While we fight it out over on that other thread over whether Romeo & Juliet is the best way to introduce Shakespeare, let me start a different thread on a similar topic. What, exactly, do we think that these kids are getting out of Shakespeare? More optimistically, what are we hoping that they get? Is it just for entertainment value? The history lesson? Simply for the accomplishment so they can say they've experienced Shakespeare?
This is the question that comes to mind when I hear the occasional teacher say that they've done King Lear at the high school level. I believe completely that teenagers can read the play, answer test questions on it, write essays about it, and even perform it. But do they *get* it? *Can* they get it?
One reason that Romeo & Juliet is defended as a good choice is that it's about similar ages experiencing similar issues - first love, hormones, etc... not to mention violence, and dirty jokes. After all, what are Romeo and Juliet if not horny teenagers? You could have many relevant conversations that start with "You're in love with someone your parents would not approve of. What do you do?"
On a related note I've often explained Hamlet to people this way: "Hamlet is the story of a kid whose father is out of the picture, and then his mom married a guy that he doesn't get along with. Gee, you think there's any high school kids out there that might be able to relate to that story?" Personally I was more like a freshman in college before I got into the whole "Wow, yeah, I see what Hamlet was saying...." existential phase, but I suppose that could happen at the high school level, too.
But Lear? How do *most people*, let alone teenagers who haven't yet experienced most of their lives, get Lear? I think I'm just barely beginning to appreciate the scope of Lear, and that only because a) I've got children of my own and b) my parents are at that age where every conversation eventually comes around to "...and here's what we're going to leave you when we're gone, we won't be around forever you know."
For me, personally, I like to ask "Having read/understood/absorbed/internalized this play, is my life different?" For Comedy of Errors? Nah, not really. For Hamlet, or Lear, or even The Tempest or Midsummer? Most definitely.
Am I aiming too high? Do we teach Shakespeare to change students' lives, or just to put that checkmark next to their name saying we did it?