Shakespeare’s modern-day application has come into question. Here’s why the Bard’s lessons are relevant even today.
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The past Tuesday and yesterday, November 1st and 2nd, are known as the Day of the Dead in some cultures, when dead ancestors at least figuratively return to be celebrated by their families and communities. That makes it a perfect day to think about the Shakespeare play “Hamlet,” in which the ghost of Hamlet’s recently killed father returns to give him a message.
Yet, over objections from Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s arts council recently chose to end government funding for Shakespeare in schools after 30 years. The reason provided was the lack of contemporary art relevance and that Shakespeare is part of a canon of imperialism. Some other countries and states have made similar decisions.
But I beg their pardon! My wife and I just recently saw Shakespeare’s relevance for schools at the renowned Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada. The matinee performance of Hamlet was filled with teenage students who were bussed in from many schools. They cheered loudly during the show and quickly gave it a rousing standing ovation at the end. My wife afterwards asked some about their reaction, and it was uniformly positive and perceptive.
Contemporary? It was done in modern dress and easily understood English. Not only that, but all the recent political problems and rapid-fire leadership changes in England and the United Kingdom may remind some of the abdicated Duke in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” but most worrisome about the potential lack of restoration of order after a bloodbath struggle for power in “Titus Andronicus,” where nobody remains unscathed.
Imperialism? “Hamlet”—for which there is a Chinese, African, and other cultural adaptations—was played convincingly by a Black woman.
Love? “Romeo and Juliet” portray the challenges of young intercultural passionate romance, which is increasing in our time.
Politics? “Macbeth” conveys the very unbridled leadership narcissism and sociopathy that can turn out murderous and destructive.
Feminism? “The Taming of the Shrew” portrays a woman who can fight back against misogyny.
Anti-Semitism? “The Merchant of Venice,” besides its focus on law and mercy, shows corrosive responses to anti-Semitism.
Racism? “Othello,” in which there is even a Hindu adaptation, tragically shows how structural racism can induce paranoia in a Black male in a white society.
Trauma? At the same festival, we also saw a new play titled “1939,” which depicted a residential school for the Indigenous in Canada where the often traumatized students were putting on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well,” though the ending here was more ambiguous than well.
Suicide? We know that suicide in increasing in teenagers. Hamlet’s famous speech, “To be or not to be,” may or may not be about suicide. His girlfriend Ophelia does die by suicide after his rejection. That might cause some educators to worry that watching that will stimulate suicidality in vulnerable students, but we know that asking about suicide often helps to prevent it.
Guilt? “Hamlet” ends with a guilt-infused poisoning of all the main characters connected to the murder of the King.
To do or not to do Shakespeare in schools? The themes are universal and timeless. Human nature has not changed much since the 16th century, and people like Shakespeare were the psychological experts of their time. I would say we need more, not less, of Shakespeare to teach the next generation the mental health and other lessons they will surely need to learn.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.