Shakespeare of Main Street: How We Should Teach English

Evidence for the claim that Shakespeare did not write Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and the rest, is often cited reasoning that an uneducated farm-boy moved to the city lacks the formal education necessary to explain the depth of knowledge, experience, and wisdom found in the plays.

Though prowess with language is not necessarily a school learned skill, the rebuttal to the Shakespeare as author naysayers is found in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. For one thing, Shakespeare indeed was educated. Says Greenblatt, “…[Shakespeare] was sent to the Stratford free grammar school, whose central educational principle was total immersion in Latin.” Portland Public Schools should adopt the school’s method. The school day ran for twelve hours, six days a week, year round. “The curriculum made few concessions to the range of human interests: no English history or literature; no biology, chemistry, or physics; no economics or sociology; only a smattering of arithmetic.” What did they study, then? Latin. Latin was the sole subject, but from their Latin studies came everything else, including reading and performing ancient plays, providing the students with exposure to a world peopled with characters caught in life’s web, preparing students, no doubt, to navigate that web skillfully and purposefully. “And,” says Gleenblatt, “the instruction was not gentle: rote memorization, relentless drills, endless repetition, daily analysis of texts, elaborate exercises in imitation and rhetorical variation, all backed up with the threat of violence.” Sounds like the Catholic high school I went to; well, the threat of violence part, anyway.

So Shakespeare was educated, but still steeped in folk culture. He chose not to write in Latin, but in the language of his home, countryside, and city – the vernacular of his time. In any case, Shakespeare does not appear in his plays. Greenblatt explains that “virtually all of [Shakespeare’s] close relatives were farmers…he seems to have taken in everything about this rustic world, and he did not subsequently seek to repudiate it or pass himself off as something other than what he was.” If there are snobs in a Shakespeare audience, they don’t know what they are hearing.

And, as it turns out, what they are hearing is akin to what they will hear today if they open their ears to the speech of Main Street, as is evidenced by new research and a new play being performed at the University of Kansas in the original pronunciation of Shakespeare, a pronunciation that we might recognize as coming from someone in our own family.

How should we teach English? By immersing our students, as Shakespeare was immersed, but not in Latin, in English, in English literature.