The Corner

Vanishing Shakespeare

Are we past caring about the havoc wrought on liberal education by the contemporary professorate? Today is Shakespeare’s birthday. Yet I worry that even this latest news on the disappearance of Shakespeare will be greeted with a yawn. Maybe not. Some may find it troubling that only a few schools still require English majors to study Shakespeare. It’s certainly a development worth being troubled about.

A new website, vanishingshakespeare.org has been created to address the problem. Here you’ll find the full report on “The Vanishing Shakespeare.” It’s especially worth having a look at sections two and three, “The Advance of the Not-So-Great” and “What You Can Do.” (These are quick and easy reads.) The rest of the report allows you to check to see if you’re alma mater, or your children’s school, require English majors to study Shakespeare.

To grasp the true source of the vanishing Shakespeare, read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. And for a startling journey into the heart of our Shakespeare-eclipsing darkness, read Heather MacDonald’s contribution to Mary Eberstadt’s Why I Turned Right volume. (See my “MacDonald vs. Chait” post below.) For the beginnings of a solution, consider this passage from page 56 of Allan Bloom’s “Giants and Dwarfs:

“…when Shakespeare is read naively, because he shows most comprehensively the fate of tyrants, the character of good rulers, the relations of friends, and the duties of citizens, he can move the souls of his readers, and they recognize that they have understood life better because they have read him; he hence becomes a constant guide and companion. He is turned to as the Bible was once turned to; one sees the world, enriched and embellished, through his eyes. It is this perspective that has been lost; and only when Shakespeare is taught as though he said something can he regain the influence over this generation which is so needed–needed for the sake of giving us some thoughtful views on the most important questions. The proper functions of criticism are, therefore, to recover Shakespeare’s teaching and to be the agent of his ever-continuing education of the Anglo-Saxon world.”

Bloom is saying that the way we now study Shakespeare is as much of a problem as the fact that we study him so rarely. Indeed the way we now study Shakespeare explains why the study itself is vanishing. As Bloom puts it on page 374 of The Closing of the American Mind:

“There is an enormous difference between saying, as teachers once did, ‘You must learn to see the world as Homer and Shakespeare did,’ and saying, as teachers now do, ‘Homer and Shakespeare had some of the same concerns you do and can enrich your vision of the world.’ In the former approach students are challenged to discover new experiences and reassess old; in the latter, they are free to use the books in any way they please.”

Having thus transferred authority from the book (and the shared tradition the book embodies) to the student, the notion of requiring some texts but not others ceases to make sense.

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