Hath not a Domer eyes?
Matthew Smedberg | Thursday, April 1, 2004
Some things used to be common property.
It used to be that a writer could make reference to certain great works of literature, and be reasonably confident that not only would his readers pick up on his drift, but that most of them would be able to tell the story he was referring to. The American general readership knew their stuff.
You can’t do that anymore. Shakespeare is not dead, but most people have never met him. At Notre Dame alone, there are, performed in the course of a year, sometimes as many as 10 of his plays – but most students will not even see one. And in doing so, they’re not merely missing great drama: they’re depriving themselves of a critical library of phrases and ideas central to communication of great ideas from his day to ours.
There’s something special, when telling your colleagues or friends about an opportunity which would be disastrous to miss, to take a cue from Brutus and remind them that “there is a tide.” There’s a richness of meaning in a reference like that. There’s only one problem – these days, no one knows what it means.
It’s not our fault. Blame the schools maybe. Blame the movies. I don’t personally blame anybody. But that’s not to say that it’s anything but a really sad situation when students at a place like Notre Dame have never met some of the most famous words of one of the most famous poets in human history.
Now, Shakespeare certainly wrote a lot of words, and you need a doctorate to really be familiar with anything more than a tiny fraction of them. But there are a few lines and phrases – 50 maybe, maybe even a 100 – without which a speaker of English is, literally, illiterate.
What I mean by this is that literacy is as much understanding what lies behind an author’s words as it is deciphering symbols on a page into words and sentences. What is a pound of flesh? Why would an author writing about taxes mention one? And do business majors really learn how to take one? What is a sticking point, and how do I screw my courage to it? To be, or not to be?
Sure, Shakespeare has bored high schoolers ever since they were forced to sit through classes devoted to him. But it would be a tragedy – and not one that anyone would pay to see onstage – to give up on all the great stuff that’s in his plays and writings, just because of a few less-than-stellar moments in high school.
After all, a twice-told tale may still catch the ear of a drowsy student.