When he is not trying to under- stand his excellent dog, Willow (a Great Dane), Jim Knapp teaches Shakespeare at Loyola University Chicago. He's not sure how he got there, but he suspects it had something to do with the support of his great family. He's also a little worried it had something to do with reading books.
why take a shakespeare class?
by Jim Knapp
If you have no interest in love, bitterness, hope, treachery, joy, remorse, or reconciliation, then by all means do not study Shakespeare. If you want to know the world only according to its physical laws, Shakespeare will seem unreason- ably messy. Human interaction is unpredictable, incomprehensible, infuriating, and sometimes moving. Taking a Shakespeare class will not help you do your taxes or avoid death (the two things most often cited as unavoidable), but it will bring a new level of understanding to the days you spend between your first 1099 and your last breath. Every college class is valuable for a different reason. I don’t want to drive across a bridge de- signed by an engineer who did not study materi- als science or have heart surgery performed by someone who has never taken organic chemistry. But I also don’t want to live in a world in which we fail to attend to the human interactions that
are the substance of our lives, the experiences that teach us how to love, risk, fail, regret, forgive, and recover. I think of Shakespeare as a kind of language labo- ratory. Just as scientists ask questions about the physical world, like “How do infectious diseases spread?” humanists ask questions about how we experience the world we share with others, ques- tions like “What is love?” A scientist may ask this question too, but the scientific answer—a col - lection of chemical responses in the brain, per- haps—will not account for the imagery, poetry, and music that love has inspired humans to pro- duce in every era. But why Shakespeare? Because Shakespeare has played a monumental role in shaping the conversation about those human interactions in the English speaking world for the last 400 plus years. The most complex human problems come
to life on Shakespeare’s stage. When we think of love, we see Romeo calling up to Juliet on the balcony; when we consider how destructive the human drive for power can be, we recall Mac- beth’s lament that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”; and if we contemplate our very existence, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” sets the terms. Even the most contemporary societal problems rising from be- liefs about gender, nation, race, and religion are played out in Shakespeare’s texts and in produc- tions of the plays (take, for example, The Taming of the Shrew , Henry V, Othello , and The Merchant of Venice ). Unlike science or math, there is no for- mula that we can teach in a Shakespeare course that will produce consistent outcomes leading to the tidy resolution of these problems. But to learn how to think and talk about the human arena of life, the way we experience our relationships and ourselves, a Shakespeare class is what you are looking for.
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