*Do* we need Shakespeare?

Megan McArdle asks: “Do We Need Shakespeare?“, and she offers some theories about why we might that don’t rely on “Because we’ve always done it that way,” including “What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them” and “Maybe the best argument you can make for English class is that it offers a way for people like myself, and many thousands of future English teachers, to find out that they like English class.”



Still, I’m not so sure. I began imagining reasons almost immediately, but most reduced to, “Because we’ve been doing it that way for a long time.” Which can be reduced to “path dependence.” Teaching a writer who seems incomprehensible at first glance and requires experts to decipher also raises the status of (some) teachers and professors, who have knowledge that can’t be readily accessed by every day people. That Hansonian reason, however, isn’t real good reason why we should choose Shakespeare plays over some other means of teaching English.

Let me try to develop an alternate possibility that will likely make many people unhappy. I’ve begun to think that education is really about cultivating a relatively small elite who really push forward particular domains (which is a variant of McArdle’s comment about the thousands of future English teachers). In other words, mass education doesn’t matter nearly as much as intensely educating a small number of very high skill people, but those people probably aren’t identifiable in advance. This idea isn’t purely mine, and I’ve been thinking about it explicitly since reading Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, in which he writes:

It is important to stress that the Industrial Revolution was the creation of an elite, a relatively small number of ingenious, ambitious, and diligent persons who could think out of the box, and had the wherewithal to carry out their ideas and to find others who could assist them. This is not to return to the heroic interpretations of the Victorian hagiographers such as Samuel Smiles and credit a few famous individuals with the entire phenomenon […] Even these pivotal people were a minority, perhaps a few tens of thousands of elite workers, well trained through apprenticeships supplemented sometimes by informal studies.

Wow: Something as big a deal as the Industrial Revolution may have been driven by a small number of people. I’ve also read a lot about the early computer industry and the early development of integrated chips, and that too seems to have been driven by a small number of physicists and mathematicians, with particularly important companies like Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel starting off with tiny workforces. Most of the world didn’t matter much to the development of those industries, even though those industries are now so large that a large part of the workforce spends our time in front of glowing screens that show executed code most of us don’t understand and can’t write. Computers and the Internet are the biggest stories of our age, possibly excepting global warming and mass extinction, yet many of us aren’t substantially participating and don’t care to.

What gives?

The unpleasant answer may be that most of us don’t matter that much to the process. By the same token, most people who learn to despite reading from being made to read Shakespeare may never be good readers, writers, or thinkers—but they’re not the ones who push the world forward, intellectually speaking. Instead, those of us who go on to realize that, say, “
Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense: What the Bard can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind
” are the ones who matter, at least in this domain.

Most Westerners are uncomfortable with outright elitism, but I’d ask: How many of us really work as hard as we can at a given domain? In “How A Slight Change In Mindset: Accelerated My Learning Forever,” Tristan de Montebello observes that few of us really throw ourselves into learning. Most of us learn as much as we need to to survive and do okay and reproduce, but not much more than that. You can tell as much via behavior.

That may be true in language as a domain as well. I read more than the vast majority of people I know, and yet there are people who read and write much more than even I do.

To return to Shakespeare, I’d also argue that sometimes complex, weird, or seemingly outdated works force us to read closer and more carefully than we might otherwise. Shakespeare makes contemporary readers work harder to understand what the writer means—which is ultimately a useful and under-used skill. Just look at most Internet forums: since the 1980s and Usenet, going forward all the way to today with Reddit, we have numerous places where people gather online and utterly fail at basic reading comprehension (this is one reason I spend little time posting there and much more posting here).

Under this theory, reading someone like Shakespeare is akin to lifting weights: a 500-pound deadlift may not translate directly into 500 pounds of force in a game, but it sure translates more force than a guy who can’t deadlift 500 pounds.

Still, I’m treating the argument that Shakespeare-is-good like a lawyer and trying to come up with the best possible argument, rather than arguing from first principles. I’m not fully convinced we need Shakespeare, as opposed to some other writer or group of writers, as a necessary component of teaching English.

How to Read and Why — Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why is mostly an exercise close reading that tries to show how to learn by doing. The particular works Bloom chooses, ranging from Shakespeare to Borges to Proust, seem less important than the mere act of criticism; unlike most criticism, however, this one makes explicit the moral and other lessons it wants you to take. In some ways, How to Read and Why is a cheerleader for the personal critic inside all of us, like a book about eating that’s really for amateur restaurant reviewers for Yelp.com. How to Read and Why could also be a broader version of Shakepeare: The Invention of the Human, with short essays on a variety of authors instead of one.

Bloom passes judgment—in a very “judicious” sense of the word—on authors and works, as when he says that “Absorbing as Crime and Punishment is, it cannot be absolved of tendentiousness, which is Dostoevsky’s invariable flaw.” That Bloom didn’t say “crime” in lieu of “flaw,” shows his seriousness as a writer, and maybe also his lack of fun in seizing a terrible but obvious pun. Elsewhere, some of Bloom’s analysis manages the difficult trifecta of being subtle, meaningful, and non-obvious, as when he writes that “Turgenev, like Henry James, learned something subtler from Shakespeare: the mystery of the seemingly commonplace, the rendering of a reality that is perpetually augmenting.” The word “augmenting” is perhaps off-key, but we understand what Bloom meant. Although I don’t know whether she learned it from Shakespeare, Virgina Woolf might have accomplished the same thing.

These insights or descriptions or banal commentary, depending on perspective, are sprinkled throughout the book. In each section—”chapter” is too large a word for them—Bloom goes through essentially the same formula, relating to short stories, poems, novels, plays, and then novels again: he gives a close reading of the work, states what he thinks is unusual about its style or content, then gives a lesson or lessons. Some “lessons” are negative, in that they show what not to aspire to, while others are positive; others toe the nebulous middle, like this passage about Chekhov’s “The Student:”

Nothing in ‘The Student,’ except what happens in the protagonist’s mind, is anything but dreadfully dismal. It is the irrational rise of impersonal joy and personal hope out of cold and misery, and the tears of betrayal, that appears to have moved Chekhov himself.

In weaker hands, such a comment might be merely sentimental and, worse, fatuous. But here it feels supported—organic—although to show how would require pages and pages of quote. It show the acknowledgment of cold and misery and the reality of those things through a single word: “irrational.” With it, Bloom nods at reality and then transcends it, as “The Student” does.

Nonetheless, not everything in How to Read and Why is flawless. Bloom writes that “[…] short stories, whether of the Chekhovian or Borgesian kind, constitute an essential ” Essential form? What the hell does that mean? What’s a non-essential form? Regardless of their essentiality or lack thereof, I still don’t care much for them because, as I’ve often explained to friends amused at this reasoning, by the time I’m into one, it ends. It takes novels to really hold me and to make me want to invest in them. He makes, however, as strong an intellectual and academic case for short stories as one is likely to find, although Francine Prose, James Wood, and others argue in their favor. Regardless of their defenses, I still don’t like them.

Bloom also doesn’t and perhaps can’t explain the pleasures of reading except in terms of themselves, and perhaps that’s for the best: such sensations are difficult if not impossible to convey, but to his credit they are implied. It’s pleasure mingled with duty to Bloom, one becoming the other in the mature mind; as he writes, “I want to contrast Shakespeare’s abandonment of the work [toward ceaselessly reinventing consciousness] with Tarphon’s [a Rabbi of the same generation as the more famous Akiva] insistence that we are not free to abandon it.” The two are different perhaps for religious reasons; of Shakespeare’s inclinations we know little, but it seems that he probably had no God looking over his shoulder, while Tarphon had the possibility of disappointing God with him at every moment. The contrast between the two men is hardly surprising; it’s been claimed that the novel arose to take the place of God, meaning that a specialized form of imaginative narrative art overtook the belief in literal manifestations of a deity beyond time and space, and there is even a book with the very deliberate and appropriate title The Secular Scriptures, which studies Romance.

I’ve focused primarily on the short story section of How to Read and Why, and it’s emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of the book as a whole. The major problem with Bloom’s approach is that sophisticated readers already do this, and they might even read critics who help them to do it better. People who don’t or seldom read probably won’t be interested. That leaves naive readers who would like to learn more, but I can’t imagine that a vast number of them are waiting for Harold Bloom’s instruction in the art of reading. It’s possible some exist, to be sure, but it seems more likely that someone interested in becoming a sophisticated reader will have already done so, and someone uninterested is unlikely to read a book to learn more about reading. How many people are there in the marginal space devoted to seekers who haven’t found much yet? Some, perhaps—the cover proclaims that How to Read and Why was a New York Times bestseller, for whatever that’s worth. Still, I could see How to Read and Why being an excellent gift book, or an excellent reference to attackers who say “why bother reading?”

Romeo and Juliet at the Balagan Theatre

I kept expecting to hear a car backfire at the Balagan Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet”, as the stage was in a basement reminiscent of a garage. This is not a bad thing: I liked the intimate space and the fact that they sell beer you can drink in the theatre. It feels more like being in the Globe, and, in addition, there’s something to be said for being just a foot or two from the action; I could see that Romeo’s shoes needed to be polished. There was no set and few props; a pillar was covered by what appeared to be actors’ copies of Titus Andronicus. The explanation came when Romeo (Banton Foster) ripped another few pages and pasted them on the “sycamore” (“A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad; / Where, underneath the grove of sycamore” Benvolio says). Romeo apparently tore pages from the book to show himself a melancholy artist in the Romantic mode; as portrayed here, he is a dreamy undergrad.

A few other choices surprised me: the nurse played the fool, and Tybalt (Mark Carr) was banal. In contrast, Mercutio (Ryan Higgins) lived up to his name, provided comic relief, and his death was much mourned by this audience member. The costumes went all over the twentieth century, from Paris in a tuxedo to Mercutio in a track suit to a plain yellow dress with black leggings on Juliet (Allison Strickland) to generic hipster clothes on many others. Still, Mercutio and Juliet transcended their costumes. Juliet was the obvious leader here, leading teasing, and enticing Romeo; together the two played being teenagers well, and I could see the walls of Verona being for Romeo what the walls of high school are for others. I also hadn’t realized just how narcissistic Romeo is, with much of his speech focused on himself and even his speech superficially focused on Juliet only going through the lens of his eyes.

But the adults’ coldness and cruelty shone through as well, and they were perhaps worse than the passionate youth, who are encouraged by their elders’ grudges. I’m reminded of the old version of Planet of the Apes, which implies no one over 30 should be trusted. The poison of their beliefs works its way through Shakespeare’s language, although discussing that fully is a longer essay than I care to write here, and you’re better off hearing the play from actors than reading about it on the screen or page. You could do worse than seeing it at the Balagan.

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