SA Reviews: How to Think Like Shakespeare

For all of the gaps in our records of ancient literature, one could hardly say that didactic advice is underrepresented among the old Greeks and Romans. The ancient fondness for disquisitions on Learning, Its Greatness & How Achieved could be likened to the English fondness for the school novel. Surely, the process of achieving the first rudiments of learning was not pleasant in any case (consider Juvenal’s et nos ergo manum ferulae subduximus), but that learning, once acquired, serves as a launching point both for fond recollection and for proselytizing about its value and the proper method of attaining it. Before everyone was a critic, everyone was an educator.

This fondness for educational theorizing was inherited, like so much of ancient culture, by the various humanists of the Renaissance, many of whom selectively excerpted all of the choicest tags about learning, reading, wisdom, et cetera from a range of ancient sources to expound their own curriculum. Most of this could make for inspiring reading if one were already sold on the idea of a classical canon and its attendant collection of proprieties and ideals, but to the uninitiated observer, it might all seem like little more than a preposterous reactionary stance from those who ought to have known better. Indeed, it is hard not to notice that most of the ‘civilizing’ study of the Renaissance was directed at intentionally maintaining a social order among classes, and giving the upper crust the advantage of access to what was “most human” and liberal. Fundamentally antidemocratic though it was, it at least had the advantage that it recommended reading a couple of interesting texts.

Educational theorizing has continued apace into our own time, yet it has paradoxically become even more insidiously antidemocratic than it was when courtiers were writing recommendations to their wealthy pupils. While education now ostensibly lies open to all, the structure of American public schooling guarantees that the rich still have access to far more learning opportunities than the poor. The lack of public investment in our schools has led to a rapid and largely unprotested corporatization of the entire educational project. Moreover, it is considered hopelessly reactionary to suggest that perhaps students should have access to more than narrowly technical training. As a consequence, the ability to intentionally pursue a course of study in the arts and humanities has been made once again the special privilege of a wealthy elite. Following what could be a collapse in a large sector of the American university system as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its absurd mismanagement, it is hard not to worry that a university program in art, literature, history, etc. will become even more inaccessible to those who live in economically or socially precarious positions.

It may be that the broader project of the humanities will have to continue underfunded (or wholly unfunded) and without firm institutional support. In a sense, this will simply return us to the status quo before the apparently golden age of educational democratization which both expanded and collapsed in the 20th century. If such becomes the case, we will be in need of even more advocacy for the importance of broad (and broadly accessible) education in the humanistic tradition.

Scott Newstock’s book How to Think Like Shakespeare is in some ways misleadingly named. It is not really a book about Shakespeare. Indeed, it is a bit of a genre-bender. Part humanist manifesto, part commonplace book, it combines erudition and accessibility in an inviting package that is a joy to read. The book does not tell us anything new – and that’s the point. Much of the technocratic theory which drives education today is geared toward making students into corporate citizens, rather than citizens in the more traditional sense of members of a community.

As an educator at a public high school, I return to campus every fall with an acute sense of dread about what new educational fiction our school district has invested in for the new year. Invariably, there is new corporate jargon and a new set of boardroom-approved acronyms (already mastered so thoroughly by the school administrators by the time that you first hear it that you wonder whether you have missed something), and some new program conveniently aligned with a tech company’s latest eduscheme. Yes, every year, the school board, technology companies, and private consulting firms all contrive to make teaching more miserable than it was the year before, and each time the district invests tens of thousands of dollars on a conference introducing faculty to some new proprietary method or approach, you can be sure that even less of your time than ever will be spent on actually teaching.

To return to the point: the book does not feature any new or startling theories. Rather, it traces a string of thought and education which is less like a zip-line than like Ariadne’s thread. Thinking Like Shakespeare is more freighted with quotations than a Renaissance educational manual (it may even rival Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy), but they are all calculated to inspire the reader with an eagerness both to deepen and widen their reading through the whole range of intellectual endeavor from antiquity to the present.

While the book is titled Thinking Like Shakespeare, the bard himself serves as something more like an exemplar or organizational principle than a subject of the book. Newstock has incorporated the ancient sources which we (and Shakespeare) draw on so heavily, but the tangled thread is followed from antiquity through Elizabethan and early Stuart England, doubles back on itself slightly to consider Erasmus and Montaigne, and then loops and coils to incorporate Antonio Gramsci, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, John Ruskin, etc etc.

The whole project is illuminated by the quotation of that famous Terentian tag which has always been far more powerful when taken wholly out of context: Homo sum, nihil humani alienum a me puto. That is to say, Thinking Like Shakespeare does not tell you to reach for your quill pen and start making your way through North’s Plutarch. Rather, it is an encouragement to nourish the mind on the wonderfully wide and diverse cultural world of books, art, and music which give our lives richness, while shunning the corporatized mediocrity which Google Classroom or the Gates Foundation would impose upon us. Professor Newstock’s book is, indeed, a call for us to become intellectual omnivores, and goes some way to stimulate this appetite.

[Note: If you have a book which you would like to see reviewed in these humble digital pages, please drop us a line.]

William Page, Shakespeare Reading

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