• June 2nd, 2020

The significance of William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in education: Part 1

Professor Jairos Kangira

One of the most studied writers in the history of mankind is British playwright William Shakespeare, whose first play titled Henry VI Part 2, was first performed in 1590 in Britain. Despite the number of centuries between 1590 and now, it is not only fascinating but also astounding that we still find Shakespeare’s works being prescribed and studied in schools, colleges of education and universities throughout the world, including in Namibia.

 It is arguably said that one would not have studied English without reading Shakespeare or Charles Dickens or Chaucer, among the British literary giants. But let me leave Dickens and Chaucer for another day. The present focus remains Shakespeare.

 Despite the ubiquity of Shakespeare’s works in very corner of the world, there is often debate as to whether it is really necessary to bother students in this age with reading his works which were written a long time ago. Some argue that William Shakespeare’s works are daunting to English language learners and teachers. The major reasons given are that the Shakespeare’s English is difficult to understand and that most of the words used in the works are archaic. Also, some students find the stories outdated and boring. 

“No, it’s not significant to study Shakespeare’s works because of the ancient language used, and we don’t use it anymore. Learners will also not understand it,” commented one English teacher at a recent workshop.

Notwithstanding these negative perceptions, we continue to use Shakespeare’s works in our school curricula and university curricula, meaning that there are some subtle and overt reasons or benefits for doing so. My thesis is that Shakespeare’s works are significant in the 21st century for a variety of reasons. Broadly speaking, there is a lot for our students to learn from Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, history plays and poems (sonnets) as the two installments of this article will demonstrate.

My interaction with English teachers and academics in Namibia and Zimbabwe has proved that Shakespeare’s writings are most welcome in our education systems.  It is true that the themes or issues that are covered in Shakespeare’s works are relevant to today’s society. Some of the themes are love, friendships, debauchery, power struggles and assassinations, deceit, justice, injustice, greed, jealous, ambition, racism, anti-Semitism, corruption, betrayal, influence, temptation, quilt and remorse, ghosts and visions, usury and money lending, and witticism. As far as usury and money lending are concerned, what comes into mind straight way are Cash Loans in Namibia. 

These and other issues have transcended centuries, and there is no doubt that the same issues will go over time into the future, thereby making Shakespeare’s works significant in those future times. 

“Yes, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are significant – the themes in his plays are the same situations that happen in today’s world. His plays are fun and have intrigue and mystery and some have tragedies something that interest the learners,” said another English teacher at a recent workshop.

For University of Namibia literature expert, Dr Nelson Mlambo, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are indispensable and a requisite for English major students. “Shakespeare’s literary works bring to the fore literary universals that are as relevant to our everyday lives as they were centuries ago. Delving into Shakespeare’s plays brings that sense of verisimilitude to the reader – that quality of seeming true or having the appearance of being real,” commented Mlambo.

True to Dr Mambo’s words, my Master of English Shakespeare students always look forward to their lecturers where we share the pleasures of reading or studying Shakespeare. These students love Shakespeare so much that they are always chatting the themes and characters in the plays that they are studying. They created a Shakespeare WhatsApp group in which I am included and I enjoy the discussions that go on there.

 Their class discussions are centred on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, The Tragedy of Macbeth, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part 1 and Part 2, and the sonnets. We have even come up with a Shakespeare Night concept, where the students are going to dramatize some major parts of two Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. The students’ ability to tackle Shakespeare and their ability to relate and apply issues to their current environment are clear testimony that Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are relevant to the Namibian context. 

I have been at meetings where people have wrongfully argued that the Namibian child is not ready to read and understand Shakespeare. This is a fallacious and inappropriate argument which needs to be dismissed with the contempt it deserves. I know of schools that are studying Shakespeare’s King Lear. I want to congratulate these schools and urge others to introduce Shakespeare’s works in their curricula. The good thing is that Shakespeare’s plays are now available in modern day English. This means students will not have to struggle with the difficult language when they use the new versions of the books.

 Next week I will demonstrate that Shakespeare was able to coin or develop new words and phrases which we use in English up to this day. The advice “All that glitters is not gold” is one of the many expressions popularised by Shakespeare. 

Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: kjairos@gmail.com

New Era Reporter
2019-04-12 09:29:03 | 1 years ago


  1. User
    Vita Angula

    Wow!!! This article took me back to memory lane in my high school year of Gr. 11 and 12 where we did Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. It is good to learn that Shakespeare is now available in modern English as it was really a struggle back then to understand the language. But we had a good teacher in Mr. Slabbert who taught us English writing skills which I incorporate in my writing today. We were taught about innuendo, evoking catharsis, hidden humour and how to create a plot when writing. I would like Mr. Kagira of UNAM to host a workshop to train people on how to incorporate Shakespeare in their writing. Lady Macbeth and the Machiavellian conspiracies can be used to understand the origins of power struggles within Namibia's bodi-politic and how they play out. This is really a truly refreshing article to read. Keep it up Mr. Kagira.