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.