Book Review: How to Read Shakespeare by Maurice Charney


Charney begins with the presupposition — one that I agree with — that any intelligent person can read, understand, and appreciate the work of Shakespeare. This short and interesting book is Charney’s attempt to help that intelligent potential reader of Shakespeare along the way in the process of reading, understanding, and appreciating.

To anyone who had read, watched, and/or performed in more than a couple of Shakespeare plays most of what this book contains will not be new. For the potential or new reader, watcher, or performer of Shakespeare, however, this book will give you all in one dose the wisdom many of us have had to take a great deal of time and careful study to acquire.

While serving as a good brief introduction to the appreciation of Shakespeare, one must also be careful with some of Charney’s judgments, which are indeed his own. His treatment of character and psychology in Shakespeare is, for example, I believe, off the mark. He insists, for instance, that when characters behave in ways that might otherwise seem contrary to their personality as presented in the drama up to that point this is an indication that Shakespeare is communicating something else through them or has caused a rapid and necessarily unexplained development in character. On the contrary, I think Shakespeare was an acute enough observer of human nature to know that humans are inconsistent if they are anything at all, and so these character inconsistencies in his plays are altogether natural.

Nonetheless, Charney does here offer an introduction to Shakespeare that will be appreciated by anyone who wishes to approach the Bard’s work and will, in turn, aid in the development of an appreciation for that work.

Education and the person

At the heart of the debate over education in the United States and elsewhere in the modern world is a debate over the nature of a human being. On the one hand, there are those who deny that there is any such thing or assert, at least, that if such a thing exists it is malleable. The purpose of an education from this perspective, then, must be to shape the raw human material into the desired mold. In the 20th century, this model became the dominant model in American public education. The education system has seen its task as one of making the human being into the desired product: a worker, a consumer, and a “good citizen.” On the other hand, however, is the traditional approach to education, which sees the task of the educator not in making the person, but in leading the person along the path of discovery of self and world. As Russell Kirk points out in his essay “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” the purpose of a liberal education is “not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.”

The disappearance of the classics from public school curriculums and even from institutions of higher education across the United States is both a symptom and, in turn, a reinforcing cause of the current crisis in education. If human nature is malleable, the classics can safely be ignored. What does Socrates have to do with the modern world? In addition, with the theory that human nature is amorphous necessarily comes the elimination of any notion of an ideal human. If there is no human nature, there can be none who represent the greatest embodiments of or elucidations upon that nature. As a result, the very notion of classics can safely be discarded.

The irony here is markedly obvious, however. Faculty members of university humanities departments across the nation bewail the decline of majors in the humanities, while obstinately remaining blind to the causes of the destruction within themselves. By undermining the criteria by which certain books can be held up as the greatest literary achievements of mankind and extolled as classics of enduring value and significance, these professors have undermined their own existence as employed teachers of literature.

The result is that an ever increasing number of students are coming from public schools where the emphasis is on, as the newest curriculum fade phrases, it “college and career readiness.” These students then enter colleges and universities to seek degrees in fields which are seen as the most promising for a future career. They are trained, not educated, to enter the workforce and become “productive.” The means by which this can be achieved are twofold. There is, first, ignoring the question of human nature altogether. The student is instead distracted with a focus on technology and vocational training. The second is to indoctrinate the student along the way with a desire to be a “good citizen,” a person who fits into the mold of whatever ideal the state currently espouses.

All of this is, of course, a distortion and, often, a destruction of the human being. Man is not primarily and merely the producer, the wage-earner, or the voter. Each of these is, in fact, a perversion of some aspect of authentic human nature. Man is not merely a producer, but a creator, an entity with curiously and imagination. He is not a wage-earner and a voter, but a political animal, a creature made for social cooperation and communion with his fellow creatures.

If true liberal education is to be revived in the United States, the first step in the process is a restoration of a traditional understanding of human nature. It must be understood first that human nature is immutable. It must first be understood that Plato was the same sort of thing we today are. We must realize, as Russell Kirk says, that “Aristophanes and Socrates retain high significance for us” and that “Thucydides and Plutarch” have can teach us “much about our present time of troubles.” Only after the immutability of human nature has been established and accepted as fact can man at least fulfill the dictum at the heart of human life: “know thyself.”

It is only from this stance that the proper means and ends of education can be pursued. The educator, and the institution of which he is a part, must acknowledge and celebrate the immensity and permanence of the thing before them: the individual human being. It is then that the educator may set about discovering this thing rather than haphazardly and brutally attempting to force it into a mold into which it will not fit.