"He gave us an understanding of how people behave," said Ginny Chanda, a member of the English faculty on Yavapai College's Verde Valley campus for 25 years. "Students can relate to how people react to modern issues."
Born in 1564 (assumed to be April 23), the Bard is as quoted as the Bible, and frequently mistaken for such. Lines have become proverbs and maxims even for those who have never read a book. In short, Shakespeare is embedded in our collective psyche.
"What amazes and delights me the most about Shakespeare, beyond all of his genius with words and profound insight into human experience, is that he seemed to have an absolute love of human beings, in all of their beauty and ugliness," said D. Rogers Luben, who teaches acting for Arizona Classical Theatre, which presents the annual Arizona Shakespeare Festival in Prescott.
For Chanda, an important aspect of teaching the works of Shakespeare is answering the question, "How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?"
She said she stresses that he was a "theater person," and that his plays were written to be performed rather than studied in classrooms. She also emphasizes that he was a popular, commercial writer, and it is only the idea that he put the capital "L" in High Literature that makes him seem unattainable.
"Teachers don't have to make him accessible," Chanda said. "They have to realize that he is accessible."
Indeed, this is the time of year when many Shakespeare festivals are gearing up, attracting the fanatical and the merely curious from all walks of life. And that continued popularity is as much about well-known plots as it is about soaring theater.
"I don't think that there is a definition of civilization that doesn't include storytelling, and Shakespeare is our storyteller, at least for western civilization," said Michael Peach, an actor based in Sedona. "He gives us our greatest secular definition of what it is to be human. He was perhaps our first psychiatrist."
The plays, from The Taming of the Shrew to Henry V to Macbeth are rich in observation and in plot elements that can be re-examined time and again over a lifetime. A 65-year-old is bound to have a far different and deeper understanding of King Lear than a high school senior.
"I've played a role, and then I've gone back years later and found all kinds of things I didn't see before," Peach said. "His plots analyze many extreme aspects of the human condition and many of his characters provide detailed examinations of intense passions and complex psychological conditions. His Elizabethan insights continue to instruct our modern existential world views."
That continual connection to the human condition, even over 400 years, maintains Shakespeare's draw as entertainment, philosophy and literature, in that order. Seeing Shakespeare performed has quite a different impact than turning pages in a classroom. In fact, Chanda theorizes that perhaps reading Shakespeare might be the last step in appreciating Shakespeare.
As challenging as performing Shakespeare might seem, his innate sense of behavior and character development can actually be much more informing than the work of most modern playwrights.
"He was the master of 'layering in' characterizations within the dialogue of his plays," Peach said. "Where many modern playwrights rely on separate descriptions or even psychological terms given in the form of stage directions, Shakespearean actors can learn everything they need to know about their characters just by learning their lines."
Chanda teaches an "Introduction to Shakespeare" course as well as other classes, such as the five-week "Shakespeare on Film" that includes works from Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Baz Luhrmann and more. She is even restructuring "Shakespeare on Film" as a weekend course, "Spend the Weekend with Will," so the showing of filmed versions does not have to be broken up.
She said of the average 15 students per class, perhaps two or three attend simply for personal enrichment.
For her own enrichment and to better prepare for her classes, she attends the Shakespeare Summer School at the University of Cambridge in England. It is a revitalizing experience that makes her enthusiasm infectious.
"I'm encouraging them not to be intimidated ... read for the gist," she said of her students, who come in a variety of ages. "One thing you like when they finish your class is that they want more of it. If they leave feeling negative about it, you haven't accomplished anything."
Luben, too, imbues his ACT classes with a passion for the work of the Bard. And the acting students are not just learning scripts.
"I see that all of Shakespeare's work is dedicated to putting forth the idea that you are who you choose to be - that no matter what status or class you are born into, that no matter what status or class you are born into, that no matter what tragedy may befall you, what you are is determined by how you choose to view yourself," Luben said. "No one, absolutely not one person ever before Shakespeare, had dared to suggest such a thing.
"When I work with students, teenagers, or even with adults on a professional level, that is what I want them to get — not that kings and fools are relevant in their lives, but that every Shakespearean character is ultimately in a struggle to determine for themselves who they are. That is a universal struggle, and we all have Shakespeare to thank for first giving us permission to take up that battle in ourselves."
We know what we are, but know not what we may become --William Shakespeare