“we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” if you’re a first-year undergraduate student, whether you’re studying english or not, you’ve probably encountered this line. it’s from shakespeare’s “the tempest” and it’s … well, it’s beautiful poetry and, once you understand it, it makes perfect sense. but i’ll tell you what it’s absolutely not. english. like the language. it’s not any language you or i speak and it’s not the language we should be learning. there’s nothing wrong with studying shakespeare if you’re looking to understand historical theater or the early development of the english language. but to study it as a way to learn to read, write and speak better in the modern world? shakespeare spoke and wrote english worse than the average first-grader in the modern world. and we have to admit that and move on. studying historical literature has no place in the modern classroom except in specialty study courses for those specifically interested in language history and it’s time we acknowledged this and acted on it.
dreams of prosperous arcana
let’s start with that quote as a good example. the first time you read that as a modern english speaker (or as a hopeful english learner who thinks they’re confused because they don’t understand the language well enough), it is meaningless. you feel like you get it and when someone asks you what it means you just stare blankly at them. there are a few ways this can be interpreted and, like all poetry, it’s not that one is more correct than another but here’s one way to see it.
“we are such stuff as dreams are made on …”
let’s turn that into modern english. “i’m nothing more than my dreams …” would be a good start. this has two obvious meanings. one is that my dreams are a reflection of my life and my life reflects the things that are important enough to me to dream about. and my dreams are no more or less real than my life because everything in the real world is mitigated and filtered through my perceptions and senses, exactly the same as my dreams. no, the explanation isn’t anything special. it’s shifting it to modern english that made the difference.
“… and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
again, let’s do the same thing — “… and i will someday fall into permanent sleep“. i won’t get into the details of the shift from distributed-singulars shifting to matched-plurals or the transposition of prepositions and adverbs in functional rather than imaginary or contemplative language as these are irrelevant unless you’re specifically studying the technicalities of language evolution. but this is a reminder not to dismiss the importance of the things you dream about — you already spent nearly half your life asleep, living in a dream world. and it’s a good reflection of your environment and what’s important to you. but, more significantly, you will soon be transformed into nothing more than sleep and spend the rest of eternity in that state, either consumed by fire or buried under a couple of meters of dirt. when prospero says it in the play, everyone takes it to be beautiful fantasy but it’s a far darker pair of ideas than it seems at first glance.
that being said, though, i suspect you have already grasped the main idea here. the problem with comprehension has little to do with the complexity of the ideas and depends completely on the modernization of the language. this is why, when i have no choice but to teach shakespeare, i treat it like any other foreign-language literature and teach it in translation. there is no merit to taking students through the original language. whether you think it’s beautiful or not (and in many cases i agree it’s lovely), it’s not modern or functional english and it serves no purpose or benefit for students to learn it. this, of course, isn’t just true of shakespeare — it’s true of all historical literature — or just english — there’s no point at all teaching the romance of the three kingdoms in its original language in china, the tale of genji in ancient japanese or the original life of saint alexis in pre-french french.
i suspect someone is going to ask me why. so i’ll get that out of the way up-front. the answer is another question. two questions, in fact. why do we teach english and what’s the purpose of language?
why do we teach english?
we teach english to make sure people can do four things — understand it when they hear it, speak it comprehensibly, read it without difficulty and write it clearly for any modern audience to read. let’s take a look at whether historical literature is useful for any of these four purposes. if you think there are other purposes, that’s fine. and there probably are some but i suggest these are the primary four and most educational guidelines will support me on that — take a look at the college board’s reference for evaluating english language and literature courses, for example, the segmentation of the toeic and ielts exams or the assessment breakdown from your local department of education’s english curriculum documents and you’ll find this same four-way split — it won’t just be in english. whatever language you’re learning, unless it’s not a complete language in the modern sense (if it doesn’t have both spoken and written components), this will be how it’s talked about. there are other aspects like poetic beauty and aesthetics but those aren’t significant factors in fundamental language education, as much as i might wish they were.
let’s take another famous line from shakespeare, something that’s said all the time, as an example.
”all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. they have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.”
it’s from “as you like it” if you want to find it and, other than fixing the horrendous punctuation and versification as segregate lines, i’ve left it as it appears in the original. if you don’t understand it, that’s ok. if you do, it’s probably because you were forced to study it in schools and it has nothing to do with comprehension, only memorization.
this is frequently only quoted as the first five words but let’s be complete about it and reach for the whole sense of it. here’s a modern version (from my translation of “as you like it” to contemporary english if you’re curious) — “we act constantly, playing parts we’re assigned by the world, our roles assigned by chance, shifting from one to another as our lives evolve.” i suspect now you understand.
and that’s the key here. it’s not that i’m a better writer — though i certainly assume i can, after several hundred years of literary evolution, at least claim that, as can any modern writer. it’s that i am speaking a different language. more importantly, i’m speaking the same one you do (at least in this moment) and that’s the key. when you hear a sentence or a story, even a word, you are parsing that through the automated language filter you’ve learned over months, years and decades. it’s not only the filter for english but logic and other languages. primarily, though, it’s english. and there is a pattern you expect. when something breaks the pattern and words are shifted from the normal flow of contemporary communication, we don’t just have more difficulty parsing them for meaning. we simply don’t process them at all.
as written language, if something is confusing, we study and break things down and get dictionaries and reference books and figure them out. sometimes. at least, we are tempted to and sometimes too lazy to finish the process. but, when we are confronted with confusing spoken language, the brain simply shuts down and walks away. it goes in one ear and out the other and it is as if nothing ever happened. if you’ve ever had the experience of sitting in a lecture-theater listening to a speaker who didn’t say things in a comprehensible way, you’ll know exactly what i’m talking about. it’s not that you have to let it sink in. it’s that you walk out more bewildered than you walked in and the whole thing was worse than a waste of time — you actually feel worse about yourself and your understanding because you’ve put in so much effort and the result has been exactly nothing.
this is, of course, why many bad lecturers give their students printed notes in advance to follow in class. certainly not only bad lecturers do this. but those are especially useful. if you have it in writing, it’s far easier to understand even if it’s spoken so badly the mind would ignore it as senseless. but perhaps a better approach would be to fix the problem at its source — not have the language butchered so flagrantly on stage so we can understand it simply from hearing it once. that’s not the same as hearing language and not understanding the content. you can hear something and not get it because the content is complex. the brain can process that. but if the language is confused the content is irrelevant. this is the experience of historical english being heard. it is, therefore, far more problematic than simply being useless — it is demoralizing and a waste of time for students.
on the other side of this coin, shakespeare (remember, i’m using shakespeare as an example and proxy for all historic literature in english and, by extension, in any language whose teaching is attempted through its literature) is often used as a way to get students to speak in class. why do we get students to speak in this way? well, two reasons. confidence and practice. on the confidence side, it is far easier to speak in public if you don’t have to think of the words. it doesn’t matter what you say. if you get in front of people and say things, it will gradually become easier to do it when it appears again as part of your life. you will likely have to talk to groups in the future. it’s a worthwhile skill to learn as a student. and, as it doesn’t matter what you say for the desensitization to occur, you may think shakespeare makes a totally-adequate foundation for this exercise.
but you’d be wrong. because this can go one of two ways — either the student can gain confidence or lose it. and what determines that result is whether it goes well. shakespeare’s writing is full of ancient words and grammatical structures, patterns no modern english-speaker is used to forming and sounds that are unfamiliar in the mouth. if you’re used to reciting shakespeare, this is no problem. but, if you’re a young student and this is your first experience of this arcane nonsense, the result will be that you will stumble over it and it will do something worse than continue your fear of speaking in public — it will compound your embarrassment by showing you that even if you don’t have to think about the content you’ll still fuck it up. this isn’t a great way to encourage confidence in young people, is it? it might not be great to get them to start by reading their own writing but something they can easily read would have a much higher potential success rate and you can start there and build on a strong foundation of positive experience.
the other reason we just came up with was practice. language is about modified-mirroring. you take patterns and shift them to say the things you want to say. you don’t generally make whole new ones. and that makes perfect sense because if you came up with your own patterns, the more distant they were from common speech, the harder they would be to understand.
all language is a mixture of creativity and expectation. this is where the problem comes from. shakespeare isn’t writing the language of our expectations. he’s writing the language of the expectations of his audience, hundreds of years in the past. if we spend our time reciting shakespeare, we are developing a library of patterns in our minds that is completely useless in the modern english world. it could actually be harmful. but even if those patterns never make appearances in our everyday speech, they are at best useless when we could be learning functional ones from modern work.
reading is a combined exercise of expectation and breaking patterns. we don’t read every letter of every word. our words are made of predictable patterns. the human mind isn’t capable of processing letters quickly enough to be functionally-useful if we have to study every shape on the paper. we get used to patterns. we treat sentences the same way. there are expected sets of words that come together and, when we see a break from that pattern, we pay attention. reading speed isn’t constant. it fluctuates and shifts depending on what’s on the page in front of us at the time. some phrases read quickly while others take more processing time. it’s mostly automatic. when we read something like a modern newspaper-article, this process is fairly streamlined and gets easier the more we practice. when reading something arcane, though, with words and patterns we aren’t used to, the whole exercise becomes slow and cumbersome.
we can no longer read at the speed of our thoughts. and this is harmful for two reasons — patterning is about practice and reading-confidence is about success. let’s start with the more obvious of these. confidence in reading, something many students today desperately lack, is built on a history of success. if you read something well, you’ll expect to read the next thing well. have difficulty and you’ll always expect to continue with the same result. this is why we don’t give six-year-olds thousand-page textbooks to read and why we don’t give beginner english students the new york times editorial page. we try to give people the language at their level of complexity, perhaps just slightly above it but certainly not far from their current reading level. anything else would be negligence or, potentially, sabotage.
from this perspective, shakespeare is unexpected for any modern english reader. it is unfair to expect them to read it and it is simply a source of demoralization.
it’s actually worse, though, when we look at the other issue. reading is about practice as is almost any other skill. let’s say you’re learning to kick a ball on the soccer field. you kick the ball and your coach tells you to do it differently. you try that and it’s better so they tell you to practice a hundred times. kick the ball and do it again. after a hundred repetitions, you’re doing it perfectly using their improved process. you feel far better about it and the ball goes where you want. another thousand kicks like that and it feels totally natural. you’d never do it any other way. now imagine someone takes your ball and puts an off-center weight in it. your kick doesn’t work anymore. you have to adjust. do that a hundred times. or a thousand. you’ll definitely get the hang of it but what will that do to you next time you’re playing with a modern, balanced ball? brutal confusion. you’ve just practiced an error into your automatic memory.
in a phrase, you’ve fucked yourself up. this is what happens when you read shakespeare. every time you read, you’re programming your automated reading skill with patterns and expectations, allowing it to work more coherently and quickly. if you start feeding it something other than modern english to learn, it will take that input and the result will be your memory of the language will be skewed. it will slow your processing of the modern phrases because the expectations won’t necessarily be the same. your pattern-recognition will degrade and you’ve spent many thousands of repetitions practicing an error (at least from the perspective of the modern language). this actually has a more fundamental impact but isn’t this already a bad enough result for someone attempting to be a better reader?
the impact beyond reading, though, spills into writing. we write the way we speak merged with what we’ve read. writing, practically-speaking, is the result of millions of repetitions of sentences being heard, spoken and read. now we’re just taking those existing patterns and transposing them in our heads to turn around and put them on paper or screen to communicate something new, something important to us. we use what we’ve learned through the magic of pattern-recognition, reconstruction and mirroring to create a new product — comprehensible language.
if our practice is firmly-rooted in modern english, the result will be coherent and understandable. if we confuse that practice, it will be like trying to kick that off-center soccer-ball. some sentences will sound natural while others will be decidedly skewed.
this has a knock-on effect of failed confidence, by the way. writing something well means success, praise, comprehension. it’s a positive-feedback loop. writing something that gets stares and confusion simply convinces a student they’re a bad writer. and that’s rarely motivation to become a better one. a single failure can be enough to destroy an academic mind and demoralize a student for life — show me a job in the modern world where writing well isn’t an asset and i’ll show you a job that should be done by a machine. seriously, even if you build houses or fix cars for a living, are you really going to tell me writing well wouldn’t get you more clients, better business, help you feel more comfortable if you have to deal with the government or get taken to court? there’s no downside to writing well. there are myriad upsides. let’s not sabotage the students. not everyone will be an amazing writer. everyone can be a competent, confident one.
what’s the purpose of language?
this brings us to the purpose of language. why do we learn it? it’s not because it gets us school credit. it does. but that’s certainly not the main reason. we study language to communicate. some of us study because we want to communicate beautifully. but most of us study because we want to communicate fluidly, naturally, comprehensibly. we don’t want there to be boundaries between our thoughts and our audience.
shakespeare was a popular entertainer. i want you to think about that phrase then look at these examples.
“crack mothers, crack babies and aids patients. youngbloods can’t spell but they could rock you in playstation.” (mos def)
“my life owes me. like an overdose, i’m slowly drifting into the arms of trouble then trouble holds me” (k’naan)
“y’all cowards couldn’t rap this dope with a zig-zag.” (shad)
“you hate it before you played it. i already forgave ya.” (j cole)
“for all of those who wanna profile and pose. rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone.” (prodigy)
“this above all, to thine own self be true and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” (hamlet)
“the fault, dear brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (julius caesar)
“that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” (romeo and juliet)
“parting is such sweet sorrow, that i shall say good night till it be morrow.” (romeo and juliet)
“uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” (henry iv)
no, there’s nothing wrong with these lines as song lyrics. they’re a little odd but it might make a little more sense to think of shakespeare in these terms. he wasn’t writing high-literature. he wasn’t speaking the best, most polished language of his time. he wasn’t communicating deep ideas and sage words of wisdom. he was entertaining the masses with colloquial, informal, idiomatic speech. and we have taken that and treated it like it’s literary gold because it’s unfamiliar. it’s orientalism taken to the extreme because instead of being from a thousand kilometers away it’s from the past and we are so detached from that linguistic and cultural reality it’s foreign and exciting like a magic lamp from a dark, middle-eastern cave with the potential of genies and wishes and dreams come true.
language is about saying something meaningful. about communicating. it’s about being understood. if your words are confusing to your audience, you’ve failed. not your audience. well, maybe they’ve failed, too. but you haven’t successfully shared anything with them.
reading and writing, speaking and listening are fundamental to our language learning. we have to do them well or we simply fail in life. if we can’t communicate our humanity within our cultures, how can we participate as humans in our own lives? it is our duty as teachers to give students the tools to develop their own shared humanity. language is the most powerful of those tools. but by allowing arcane language, especially classic, traditional literature, in our classrooms and curriculums, we are skewing the equation and destroying the greatest potential for success our students currently have.
if you want proof of this, you don’t have to look anywhere but on the internet. how often have you read things written online and asked yourself “where did they learn to write?” or “don’t they even know english?” — your judgment is your proof and your justification at the same time. look at what is being said in movies and television. cultivate an awareness of just how badly modern english is spoken. language is only useful if it’s standardized. look at the variation present in every moment of our linguistic interactions. of course it’s confusing. of course it’s confused. of course it’s our fault. we haven’t served our students very well and we should be ashamed of dragging them through the darkness of historical language. but we can do better.
the real question, though, is if we will. will we walk away from the shadows of the expectation that shakespeare, bronté and keats are worthwhile for students and instead teach them contemporary literature as models for their language? i certainly hope so. give it some thought. i suspect you’ll wake up from your arcane dreams of nurturing the next shakespeare. i hope, instead, you nurture the next great writer. one whose name we don’t know yet. because tomorrow’s english hasn’t yet been written and it won’t be the language of the past. thanks for taking the time to explore this with me. may you find peace between the pages today.