Why Even The Youngest Students Should Read Shakespeare

This article first appeared at Acculturated.com  on Sept 14.

The week before school began, my daughter and I swung by her school to drop off last minute paperwork and dropped in to check out her classroom.

We met her teacher and quickly ended up talking about one of my daughter’s favorite topics—reading—and the event she has been looking forward to for years: the 5th grade Shakespeare unit and the play her class will perform.

Her teacher let us in on this year’s selection: Romeo and Juliet. While my daughter groaned (loudly) at the romance-laden selection, I was elated that she would spend a core part of her year immersed in Shakespeare. “I was hoping for something with more dramatic deaths!” my daughter said. Too bad they didn’t choose Henry V.

Youthful passions aside, Romeo and Juliet is a study of family, friendship, the power of chance, and pain, choices, and consequences; it examines the offspring of vengeance and hate, the burden of secrets, the excitement of the unknown, the tug and pull of one generation (and its rules and hopes) over another, the introduction of the mysteries of the heart as an organ of the human body, and so much more.

However far her class delves into the Montagues and Capulets, peeling apart the layers of the Shakespearean onion is a learning experience of great depth and reward. I don’t know if my daughter will leave the Shakespeare experience believing in true love or being a disciple of destiny but she will have had these words and so many more beautiful ideas pass before her eyes, which alone is worth the experience. If even a sliver of the ideas she confronts in Shakespeare stay with her she will benefit.

As our kids head back to school after a summer of pleasurable reading (mixed with a small amount of school assigned picks), they will confront the perennial conundrum of the schoolhouse: the push to read deeply and the push to read for skill face a fierce battle for precious scheduling time. While reading skills are vitally necessary in the earliest years, reading books and plays of serious depth are equally important. Authors like Shakespeare offer teachers and students a periscope into deep human truths.

A recent story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette profiled Becka Nazario Wright, a teacher who suggested introducing second-graders to Macbeth. The school’s director thought it might be too bloody. But as Wright pointed out, even young students recognize that, “Macbeth is a bully, ambitious and kind of a coward. They are really good stories, and it’s the human condition.” To Wright, Shakespeare is relevant even to the youngest of students:

While discussing the ambition that drove Macbeth to kill Duncan so he could become king, Ms. Wright asks the children this question: “Have you ever really wanted something and you would do anything to get it?”

Leon Kass, a retired University of Chicago professor who taught the humanities for decades alongside his wife Amy Kass, spoke in a 2014 interview of the vital importance of doing what Wright seeks to do: introducing great (and often hard and complicated) books to students and asking difficult questions about them. “You’re far better off giving people books to read, which even if they get very little out of it the first time, it will be part of their experience. . . . far better to teach better books than lesser books, books in which you have a reason to believe that the author saw and still sees farther than you would ever see left to your own devices,” Kass said.

The fifth grader who explores Shakespeare for the first time may return to it in high school or college and dive a little deeper into the text, wrestle with it a little bit more, fly with it a little bit higher, and come away with a different level of understanding.

Of course, the books and plays are only half of the equation. Schools also need great teachers who can ask the vital questions and illuminate the ideas floating beneath the text—questions that even young children can consider. Kass observed that even teachers who teach their students The Odyssey “never will ask the question of the class, ‘Why does Odysseus want to go home, and what is home, anyhow? . . . What makes a home a home?’ Every kid in the room has an opinion about that.”

While my daughter might be too young right now to understand the full impact of Romeo and Juliet’s “star-cross’d lovers,” Shakespeare will be waiting for her when she returns to his work again when she’s older; by then she will no doubt be more interested in what Shakespeare teaches us about love and about how the human heart can grow.