Crimes Against Shakespeare 010: On ‘Dumbing Down’

This has been on my mind for a while …

BH dumbing down

This is a long read – I say that on a blog where posts often hit 1,300 words, against ‘accepted wisdom’ – so apologies in advance.  YOUR blog is your blog; my blog is MY blog, and I write for catharsis and as a kind of journal, not ‘popularity’, ‘followers’, or ‘influence’.  I was tempted to temper my words with a gallery of pictures, but that didn’t feel right, either.  This post feels a little more personal than most.

In spite of, or maybe because of, constant trawling for Shakespeare-related content, I have only just found this.  Last April, Peter Marks wrote a piece for The Washington Post  (link below) suggesting that Americans are too ‘intellectually lazy’ to appreciate Shakespeare, and fearing for the future popularity of the plays.  My immediate response was ‘you think it’s bad in the US?  Try over here, where Shakespeare was born!’

As I have said before, and paraphrasing HG Wells, I look across the Atlantic ‘with envious eyes’ when it comes to Shakespeare …

Let’s talk about the act of reading, briefly.

One of the pleasures of reading is knowing that you are not alone.  That someone thinks, or feels, the same, or has simply been in the same situation as you.  There’s an element of kinship in the written word, with writers, situations, or characters.  Marks’ phrase – intellectually lazy – generated that kind of reaction from me, as I constantly use its cousin, ‘intellectually curious‘ as a touchstone for the A/A* grade student.  I couldn’t let this go, despite the time lag since his article.  A second pleasure is awe at the skills of the writer, which I’ll touch on again at the end of my post.  We admire authors because they can articulate, accurately or better still, beautifully, what we think and feel.

Having had that ‘me too’ epiphany, I needed to respond.  Not to argue against Marks, but more to tell my own story by way, again, of catharsis: Shakespeare is, obviously, dear to my heart, but this is a symptom, too, of a wider malaise that deeply concerns me.  As an educator, a parent, a member of society.

So here are my thoughts – on dumbing-down Shakespeare and beyond …

Shakespeare is simply not that hard.

In the UK, Shakespeare is the only compulsary author at GCSE and A Level.  That means that upwards of 600,000 students have to answer questions on it each summer.  Exams HAVE to be accessible at all levels, to give each student a chance to succeed.  But teaching Shakespeare is as much about breaking down barriers and addressing phobias that render otherwise intelligent people incapable of rational thought as anything else.

There’s a whole gamut of techniques I use to try to achieve this.  I surprise and embolden some by pointing out that their vocabulary is larger than Shakespeare’s.  Others initially struggle, but invariably get the message when I give them the first 300 words of BurgessA Clockwork Orange and ask them to compile a dictionary.  In class – not for homework, and without any electronic aid.  If they can reach an approximation for ‘rassoodocks’ or ‘ptitsa’, then why not ‘beseech’ or ‘hither’?  Nearly everyone can do this.  We talk of Shakespeare occasionally speaking like Yoda to maintain the iambic rhythm:

What country, friends, is this?


Friends, what country is this?

I often have to remind students to read to the punctuation and not expect each line to make discrete sense. We discuss the rhetorical tendency to amplify meaning through a crescendo of metaphors or similes.  I wax lyrical about the relative ‘illiteracy’ of some of Shakespeare’s audience, to bolster their confidence – at the same time harping on the fact that that word is pejorative where ‘innumeracy’ is not, and simultaneously telling my students that not being able to read does NOT equal stupid, talking about the oral origins of storytelling.  We play games; we insult in ‘Shakespearean’.  Occasionally, I’ve been known to sit with a pupil and go through a line word-by-word, asking them which word they fail to understand.  That’s when I am losing patience, in truth.

But all this is attitudinal stuff – more psychology than anything else.

I regularly evangelize about David (and Ben) Crystal‘s books, on this blog and in class, and this quotation, which follows the former’s dealing with various myths, is one I use frequently:

‘None of this adds up to a strong argument for translation or modernization.  At worst we are talking about somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of Shakespeare’s grammar and vocabulary posing a problem.  Rather than modernize Shakespeare, therefore, our effort should be devoted to making ourselves more fluent in ‘Shakespearean’.

The point is, students (and adults) learn more complex things every day – where those barriers are non-existent.  Attitude is all.  You fancy someone who is French?  You learn French.  You like a song?  You learn the lyrics.  You want to drive a car?  You learn to move your four limbs in different directions at the same time!  With some concentration, and a decent version of the text I am largely redundant.

Shakespeare is good for your mental health.

Attention grabber, right?  I (almost) apologize for the clickbait-style heading, but I can justify that assertion.  Everyone, whether they have the right attitude or not, whether they are students or fanatics like me, has to concentrate with Shakespeare.  I still do.  It’s a therapeutic process, akin to mindfulness, to focus on the words, to satisfy yourself that you understand the essential meaning, then to look for secondary nuances, links to other parts of the text, techniques that have manipulated your thoughts and emotions.  And all the while, you are in the moment, not worrying about what your partner/boss/subconscious really thinks of you, or whether you can afford to go out at the weekend, or trying to find some meaning in your life.

In fact, art should be hard.  Or at least some of it.  Victor Shklovsky‘s essay, ‘Art As Technique‘ was probably the single most influential text I read at university.  He argues that art can keep us truly alive by ‘defamiliarizing’ the world, waking us, where we would otherwise live unconsciously, on automatic pilot.  Think Neo in The Matrix, and those famous red and blue pills.

And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Do you know what?  When I read ‘such lives are as if they had never been‘, I feel the visceral need to rebel.

Sure, there’s a place for art that can be passively consumed.  We all need to relax.  But our students, and society in general, are increasingly and exclusively passive grazers on media which does not require thought.  Not just social media, but music and cinema too.  Depressingly, my students over the past five years have almost unanimously and routinely hated ‘open’ endings, because they do not want to have to imagine what happens next for themselves.  Too much work.  An exclusive diet of this junk is bad for our mental health, because it is unmindful.  But, it also dangerously inhibits our ability to rationally engage in political debate and other important issues.  We take our news in 280-character nibbles and get back, as quickly as possible, without really thinking, to our androidised, habitualised existences.  Brevity might well be ‘the soul of wit’, and I can well imagine that some readers have gone elsewhere by now, but a good attention span is becoming increasingly rare, and therefore more valuable day by day.  Huxley appears to have triumphed over Orwell, and to borrow from Neil Postman, we are ‘Amusing Ourselves To Death‘ on the trivial.

Shakespeare is NOT boring.

It feels self-evident that there would be no debate about dumbing-down the plays if this were true.  If – and I will come to this later – your attitude is that Shakespeare is only for your intellectual or social superiors, then what you are suggesting is that he’s brilliant, but only if you are smart or rich. Does wealth REALLY equate to intelligence?  Oh, please.

The stories, the character types, the moral dilemmas: none of those have really changed, have they?  With a little imagination it’s not too hard to look at Hamlet as the unsettled child of divorced parents, is it?  With a sleazy, used-car-salesman stereotype having latched onto his mother, whilst his father ends up in a mouldy bedsit?  Most of the plots were not original when Shakespeare wrote them, but they were relevant then, and they are now, which is why these stories are constantly retold.  Not ‘relatable’.  Relevant.

Take a look at a selection of my posts, or at the range of tags I use – these are stories which are easily translatable, capable of being retold across time and space.  It really isn’t a stretch – and fun, actually, to  link Shakespeare to SF or other works that were written hundreds of years later.

Speaking of constant retelling, the ‘boring’ attitude also denies the fact that the plays are being staged, filmed and adapted across the world, all year, every year.  And every single endeavor of this type is designed to make money.  No profit?  No performance.  Sophie Okonedo.  Benedict Cumberbatch.  Judy Dench.  Tom Hiddleston.   Maggie Smith.  Patrick Stewart. Fiona Shaw.  Ian McKellen. Maxine Peake.  Last time I checked, these people are not scraping the barrel, accepting any kind of demeaning job.

Shakespeare IS for people like me.

As well as championing ‘intellectual curiousity’ another phrase I constantly use is ‘cultural capital’.  It may ever have been thus, but I look at society and see it increasingly polarised between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, and the gap between those two groups seems to be growing.

You can be as Marxist as you like, but no-one aspires to be in the ‘have-nots’.  And the ‘haves’ need to protect their position and privilege, identifying the true members of their tribe and separating out the wannabees.  Part of that identification process is codified in a person’s cultural knowledge.  It isn’t about enjoyment of cultural artefacts – what I am talking about is exposure to these things, and having something to say about them other than the dreaded – banned in class – ‘b’ word: boring.  The classes and lifestyles we tend to aspire to – if for no other reason than they seem to have more leisure time and/or disposable capital – have a working knowledge of many, many things dismissed by others as ‘elitist’.  Shakespeare is just a small item on a long, long list.  The big news is that if these things are elitist, it is often because the masses refuse to engage with them …

There are lots of Shakespeare parodies – what’s the problem?

Parody and satire are simply not the same as dumbing down.  They only work when you have a decent knowledge of the target involved – otherwise we are heading into the territory of mindless namecalling and ridicule.  I saw this recently in reading Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I wanted to enjoy but simply couldn’t.    It might have been the Spitting Image of its time, but I am too far away from that time to enjoy it.  Here are other examples:

I think it was a stroke of genius for Ian Doescher to create his William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series.  I wish I’d thought of it first, to be honest.  They’d be nothing without intimate familiarity with the Star Wars universe, Shakespeare’s writing style, and the plays themselves – for writer AND reader.  As I have suggested above, they may ‘date’, depending on the popularity of Star Wars …

The perenially-popular Reduced Shakespeare Company‘s success relies, absolutely, on a knowledge of the plays.  Otherwise, their irreverance will be completely lost on the audience.

My favourite Shakespeare pastiche has to be Sir Terry Pratchett‘s Wyrd Sisters.  No-one who reads it could doubt that Pratchett had an extensive knowledge of Hamlet, King Lear, and of course, Macbeth.  Naturally, you can read the book – and enjoy it – without that knowledge, but you will miss a lot of the joy of the novel.

Again, my challenge to those petitioning for Shakespeare to be dumbed down is to ask why and how these are so popular.  Why is Shakespeare quoted in Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek, Elvis Presley‘s songs, and hundreds of other cultural constructs?

While we’re here, let’s contrast those with No Fear Shakespeare and No Sweat Shakespeare.  In doing so, we need to acknowledge, objectively, that they are different products.  Setting aside the awful English of the latter, and its unhelpfully inaccurate translations of major soliloquies, my main issue is that they are actually useless as teaching tools.  I can only speak for the UK, where at GCSE and A Level there are NO POINTS AWARDED for translation or narrative summary.  It’s become one of my opening mantras, frequently repeated in marking and in class as exam season approaches for the older students.  If students write:

‘this means that ____’

they will fail.  The exam boards reward analysis: back to knowing the original words (increasingly important now that students cannot take books into the exams), and discussing how language is used to create an effect on the audience / reader.

Which nicely leads me to my final point about Shakespeare, and why dumbing down is pointless.

Shakespeare IS language, not plot.

I can’t emphasise this enough.  For so many of the reasons I have discussed above, Shakespeare is the journey, not the destination.  I don’t just read Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake.  There are thousands, if not millions, of texts where the path to true love doesn’t run smoothly, or where people are too ambitious, or jealous, or make poor decisions through love and misplaced loyalty.  There are a million practical jokes out there …

And probably a million jokes, but some people tell them better than others.

What makes Shakespeare’s storytelling is the way he does it, not the story he tells.  It is the way he is able to manipulate a limited vocabulary to pick the right word, the right phrase, the right technique, at the right time, to press our emotional and intellectual buttons.  People watched James Cameron‘s Titanic in droves (not me, as it happens) – but they all knew the boat would sink at the end.  They wanted his artistry in the storytelling. So, we appreciate James Cameron’s artistry, but not Shakespeare’s?

How do we fix this?

There is no easy solution.  Those of us who oppose this dumbing-down are fighting huge societal forces.  All I feel I can do as an individual is to communicate my enthusiasm and enjoyment at every opportunity, regardless of the response.  That, and emphasise as articulately as I can what I feel might be lost, what is at stake.  Stephen King wrote:

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

And the joy in Shakespeare IS a secret which so often lacks an ‘understanding ear’.

Nevertheless, I persist …

THANK YOU for at least reading, if you have got this far!


David Crystal,  Think On My Words – Exploring Shakespeare’s Language (Cambridge University Press:  Cambridge, 2008)

Peter Marks, ‘Dumbing down Shakespeare: Are Americans too intellectually lazy to appreciate his genius?’, 27 April 2017, accessed at The Washington Post

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness, (Viking: London, 1985)

Victor Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’, (1917), accessed via Warwick University


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