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by William Shakespeare

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How sad that in a four-year reading list only two Shakespeare plays are included! How can one justify not reading Hamlet or King Lear or A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Of course you can’t. There are really more than a dozen Shakespeare plays that a student should read—but that needs to happen down the road, after they have acquired a taste for Shakespeare, and after they have participated in the great conversation from ancient times till now.

So where to begin with Shakespeare? That question is answered partially by thinking about where not to begin. Many of his plays are far too ambiguous and demanding for high school students—Hamlet, for example. I still can’t fathom Hamlet, so I’m not quite sure why anyone would drop that on a seventeen year-old brain. The same could be said for The Tempest or King Lear. There’s plenty of time after high school to wrestle with these difficult plays.

On the other hand, some of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t worth reading at all—have you noticed how few theater companies stage Titus Andronicus? There’s a reason for that.

All of which narrows the field down nicely, while still including one of my favorites, Othello. Should Othello trust Iago or Desdemona? No ambiguity there! As an added bonus for impatient students, you really only have to pay attention to four or five characters to understand the story.More importantly, Iago is one of the most vivid characters ever created. Harold Bloom, a brilliant critic and an admitted idolater of Shakespeare, raves, “The Devil himself—in Milton, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Melville, or any other writer—cannot compete with Iago . . . Modern literature has not surpassed Iago; he remains the perfect Devil of the West, superb as psychologist, playwright, dramatic critic, and negative theologian.” This doesn’t mean students will like Iago, of course, but it does mean that the events of the play will be very real to them—Iago is a force to be reckoned with; he cannot be ignored. As Bloom dryly notes, “Iago . . . would be formidable enough to undo most of us if he emerged out of his play into our lives.”

by Jeff Baldwin