The Bard At 400


William_shakespeare_dm“My Shakespeare, rise!…The bard rose throughout the length and breadth of his brave new world. He was not for an age, but for all time…[His] tercentenary happened only once…It was observed piously from Maryland to Oregon. Eighty-one members of the House of Representatives, when asked by literate journalists for their favorite lines, replied…with a quotation from Polonius: “‘This above all: to thine own self be true.’ The Swan was played, and pageanted, and essayed in every schoolhouse in the land.”

So wrote Thomas Wolfe in his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel about the 300th anniversary of the passing of William Shakespeare. “[Essayed] in every schoolhouse in the land.” Was it true? A lot has changed in the last century. The last time we heard of a politician reading Shakespeare was Robert Byrd, the senator from West Virginia, who died in 2010.

According to the Rockford Institute in Illinois, only 9 percent of English majors in America are required to take a course in Shakespeare. Is that true? And consider that English majors represent a very small percentage of college graduates. William Shakespeare heavily influenced American literature and with it, American culture. The aforementioned Wolfe plowed his way through the Shakespeare corpus while still a teenager.

The same was true for T.S. Eliot, the 1948 Nobel laureate. Another Nobelist, William Faulkner, swore in his youth that he would write a work of literature to rival Hamlet. It didn’t happen, but the effort produced some memorable results. Robert Penn Warren, America’s first Poet Laureate, was so moved by teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates that he was inspired to write the classic, All the King’s Men.

Receiving an English degree without taking a course in Shakespeare is like getting a degree in physics without learning about Newton or Einstein. Call it the sin of a wasted education. We applaud those efforts by libraries, schools and theater groups to keep The Bard vital. Still, you have to say that William Shakespeare is a man without a future, at least as far as the United States is concerned.


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