Why read Shakespeare in the 21st century?

Preparation for the King Lear exam answer

All literature, that is all reputable authors, gives us a wider view of life, or opens experiences to us not previously available (e.g., travel writers). But you will need to say what is distinctive from Shakespeare. Shakespeare does not 'teach' us how to live, you would not say "Reading Shakespeare is a moral education" - but more subtly, his plays offer opportunities for us to reflect on life in what happens to them.

If we identify with the character, then we may learn from him or her without making those mistakes ourselves (i.e., we learn vicariously). If the issues in a play are sufficiently wide enough, i.e., beyond time and place or even a particular culture, then that work becomes acclaimed as having universal relevance (not to be confused with 'universal appeal'). This means it can offer everyone insights about what it is to be human, and in particular, dramatises the consequences of immoral actions, ignorance, foolishness or indecision OR the value of virtue. State your response to this statement then detail your view with references from the play.

Do not get hung up on a technical value of studying Shakespeare, e.g., that it enables teachers to test their students' knowledge, or it widens their vocabularies or even that because reading Shakespeare is difficult it is good for students, or worth the challenge, etc. Avoid saying his play contains hidden messages as if it is in code. This is untrue and trivialises the question and your response. Also watch your logic: don't deduct that because Shakespeare is claimed to be timeless and universal then Queensland students will benefit from reading him. Rather, use induction to claim that because these students benefit from understanding the characters and issues yet again in the here and now, then it is probably valid to infer he has universal relevance.

Respond briefly to the following statements:

1. Shakespeare's Lear has got nothing to offer on 20th century issues (Nbomb, suicide, euthanasia, abortion, over-population, contraception, gender identity, care of aged, life skills, etc)

 

 

2. Shakespeare's own era and the era of the setting in King Lear are so unique that issues then (monarchy, traitors, ...) are so different from ours that he can offer us little or nothing beyond academic value.

 

 

3. Shakespeare's culture, style, language and poetry is so stylised and remote from modern genres and language that the effort to study him out-weighs the results.

 

 

4. It's best to leave the past alone; dusty books cannot tell us what we need to know. The 21st century paradigms are so different, technology is now so pervasive, loyalty does not count, relationships are dispensable. What we need now are economists, marriage counsellors and committed environmentalists.

 

 

5. Shakespeare's King Lear offers no medicine for today. His experiment in this play with the choleric temperament is such primitive psychology that it cannot compete with our advanced science of today.

 

 


Sample beginning from a Year 12's essay (M.S. August 2000)

It can be said that acting is the physicalisation of the imagination or that in acting, the 'word' becomes 'flesh.' So it is the profession of the playwright to create the 'word.'. Shakespeare's plays are probing explorations of characters and behaviours, rich tapestries into which are woven the many and varied threads of human existence. The benefits of studying these play in Queensland educational institutions are indeed great. Students can learn from the characters and from the themes in works such as "The Tragedy of King Lear" [which will be the focus for this paper.]

Shakespeare's tragedies offer powerful insights into human nature through skilful characterisations. In them students are able to explore the behaviours and motives of people, especially in "King Lear" those in the pursuit of power, greedy and lust. Through his ruthless quest for ascendency (to replace his illegitimacy), Edmund is such a character who shows an extreme ambition that results in a cruel and treacherous spiral of evil. This theme bears immediate relationship to the world of today. Also explored is the hypocrisy of political rhetoric of which we have too much in today's world. Shakespeare's observations dramatise just what our newspapers are telling us. Thirdly, Shakespeare's Cordelia shows strength of character when she is depicted as having a mind of her own and the strength of character (but a foolishness in politics) in her refusal to shower her father with false proclamations of love. This scripting of a female character highlights the possibilities for sexual equality that we still strive for in today' modern society. . . .

 

Another by DG

Studying Shakespeare's works in Queensland educational institutions is an integral and culturally important facet of contemporary studies. Shakespeare's mastery of drama, poetry and prose allows us an historical view as well as a insight into human nature then and now. His ability to fuse simple and complex characters in such intricate roles whilst involving them in subplots and ulterior schemes is a masterpiece of the art of playwriting. Shakespeare then truly is the greatest playwright of all time. His unique use of language and character allows his performances to capture and captivate audiences wherever they are performed. One play in particular that displays these skills is "The Tragedy of King Lear", [the focus of this discussion.]

Return to King Lear Page