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Study of the Bard not just luxury

There is not a lot of love these days for our old friend William Shakespeare. The ominously titled “How I Replaced Shakespeare” in a recent issue of Time magazine details the increasing focus on non-fiction in schools as a response to the soon-to-be-implemented Common Core State Standards.

Another recent piece in The New York Times about the ongoing debates on the merits of a college education suggests that “future police officers and nurses need not be force-fed Shakespeare.”

With increasing concerns about practical, “real world” job skills and unemployed college graduates, knowledge about Shakespeare is treated like an unnecessary luxury.

Despite my obvious bias – six years teaching Shakespeare at Manchester University – this dismissal of Shakespeare as superfluous or useless is flawed. Reading and studying Shakespeare (and other “classics”) does indeed prepare us to think outside the box, work well with others, make money and solve “real world” problems.

Shakespeare’s plays are rich with professional and personal concerns (aging King Lear tries to create a legacy for himself; formerly level-headed yet naïve military leader Othello resorts to violence against his wife; power-hungry Richard III manipulates and kills on his way to the throne).

My students and I read for more than content. We discuss the complex issues Shakespeare raises: Are we implicated if we watch horrific violence and do nothing? Can we judge others if we aren’t in their positions? How much should we consider a military or government leader’s personal life?

Just a few weeks ago, a particularly spunky group of Shakespeare students heatedly discussed the end of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, “Measure for Measure.”

The play about a non-confrontational duke who hands over his power to an unscrupulous colleague raises questions about the ethics of power, the place of religion in a secular society, the agency of women in a patriarchy and public authority over private lives – important lessons and discussions for not only scholars of literature but also future CEOs, physicians, lawyers, ministers and politicians.

And, of course, lessons for alums of Manchester University’s Shakespeare courses – who are now in law school discussing domestic violence cases, teaching English in Taiwan, fresh off work with the Obama campaign, working on PR campaigns, starting a business franchise and counseling inner-city teens.

Stacy Erickson is an assistant professor of English at Manchester University. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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