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Why do we read Shakespeare?

by Joshua Shaw


Why do we read Shakespeare? Because his writing is beautiful? Because he is witty? Because he is simply so “important” for the development of the English language? All these answers are but partial: John Milton, as I tried to show in the last parent Scones and Scholé session, argued for a more substantial reason.  



More than exercising our wits, and astounding us with his own, he asserted that Shakespeare, if carefully read and heard and watched, could reveal to us our own character, could – in other words – impart to us self-knowledge. And self-knowledge, said John Calvin famously, was one of two kinds of wisdom really worth having (the other being, of course, the knowledge of God, though he was not sure which came first). Coleridge echoed Milton’s sentiment when he stated, “Every man sees himself in the First Folio, though he does not know it.” (The First Folio was the first edition of Shakespeare’s works).  Shakespeare himself, in the words of the character Hamlet, stated that art was as a “mirror held up to virtue and to scorn.”  Self-knowledge, wisdom, virtue and vice – these were the great ends and aims of Shakespeare’s art. 


At Anthem we of course have a lot of fun reading and acting out Shakespeare – that is how it should be – but we set our sights higher than “fun” or “culture” or “getting smart”: self-knowledge, wisdom, will equip us for life as parents, friends, citizens, and workers better than any other intellectual attainment. And education for all of life is what we are about here at Anthem. 

 

Why do we study Shakespeare in school?

On Shakespeare” by John Milton 

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones 

the labor of an age in piled stones 

or that his hallowed relics should be hid 

in a star-ypointing pyramid? 

Dear Son of Memory, great Heir of Fame, 

What needst thou such weak witness of thy name? 

Thou in our wonder and astonishment 

hast built thyself a livelong monument. 

For whilst, to the shame of slow-endeavouring art 

thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart 

from the leaves of thy unvalued book 

those Delphic lines with deep impression took, 

Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving 

dost make us marble with too much conceiving 

and so sepulchred in such pomp dost lie, 

that kings for such a tomb would wish to die. 



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