400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death: Why we still teach his works today

April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, yet he’s just as famous.

It's the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death this year.
It’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year. Photo Credit: iStock

Curriculums may change and reading lists get revamped, but one thing’s sure to stay the same — Shakespeare will always be taught in the classroom.

April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, yet one may question his mortality: Shakespeare’s work is just as popular today as it was centuries ago.

“He was hugely famous in his time and hugely famous now,” said Michael Sexton, artistic director of the Shakespeare Society, an NYC-based nonprofit that works to keep the playwright’s texts exciting and relevant through educational programs and workshops in schools.

As the anniversary approaches, we spoke with Sexton and Shakespeare Society president Ann McDonald about the writer’s enduring relevance and how kids can best connect with his text.

Making Shakespeare fun

For most students, sitting at their desk and reading Shakespeare with no action can be very dull.

“Get them up on their feet,” said McDonald, who believes a more hands-on style of learning, where kids are able to act out the plays, is the best way to teach them. “We help the teachers and collaborate, and they engage with them and get energized.”

Teaching emotional intelligence

Learning Shakespeare goes beyond understanding his language and having fun acting. McDonald has seen students understand complex feeling by studying his works.

“Shakespeare teaches one of the closest observations of the human condition. He teaches emotional intelligence,” McDonald said.

This benefit is the reason to teach Shakespeare, Sexton said.

“You get compassion and seeing things from multiple points of view,” he said. “Pleasure and understanding are the two biggest benefits [of reading Shakespeare].”

The modern English question

Some schools teach Shakespeare in modern English to help make his Elizabethan English more relatable. There is even a book series, OMG Shakespeare, with titles like “YOLO Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night #Nofilter,” that updates some of the Bard’s most famous plays with text-speak. Modernizing Shakespeare is one of McDonald’s biggest pet peeves.

“I don’t approve of it at all, it’s completely wrong,” she said. “It’s the language that’s the point, and how characters express themselves in the language they use.”

AMNY Newsletter

Eat it. Drink it. Do it. Tackle the city, with our help.