New Era (Windhoek)

26 February 2013

Namibia: Are Shakespeare's Plays Relevant to Today's Society?

THIS article is prompted by the research conducted by Kangira (2011) on the relevance of Shakespeare's works to today's society. In his research he communicated with some English teachers. Some respondents stated Shakespeare's plays use Old English which is difficult for learners to understand, and the content is totally outdated. Let me take you back into history. Shakespeare's plays are written in Modern English not Old English. Old English was written and spoken in Britain from the 4th century to the middle 11th century and is closer to the Germanic mother tongue of the Anglo-Saxons.

With the arrival of the French speaking Normans in 1066, Old English underwent dramatic changes and by 1150 it had evolved into Middle English. By 1500 Middle English was replaced with Modern English - the language of Shakespeare which is almost identical to contemporary English.

Shakespeare's works have a lot of benefits, more than we can think of. I agree that Shakespeare used complex sentence structures that we fear. We can turn this fear into a challenge and view Shakespeare's works in the most positive way and raise reading interest and motivation.

If learners can figure out Shakespeare's codes, they'll be able to read almost anything that comes their way. They'll even grasp difficult concepts more quickly.

Most important is to make our learners aware of the language form they will be dealing with, in a motivational way.

We should do away with treating Modern English as a different language. It is different, but not different enough to be treated as a different language from contemporary English.

Furthermore, as teachers we should note that Shakespeare is benefiting both teachers and learners, his work encourages people to think deeply; irony and symbolism are not easy to figure out like in other texts. So, if we learn how to comprehend a simple story using a complex form of English, this will help us improve our reading skills and thinking abilities. I know it is hard to comprehend a story which uses the language form that is different from our modern everyday language form - but why are we scared of challenges?

Another remarkable thing about Shakespeare's works is that he improved the basic structure of English. He invented new words and phrases that we use today.

Shakespeare is credited with inventing about 2000 words. In his time, his plays were so popular that people considered using words and phrases from his plays in their everyday lives. The Elizabethans were dependent on borrowing words from other languages to describe new ideas, so instead of borrowing Shakespeare invented words that we can today consider as the offspring of Modern English.

By coining words and phrases, Shakespeare also laid a foundation for other writers to express themselves. So, teaching our learners Shakespeare's innovative use of vocabularies helps to show them how they can use the language they are born with in different ways.

This is also history. The fact that Shakespeare coined some words that we use today is history in itself.

Shakespeare also used poetic language. He wrote one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that express different ideas. If learners are exposed to these sonnets, they will be motivated to express themselves in an artistic way. Poetry is also an interesting way of engaging learners in deep thinking because it challenges them to use vocabularies to the fullest.

In addition, Shakespeare deals with themes that relate to current issues: family relationships, good, evil, political power, colonialism, hatred, jealousy. These themes are universal and have no time frame; they have been happening for thousands of years and are still happening right here in our society.

From Shakespeare we can learn about ourselves and people around us. For example, there are aspects of political power in some plays; how it is obtained, used and lost.

The learners may learn precautions that they will use in future. This will not become apparent until we expose ourselves to Shakespeare's works. It sometimes takes time to understand and appreciate, but eventually it pays off. You may take time to read the play again and again and immerse yourself in the language. The plays are not hard to understand as people put it. This false belief has become anchored in our minds and we are now scared to lay our hands on Shakespeare's works.

Shakespeare was not for one particular age but for all times. Hence, if you don't consider reading his works, you do not know what you are missing. I consider myself privileged to have read some of his works.

Rauna Mwetulundila is a Master of Arts in English student in the Department of Language and Literature Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Namibia.

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