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  • Writer's pictureKirk Jenkins

Why Read Shakespeare, Louisville 1884 (Part 1 of 3)

A Duty for American Women

From the Louisville Courier-Journal, May 25, 1884

In the Manhattan for June is an article written to show that women should study Shakespeare. It is little more than a reference to another article by Prof. Thom, of Virginia, on “Shakespeare, A Study for American Women,” which appeared in a Philadelphia magazine established to furnish a means for the interchange of ideas among Shakespearean scholars, and called Shakespeariana. Not having seen the original article by Prof. Thom we refer to it as it appears in the Manhattan, only expressing surprise that a review of this character should have been assigned by the editor to one who uses the word “illy.”

Prof. Thom’s paper is in fact a contribution to the discussion of the higher education of women, and it is suggestive. He pleads for a more thorough and exhaustive study of Shakespeare, not merely to determine his position in the world of letters, but for the value it must be to each investigator. Study of this kind we confine too strictly to mathematics, to science or to the ancient classics. As a mental exercise few go to Milton, Shakespeare, Bacon or the Bible, striving to understand the full meaning of the writer and his message. We are simply verbal critics, and our investigations have degenerated into mere fault-finding and captious objection. “Art,” says Taine, “lives of grand determinations; criticism on nice discriminations; hence we are no longer artists, but critics.” So is it. We go to these fountains of knowledge only to see there reflected our own images, taking with us our preconceived ideas, and receiving little more than a stimulus to our vanity and strength for our prejudices.

Prof. Thom urges that the study of Shakespeare be made an important branch in the education of both sexes, contending that it is most essential that the mind of woman be subjected to that drill and discipline necessary for an intelligent understanding of Shakespeare. It is only a few men who study Shakespeare as Prof. Thom would have them do, but of the benefit of such a course to man or woman there is no room for question. That it should be pursued without respect to sex there is no doubt. A man mingling in the busy world, in it and of it, forced to study mean and their motives, his progress, his safety, the welfare of those depending on him, determined by his knowledge of his fellows, by his quickness of perception, his prompt decision, his unyielding firmness, brings into action all his mental and moral faculties, develops new qualities and builds up a character from his knowledge of the world which makes his collegiate study a matter of secondary importance. His education comes from experience, and this supplies early defects or denials.

This is true of very few women, and certainly it is not a matter of serious regret that it is not true generally. No one wishes to subject woman to an experience of this kind, to make a man out of her. Life like this leaves its scars which are not beautiful, and hard circumstances warp the character until much that is admirable is no longer recognized. The idea character is the mingling of masculine strength with womanly tenderness. It is this idea Tennyson has in mind when he says: [Check back Thursday for Part 2]

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