The thought of reading some confusing plays from a white guy that died centuries ago isn’t the typical student’s idea of a fun time. As someone getting a teaching certificate in English, when I say I absolutely hate William Shakespeare people look shocked. Isn’t every English teacher obsessed with this man? No! There are a lot of reasons to hate Shakespeare but my biggest complaint is the fact this playwright was a fraud who gets credit for stories he stole from other cultures. Once you read this, you’re going to want to stop teaching Shakespeare.
Ancient Greece didn’t have copyrights
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the author tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers whose long-feuding families forbid their love. Pyramus thought Thisbe had died, and unable to live without her, he ended his own life. Then Thisbe found her dead lover and also killed herself by sword. Sound familiar?
If you published an incredible story today, you would get a copyright of that IP or “intellectual property.” Of course, back in Ancient Greek and Roman times, copyright did not exist. This left many people able to “borrow” stories.
Every single one of Shakespeare’s tales can be traced back, plot point by plot point, to an earlier version. Sometimes from Greece, sometimes from Romans, sometimes even from Egyptian myths, but never from himself. The only aspects of his stories that were “unique” and differed them from the source material was the culture: Shakespeare made them Western European.
Now, Shakespeare supporters will argue that everything has an influence from a previous work. This is true, creative writing takes a lot of samples from earlier texts and adds a new flare to them. However, where Shakespeare falls flat is he did not build upon these classic tales. Often they were simply retold, but made white.
For example, in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe I told you earlier, Pyramus thought Thisbe had died because he found her scarf torn and bloody from a tiger attack. In Shakespeare’s version, Romeo believes Juliet is dead because of a poison the priest suggested she take to put her into a deep sleep. See the problem?
Shakespeare only changed the parts of the story which were not relatable to his Western European audience. What do they know of tigers? Instead, Shakespeare decided to use hip new concepts of white society, Christianity and medicine. Not only in this play but in multiple others, Shakespeare decided to change cultural names to acceptable Western European names and switched around details that were not considered civilized before claiming the piece as totally original. Not to mention inclusion of lots of sexist and racist additions, but that’s a story for a different day.
Teaching the originals
Obviously, Shakespeare is problematic. Not only do kids absolutely despise reading his works (and honestly, who can blame them?) but his work is not even his own! How can we teach students plagiarism is bad while simultaneously making them learn about the king of getting credit for ideas that are not his.
My suggestion for future educators? Teach the originals! Why teach a white-washed retelling of a classic story when the primary source is right there? If you want your students to learn about Elizabethan era authors, there are plenty of other options such as Christopher Marlowe or Edmund Spenser. It is time to throw away Shakespeare in the classrooms for good.
If you want to read other pieces on Shakespeare in education, read next our article Shakespeare to Pop Culture.