Shakespeare, Pronouns, and the New World Order
One of my favorite go-to news sources is the BBC Daily News. Reading an account of a shooting in Norway not long ago, I came to this sentence:
King Harald, Norway’s monarch, said him and his family were horrified.
The BBC is an institution I have long admired. During the seven years I lived in London, my main source entertainment was the radio. I even named a child after a character on The Archers. I often consult the “BBC Learning English” site for explanations and examples of standard usage.
And then came that sentence about King Harald and his family.
The error was corrected before the end of the day, but the fact that it found its way onto a BBC page at all left me feeling shaken. I suppose it seemed as if the last bastion had fallen.
For a long time now, I have been hearing subject/object pronoun errors in British productions like Father Brown and Midsomer Murders and even in the speech of members of the royal family, but to see something like this appear even briefly on the BBC site gave me a jolt. (I can at least comfort myself with the thought that the person who wrote it probably won’t write a subsequent article to defend the usage.)
Another institution that has represented canonical literacy to me is Harvard. I’ve always imagined that even Harvard freshmen must be much better-read than most teens. Then I read an interview with author Geraldine Brookes in the New York Times (June 16, 2022). One of the questions the interviewer asked was “What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
I taught writing at Harvard last year and half my students had never read a Shakespeare play. That set my hair on fire.
She did not answer the question directly, but I infer that she means that the works of Shakespeare should be read before the age of 21.
That revelation did not disillusion me about Harvard, but about the feeder high schools that send students there. Ninety-three percent of the Harvard class of 2024 earned a place in the top ten percent of their graduating high school classes. When I graduated from a small-town Arkansas high school (nowhere near the top) years ago, my class (most of whom were not headed to college) had studied four Shakespeare plays—one per year, from ninth to twelfth grade. And we could quote from all of them.
Those Bardilliterate students Ms. Brookes fretted about will probably read at least one of the plays before they graduate. Harvard is one of the few universities that still consider the Shakespeare canon to be an important part of the curriculum.
Does it matter?
According to a recent survey, Harvard is one of only four of fifty-two universities on the US News & World Report list of the highest-ranking educational institutions that still require English majors to study Shakespeare. English majors. (That fact sets my hair on fire.)
Some of my readers may be thinking,
So? Why the fuss about Shakespeare or pronoun case? Everybody knows that Shakespeare is irrelevant, not to mention misogynistic, racist homophobic, classist, and anti-Semitic. And, as for Standard English, the Conference on College Composition and Communication has decided that teachers should “stop using academic language and standard English as the accepted communicative norm.”
The battles over Shakespeare and pronoun case are not mere academic quibbling. The BBC pronoun error made me realize that conflicts about language and literature are universal and that they mirror other clashes going on in the body politic.
Does having one standard English dialect for general use unify or divide?
Does rooting English instruction in a traditional literary canon enrich thinking and communication, or does it perpetuate a mindset unsuited to a modern secular and racially diverse society?
These questions, like those being asked about types of government and levels of citizenship, will be answered during the next several years.
To quote an old, dead, white guy,
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”
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