by Leora Jasper
“Isn’t Shakespeare, like, irrelevant?”
In front of me sat a blonde Justin Bieber facsimile whose limbs hung over the sides of the chair like the exposed, overgrown roots of a willow. Feet adorned with Nikes, chest emblazoned with Champion, they sipped a hot chocolate above a perilously positioned pair of new white jeans. With fight or flight automaticity, my brain went hunting through my mental indices for all the verbal weaponry at my disposal. It was a silly way to react. Like most teenagers, their words were chosen more for the purpose of picking a scab than pursuing a point.
I present their words in the original dialect they were heard, a kind of Gen Z patois native to the dwellers of TikTok and Snapchat, where elliptic sentence fragments leave the recipient in constant search of a predicate.
“What makes something irrelevant?”
“Like, the language.”
“The language is irrelevant?”
“Like no one talks Shakespeare. It’s stupid.”
“Yeah, but people should be able to read the English language in a lot of different eras. It may be difficult, but that doesn’t mean the themes and characters are irrelevant. People make movies and write books that are inspired by Shakespeare all the time. Don’t you want to be able to understand what they’re referencing? Understand the ideas?”
“Yeah, but…the language doesn’t need to be so hard, no one can understand what words mean in Shakespeare. Thou…”
“All these people…thou.”
“It’s hard, it takes work to slow down and understand what it means. I enjoy Shakespeare, but I have to read it slowly and reread often. It can be helpful to see it performed, to read notes.”
“Yeah, but don’t people who know those words…can’t someone just translate it and tell the rest of us what it means?”
“It’s in English.”
“Yeah, but it’s poetry. You can’t translate poetry. The whole point is to read it yourself and make your own meaning.”
“But people already know…they can just write a book saying what it means and the rest of us can read that and then…like, we don’t have to read the actual thing.”
“Who are these people who are going to tell you what it means?”
“People who Shakespeare.”
“And you’re just going to let someone else tell you what it all means. You don’t see any problem with that?”
“It’s irrelevant to me.”
“Not everything you read needs to be relevant!”
“Someone can just…write a document, and it can say the characters said something and what happened and everyone can get that that’s what happened…and we can all get it.”
“But who are these people writing this document?”
“People who know.”
“How do you know that they know?”
How do you know that they know?
Of course, I reflect on this conversation and see all of my missteps. First, I engaged in the conversation. I tried to persuade a teenage troll of my points. That was super dumb. Second, I assumed with a series of Socratic questions that I would unearth the kernel idea from which their vague sentences emanated. That was also super dumb. It was super dumb because they told me in their very first sentence: they think Shakespeare is, like, irrelevant.
Ugh, what can I say about such a criticism? It’s dull? Over-used? But it is a persistent one. I heard it in school. I’m sure my parents said it in school. I suspect teenagers have been denouncing Shakespeare since the onset of widespread public schooling. And I get it. The language is unfamiliar. The plot takes time to unpack, especially when you are reading the story and not watching it performed on a stage.
Schools also do a terrible job selecting Shakespearean works to share with teenagers. When I was in school, we read Romeo & Juliet as freshmen. We were told the characters were our age, so we should understand them. But no one is more alien to a group of suburban high school freshmen than Romeo and Juliet, who die for someone they barely know. The violent gangland background of that story doesn’t often make sense to kids who are too busy with band and honors classes to date, much less kill themselves for a lover. Most teenagers can’t even say the word lover with a straight face.
Imagine if instead teenagers first encountered Shakespeare through Taming of a Shrew. The language and plot are much more straightforward, and so many modern romantic comedies are light replicas; moreover, students can easily access and discuss the themes of gender roles and gender expression, as well as the ways class can interfere with the development of relationships. It’s also a play that invites readers to think about what makes a healthy relationship — a point of reflection that is essential for young people but often overlooked in academic settings.
But that isn’t how most schools introduce teenagers to Shakespeare. And it’s hard to disagree with them. It often isn’t relevant. But I digress.
How? How do you know if they (these supernaturally perceptive Shakespearean experts who compose a concise document with the key points of what everything means) know what Shakespeare meant when he made Hamlet paralyzed by his morbidity, by his depression? Do they think Hamlet was being serious when he said, “To be or not to be?” Or was he performing for an eavesdropping uncle?
Also, is it even art anymore if interest in and interaction with the work is mediated by a committee of experts?
Shakespearean works are not scientific principles subject to the scientific method or standards of replicability. They are not Manichean treatises. They aren’t even fully subject to critiques of logic.
But why Shakespeare? Besides the Bible, few other literary works or authors are as influential as Shakespeare.
Do I really want to be here right now arguing with a sixteen year old about something most people disagree with me about? I had this boyfriend who went to see King Lear with me and fell asleep. I’ve met a lot of intelligent people who care little about Shakespeare; who have used the tapestry of works inspired by him to access the complicated themes, ideas, and characters that transcend the usage of “doth.” They watch Sons of Anarchy and Game of Thrones, which are new renditions that speak to current moment.
Is this really the hill I want to die on?
“They study Shakespeare so they know? Don’t you think it’s a dangerous precedent for your own life that you give the responsibility for reading and understanding things to other people? Isn’t that something you should want to do for yourself?”
“No, you don’t want to think for yourself?”
“No, no Shakespeare.”
“How do you know what is and isn’t important to know?”
“How do you know that?”
A final digression…
The fool Feste said in Twelfth Night: “I would rather be a witty fool than a foolish wit.”
Do no argue with a teenager. Please, I beg you. Don’t do it. For whatever reason, youth gifts its bearer with a comical charm that protects them from the speciousness of their own arguments. You may believe your point to be sharp and clear, but it won’t be heard that way. It won’t be responded to that way. You may think you are superior to this interlocutor because of their poor vocabulary or their inability to not thumb at their phone during the conversation, but you are not. You’re just a blustering old person spewing the most recent iteration of “kids these days.” You are no better than your parents. Remember what idiots your parents are? Yeah, that’s you. That’s me. Suck on that.