How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education

                A few months ago, I got a message through ResearchGate from Rhodes College English professor Scott Newstok. Professor Newstok was welcoming me to the “How to Think” author’s club. We eventually exchanged books, and I hope he has enjoyed my book, How to Think Like an Officer, even half as much as I liked his. How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education packs an immense amount of learning and allusion into a short volume, but it wears its erudition lightly. How to Think Like Shakespeare is also an important book. Professor Newstok is making an articulate, unique argument for the importance of the humanities, and for education that acknowledges and develops the humanity of the students.  Interspersed with this argument, he points out the limitations and damaging effects of remote education and constant access to digital media, citing sources and studies to make his point.

Although not especially well-educated by the standards of his day, Shakespeare’s education formed the foundation of some of the greatest works of world literature. This alone is a fairly good recommendation for the Renaissance humanist education that he received. Of course, thousands of people received an education similar to Shakespeare’s and did not go on to write great literature. Prof. Newstok isn’t making the claim that we might write like Shakespeare, however, but the somewhat more modest claim that, by understanding and to the extent possible emulating Shakespeare’s education, we might at least come to think as he did, with at least some of Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature and behavior, of our motives, aspirations, and various contrivances.

To make this goal reachable, Newstok identifies some of the key ingredients of a Shakespearean education. Some of those which he identifies and discusses, devoting a chapter to each, are attention, imitation, exercises, conversation, and “stock.” The ability to exercise attention is threatened by modern technology, but even Shakespeare wrote (in Hamlet) of “this distracted globe.” The art of focused, even rapt attention is necessary to study, to learning and empathy, and it has always had to contend with distractions and the limitations of our energy. Imitation, of worthwhile writing especially, was another important feature of a Shakespearean education. Through imitation, the student came to understand the characteristics of good or great writing. Our choice of models is important, but a person probably can’t go far wrong trying to imitate a few favored classics. Ours is an age that prizes creativity, but this cannot take place in a vacuum, nor. Creativity cannot flourish without a studied consideration of the merits of the acknowledged masters in a field, a consideration that imitation can, perhaps uniquely, enable. Writers might imitate the Bard himself, or Dickens, or Dashiell Hammett, or some combination.   

Exercises are another idea at which the modern, individualistic mind may rebel, but exercises can be more liberating than limiting. When done with words, they give us an idea of how many ways there are to say the same thing, and certainly the beginning of an idea of which is most suitable, expressive, or exact. Conversation also increases our range, introducing us to different points of view, and giving us practice in listening and questioning.  Newstok quotes John Stuart Mill as saying, “He who knows only his only side of the case, knows little of that.”

            Finally, “stock,” or “common stock” is Newstok’s deliberately archaic term for a fund of knowledge of which an individual partakes and to which she may contribute. Even in an age of readily available information, the knowledge we labor to accumulate and retain is still of value, partly because it equips us to add the common stock of knowledge available to all literate and interested persons. (As I am doing now, in my modest way, by writing about Newstok and Shakespeare, his mentor and exemplar.) One of my favorite sentences in the book is in the chapter on stock. “When rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: making an inventory of your mind’s stock of knowledge.” Our ability to invent is based on the knowledge we possess prior to the act or process of invention.

                Among other things, I think that How to Think Like Shakespeare could provide a much-needed boost to the morale of humanities teachers everywhere. Under siege for years, the humanities have lately been suffering some disheartening losses, with fewer faculty, course and major offerings, and frankly fewer interested students. Newstok’s book is in effect a counterattack, a sally from the beleaguered fortress, and it may do its part to retake some of the ground that’s been lost. We need that victory now, when too many have given up thinking for prejudice and fixed ideas without foundation. It is a paradox, but no contradiction, that the path to our future may lie in some of the best that the past has to offer.            

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