Resist Dystopia: Learn to Enjoy Reading Shakespeare

At the conclusion of Technopoly, Neil Postman lays out his concept of the “loving resistance fighter,” someone who keeps an open heart and a strong hold on the symbols and narratives of liberty, honor, intelligence, etc., that made America (and, by extension, other modern democracies) great, while deliberately resisting the coarsening, dumbing, soul-killing influence of the modern-day totalitarian technocracy.

This essay by Joseph Smigelski, community college English instructor in Northern California, strikes me as falling right in line with Postman’s vision. It also resonates with Ray Bradbury and Morris Berman: it’s a clear, doable, and direct way of enacting the monastic option amid our Fahrenheit 451-like circumstance.

The other day, I received a letter from a friend who wrote, “Unfortunately, I find him almost impossible to understand…. Is there a secret to comprehending Shakespeare? I’d really like to read him, and any hints would be appreciated.” My friend is not a philistine but a well-read woman who struggled through the major plays in school and has seen various theatrical productions and film versions of them. She obviously respects and values the immortal words of William Shakespeare and would like to join ranks with the many who enjoy reading him. So I was distressed by her candid admission of having such difficulty with his language. I am sure that many of you will sympathize with her and agree in a knee-jerk fashion that, yes, Shakespeare is indeed impossible to understand. But I think the problem is not with William Shakespeare but with you. Before you take offense, let me explain.

The first thing you have to do when confronting Shakespeare is break down the wall of resistance that has been constructed between you and him by a cultural atmosphere fraught with willful misunderstanding. For instance, how many times have you heard someone say that Shakespeare wrote in Old English or Middle English? That right there might be enough to put you off. But both of those claims are patently false … Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, the same language that we speak today … Your problem with understanding Shakespeare is due to his language being poetic. Most of your everyday discourse has become so pedestrian that your ears have become unable to tune in to language that aspires to greater heights. This may or may not be your fault. We all are aware that the state of education in this country is woefully bleak. But why submit to the prevailing philistine attitude without a fight?

… Whatever else you do, be sure to avoid such abominations as the “No Fear Shakespeare” and the “Shakespeare Made Easy” series, both of which should be more aptly titled “The Reader Made Stupid” series.

… [R]emember the old saying: Nothing worth having comes easily. The enjoyment kicks in when you really start to get it, when you finally meet William Shakespeare on his own turf and his language begins to open new doors in your consciousness.

— Joseph Smigelski, “How to Enjoy Reading Shakespeare,” The Huffington Post, April 7, 2010

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on September 13, 2012, in Arts & Entertainment, Education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Steven W. Bentley

    Many years ago, I worked in an affluent city filled with very well-to-do people, who certainly had the financial means to have the education that would appreciate the finer things in life. I, in fact, worked at the only book store in this city, one of the big chain stores with two floors, and millions of books. You know, the one that starts with a B and is still in business.
    I was helping a customer who claimed that her daughter were both in the Advanced Placement program, but needed to buy the Spark Notes for all of the reading they were being advanced towards, especially the works of William Shakespeare. She proceeded to explain to me how Nickolas Sparks was a better writer than William Shakespeare because “I can understand him”. I was stunned. I looked to her daughters, both happily texting away, dressed in the most expensive of clothing, and all but drooling on themselves. I looked at her, immaculately presented, with all of the reserve and poise a woman of her means could present, and the thought processes of a baboon.
    Pointing to the rack of Spark Notes, I could only bring myself to say “I believe that is an issue with the reader, ma”am.”
    She later returned demanding “that dinosaur book” all high school students were required to have. Unsure of what she was asking for, and trying to find out if it was a history, paleontological, or fiction work, the staff was unable to discern the book she was searching for. She was angry, red0faced, near screaming “The Dinosaur Book!” at our obviously ignorant staff.
    She left in an extreme huff, and returned some time later with her daughters syllabus. “This one!”, she yelled, thrusting the paper into my face.
    The dinosaur book.
    Of course.
    Thesaurus…
    This is all true. Is there even hope?

    • I hope it won’t sound too cartoonish if I offer the single-word response that presents itself as the most appropriate one here:

      Yikes.

      (Alternatively, two words would be “Holy hell.”)

      Thank you for the reality check, Steven.

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