Class Notes

Orson Welles on Reading Shakespeare Aloud

By Paula Marantz Cohen | December 20, 2011


I recently stumbled upon an essay published in The English Journal in 1938 by a 22-year old Orson Welles, written with his former high school headmaster Roger Hill, titled “On the Teaching of Shakespeare and Other Great Literature.” As a teacher of Shakespeare myself, I was impressed by the timeliness and wisdom of this 75-year old essay, despite the fulsome nature of its verbiage (mostly, I postulate, Welles’s). It seemed uncannily in step with my own views about teaching and the state of literary study in general.

The authors note that while American high school students are exposed to about three Shakespeare plays and a smattering of other great works of literature, they rarely develop a real appreciation for the works and almost never read them again later in life. The question is why.

The conventional explanations, say Welles and Hill, are that more people are being educated than ever before, resulting in an inevitable dilution of the curriculum, and that new subject-matter has also been introduced that has elbowed aside established “great” literature. But they dismiss these explanations, arguing that the real reason goes deeper than mere curricular changes. It is the result, they say, of the ascendancy of science, which has turned the study of literature into a scientific endeavor. They write:

The plain fact is that for a generation in American graduate university circles (since the advent of the German idea of scholarship through specialization) it has been impossible for our teachers or prospective teachers to attain scholarly distinction on the basis of broad appreciative study of literature.

One hundred years ago Spencer opined hopefully and a little wistfully that some day Science was to reign supreme and was no longer to be the household drudge “kept in the background so that her haughty sisters (Literature and the Arts) might flaunt their fripperies in the eyes of the world.” How soon—how completely his dream has come true. Far from being the household drudge today, Science dominates the domicile …

The truth of it is that we in the field of English expression have been indoctrinated with the scientific approach theory so thoroughly that we are making dissecting-rooms of our English classes to the slight buildup of our own sense of importance but to the infinite detriment of our charges. We are tossing away their aesthetic birthright for a dubious and unsavory mess of analytical pottage.

In attempting to make our study of literature scientific and analytical we have merely made it dull. A Shakespearean play is no cadaver, useful for an autopsy. It is a living, vibrant entity that has the power of grasping us by the hand and leading us up onto a peak in Darien.


Welles and Hill might well be talking about the rise of theory in literary education. There is, undoubtedly, a place for theory in looking at literature. Indeed, some literary theory is literature. As Matthew Arnold argued, the best literary theory is a  “criticism of life”—a way of looking at representation that opens the world in unexpected and illuminating ways and which has a role in preparing the ground for a new era of representation. Still, literary study has at its base a sense of wonder that is connected to life as it is lived in the most elemental sense. Young minds—in high school and college—need to feel personally connected, excited, and moved by what they read. They have a thirst for beauty, and will respond to poetry and prose that speaks to the human condition. To pitch too soon into a theoretical approach risks destroying this visceral connection.

Welles and Hill also claim that reading Shakespeare aloud is key to appreciating his work. One can hear Welles’s stentorian voice proselytizing on this point in the following passage: “It is of course axiomatic that all poetry, and particularly all Shakespeare, was meant to be read aloud. So many teachers are incapable of reading Shakespeare aloud or instructing their charges in adequately reading Shakespeare aloud, that classroom renditions are doomed before they start. There is a considerable and growing library of phonograph recordings which are tremendously helpful.”

Here, I diverge slightly in my opinion. I agree with the fact that reading Shakespeare aloud is a tremendous pedagogical tool. I disagree, however, that this needs to be done by professionals or even that it needs to be done well.  After teaching Shakespeare for many years, I would argue that students ought to be encouraged to read him aloud themselves, and be permitted to read him badly, at least at first. To ask a student to stumble through a passage begins the process. The class sees that it’s hard. A second student reading the same passage might then do it a bit better. The meaning begins to glimmer, the poetry to emerge. Someone else reads—perhaps I read—and the passage now begins to work, to take shape. It’s not that the first reader has been made a fool of; on the contrary, he or she has started this process of opening up the text, of making it live in the world. This sort of increasingly proficient reading teaches students that eloquence is not easy—that it takes effort and practice, but that the result is worth it.

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