Get Your Shakespeare On

Every once in a while a book comes along that passes what Seamus Heaney called the “Jealousy Test,” making you a little crabby that you didn’t do this one yourself. Scott Newstok, professor of English and founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College, has given us such a book in How to Think Like Shakespeare (Princeton University Press, 2020). Taking as his theme the advantages of a Renaissance education, whose aim was to teach ways of thinking and of communicating thought rather than the mere accumulation of knowledge.

In short chapters archaically (this is a book about the past, after all) entitled “Of Thinking,” “Of Place,” “Of Conversation,” “Of Freedom,” and so on, Newstok centers our attention–and yes, there is one called, “Of Attention”–on narrow themes, the better to drill down into the shortcomings of modern educational pursuits and schemas as compared with the broader humanistic educational model of the late Renaissance. And don’t think you will only hear from the Bard of Avon here; on any given page, he will toss you passages from Erasmus (a favorite), T. S. Eliot (ditto), Ralph Waldo Emerson (double ditto), and the Bard of Hibbing, Bob Dylan. The result can be dizzying at times, but if readers fear getting lost, the good professor is there to pull us from the intellectual maelstrom.

The argument he makes, that we have given up something valuable in the pursuit of educational specialization, betrays no expectation that we will return to the sort of intellectual training that scholars received in the late sixteenth century. Professor Newstok knows that that Elizabethan ship has long since sailed. The case he pleads is a reconsideration of the current notion of education as nothing more than a training certificate for a specific entry-level job. And indeed, if the twenty-first century has shown us anything so far, it would be the personal and societal consequences of educational narrowness, of an economy that trades only in dollars or Euros or yen and not in ideals, values, and aesthetics. This timely and fascinating book may or may not teach you to think like Shakespeare, but it will cause you to think deeply about what matters. And that certainly matters.