Shakespeare has long been considered an indomitable force of literature and language. He created some of what is now common English, set a new bar for storytellers of all fields, and has somehow endured the test of time to still be taught in academia of all levels today.
But today’s students are not his biggest fans.
It has often been said that the reason Shakespeare is still read today is because the subject matters of his plays are still relevant and still relatable. The great Bard wrote on a great many things, but when all is boiled down, it was ultimately about the human condition, and despite over 400 years having passed, we are still very much human.
Further evidence for the enduring relevance of Shakespeare is the unending stream of Shakespeare-inspired cinema. The films range from faithful adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, or Coriolanus, to more liberally influenced films, such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Unfortunately for Shakespeare, film is the only way many people experience his works.
Perhaps given the changing landscape of information, paper copies of Shakespeare may become an endangered species. The generation of millennials, including myself, grew up in a world where we have access to almost any information we wish to know, and we are able to access it almost instantaneously. This has programmed us into a state of instant gratification where our attentions are shorter and span of patience even more so.
A 2015 study conducted by Microsoft showed that by the year 2013, the average human attention span had decreased to 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. Our new attention span is, shockingly, less than that of the average goldfish. The study also showed that this attention deficit is connected to our new dependence on smartphones and other technology, and that “addictive technology behaviors” are vastly more prevalent in young people between the age of 18 and 24.
The study goes on to discuss various psychological and cognitive effects technology is having to cause this attention deficit, but now for the really important question: What does this mean for Shakespeare?
A biology major in her junior year told Global Young Voices she would “probably not” read Shakespeare, even if it were presented to her. Asked about the reason, the student said: “I want to read something not for biology, I don’t want to have to pick through something and decipher a meaning. I just want to read for fun!”
A freshman responded in a similar fashion, stating: “They are very long and they do not appeal to me. I don’t like Shakespeare plays because the language is hard to understand.”
And finally, a senior elementary education major responded, “I understand the value of Shakespeare, and think it’s good to study him at some point. But I couldn’t read any Shakespeare by myself, it is just too much work.”
Almost all students have something along the same lines to say. They wouldn’t read Shakespeare because the language is too difficult, or it is just too dense.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s literature is dying out. We no longer read his works for our own amusement, but now only when our English teachers or professors assign it to us. Nobody is contesting that the works of Shakespeare are not literary milestones, but perhaps future generations may be more likely to enjoy his legacy through the silver screen instead of paper.
Cover credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV