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