    Grade 11: Hamlet
    Grade 12: Othello or King Lear (again teacher’s choice)

    I loved Merchant of Venice, and I’m already loving Macbeth (I’m well ahead of the class).

    I just wanted to provide some input from a student currently in highschool. I agree that Shakespeare’s work is valuable and should be taught, but I also think that other, more modern scripts should be taught as well.

    Just my two cents,

  11. Thank you for including the list of plays at the end of today’s post – I had fun sorting through them!

  12. All this ‘kids these days’ talk is reminding me of the primary sources from the 14th century I read in my history class. It kind of puts things in perspective when you read the complaints of men who died centuries ago about how young people lack the modesty and discipline of the generation before them.

    Does every generation believe this?

  13. People find it hard to understand the dialogue, and I’ll admit, it DOES take some time to get accustomed to it. But that’s only because people in the Elizabethan era didn’t ACTUALLY speak in manner of Shakespeare’s characters. The continuous iambic pentameter (or occasional trochaic meter) is what makes the dialogue seem elevated. And let’s be honest, the dialogue isn’t SUPPOSED to be realistic. It’s elegant and poetic, the way a Shakespeare play should be, and the use of language is beautiful. I don’t think people appreciate enough how arduous it must have been for Shakespeare to pen so many plays (though there is much speculation as to how much Shakespeare really wrote by himself) using a set meter for EVERY LINE. It’s incredible, and that type of preciseness in language is what I find worth learning about in English class.

  14. It’s sad that they do not teach Shakespeare anymore. Children should be challenged to read more than Harry Potter and the latest vampire fad books.

    BTW, I thought of another famous book with a Shakespearean title:

    The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck. (The opening lines of Richard III.)

  15. Great post. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed. At grammar school at the age of 12, I didn’t really understand the plays when we read them in class. But then we were taken to the theatre… and they came alive.

  16. I may be a non native English speaker but I find difficult to believe that a “beacon” of your language become irrelevant, I think too that it’s difficult to understand but that is precisely what makes it fascinating; I have been trying to do an old English research based of course on such a great and legendary author who created words and nurture an alive language don’t kill its essence.

  17. I remember reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time and then when I saw it come alive on the big screen. For a young girl, it was the beginning of a love affair…and the yearning for much more.

    Shakespeare is still relevant and more than worth the effort.

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