Shakespeare again getting top billing Teaching: Towson University makes plays required course for English majors as interest revives across academia.

Education Beat

July 19, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

STARTING THIS FALL, English majors at Towson University will have to read William Shakespeare.

That might not be earth-shattering news, but it's a sign of the times.

Those who keep Shakespeare's temperature say the Bard is making still another comeback on college campuses. Although he wrote plays for largely illiterate audiences 400 years ago, Shakespeare remains the greatest English writer, his work read and heard by more people than anyone who ever put pen to paper.

In Towson's case, Shakespeare had been demoted years ago from the very top of the literary pantheon. English majors could substitute, say, William Faulkner or D. H. Lawrence for the Bard. But this fall, Shakespeare returns as a required course.

None too soon, says George Friedman, who's been teaching literature at Towson for 30 years. "We expect the pendulum to start swinging back," he says. "Although I dearly love Faulkner, Shakespeare is clearly more significant."

A year ago this spring, a conservative group known as the National Alumni Forum decried the disappearance of Shakespeare from the required reading lists of "elite" colleges across the nation. Shakespeare, the group said, had been dropped as a requirement by two-thirds of the "top" 70 colleges and universities in a wave of revisionism as higher education embraced "multiculturalism."

The charge touched off "sweet thunder," to borrow a Shakespeare phrase, in academic circles. Some challenged the forum's statistics and wondered how it defined "elite." But there was consensus that some colleges, while they hadn't dropped Shakespeare, had done what Towson had done years before: rendered him optional.

As a new school year approaches, however, the experts say Shakespeare is stronger than ever.

"You can't put him down," says James E. Davis, a Shakespeare authority at Ohio University. "He's come back better than ever from that little scare a couple of years ago. Hollywood has helped with a few Shakespeare films that have kept him in the public eye."

Shakespeare's durability is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that contemporary readers, in effect, have to translate the playwright's blank verse from Elizabethan English. (The King James Bible, perhaps the most widely read single book in history, was written in the same English.)

Davis, who has just published a book on the teaching of Shakespeare, points out that, unlike the "various holy writs," Shakespeare's plays are usually read in their original language. "It's not uncomplicated language," he says. "Shakespeare loved big words. He played around with the language more than any writer I know. He loved puns, and a lot of his puns were really bad. It's miraculous that he's held up so well over the centuries."

Ruthe T. Sheffey, whose Shakespeare courses at Morgan State University are famous, concedes the obvious: The Bard is a DWEM -- a dead white European male.

But part of his attraction, she adds quickly, is his political correctness: his bawdy humor, his contrariness, his promotion of diversity. His strong female characters, particularly in the comedies, were feminists centuries before the word was coined.

Sheffey sees herself in the dual roles of a Shakespeare partisan -- "I don't see how an English major can go out in the world without Shakespeare" -- and an "inclusionist" of great nonwhite writers she says have been neglected to the same extent Shakespeare has been idolized.

"I'll move smoothly from Shakespeare to African diasporic female writers," she says. "We need both."

Shakespeare's greatest attraction is that he speaks to young people. That's why the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival takes his plays into inner-city schools. "Shakespeare," says Sheffey, "speaks to the sadness and tragedy of the human experience, but even when things are at their darkest, there's always a hopeful note in Shakespeare.

"It's that note that our kids need to hear. They have such bleak views of the world!"

The last word of bardolatry comes from another English writer, Virginia Woolf. "To write down one's impressions of 'Hamlet' as one reads it year after year," she once wrote, "would be virtually to record one's own autobiography.

"For as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know."

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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