How to Think Like Shakespeare; A Review

After my last post on Shakespeare, it should come as no surprise that I’ve found another book on dear William that I want to recommend to my readers. I was so happy when Scott Newstok reached out to me and shared a copy of his book How to Think Like Shakespeare, Lessons from a Renaissance Education. I know I’ve got a few readers who might be into books on education AND Shakespeare, so I’m here to share a title you can still order in time for Christmas. And if you are not the literary type, you can scroll right to the bottom for some other posts. No hard feelings! This honest review is a sponsored post. Learn more.

Newstok’s book is broken into 14 small chapters (plus a prologue), each of which focuses on an important aspect of education and how this topic was approached in Shakespeare age and how “modern advancements” have not always improved outcomes for modern students. Many of you are probably well versed on the problems found in modern education, whether you enroll your children in public school, private school or choose to homeschool them. But rather than viewing such problems as issues to be tackled in innovative new ways, Newstok turns back to the methods employed in Shakespeare’s era, in regards to thinking, attention, craft and so forth, and how they helped created individuals like Shakespeare who could entrance generations with his stories and wit. We are left to wonder if we are stifling future generations of gifted craftsmen (and women) by continually changing our approach to education. 

If you’re familiar with a classical education (or especially Charlotte Mason), much of what Newstok writes will sound familiar, though this is not a book about homeschooling or classical education. In fact, one of the things I most enjoyed was how Shakespearean solutions to modern ills are all things we can introduce into our homes and schools, or homeschools. And not only can school age children benefit from a Shakespearean influenced education, but all of us who wish to improve our thinking. 

Unlike other books I’ve read about Shakespeare (which admittedly are not too many), Newstok pulls from many sources when making his arguments. Shakespeare becomes the ideal man, or mind, to aspire to, but the book does not talk about him singularly, His plays and sonnets are quoted extensively, and his characters are as much an inspiration as the playwright himself. This is not a biography or in-depth analysis of Shakespeare’s life and time, or any one play in particular. Shakespeare simply provides the common thread which weaves through each chapter, pulling us along to a satisfactory conclusion.

Thinking like Shakespeare untangles a host of today’s confused-let’s be blunt: just plain wrong– educational binaries. We now act as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles auotnomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.

Shakespeare’s era delighted in exposing these purported dilemnas as false: play emerges through work, creativity through imitation, autonomy through tradition, innovation through constraints, freedom through discipline.

The chapters are as follows, with a few of my favorite quotes. I know it looks like a lot but no chapter is more than 12 pages.

  • What’s Past is Prologue 
  • Of Thinking – “To think like Shakespeare, we need to reconsider the habit that shaped his mind, including practices as simple as transcribing quotations, or working with tradition.”
  • Of Ends – What is the end of a good education? “I’m worried we’ve titled too much toward the utilitarian end-study as the means to other ends, not for the enlargement of human capacities. The spirit of the times seems instead to be caught up in a joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.
  • Of Crafts – “In short, making is thinking. Or, as the editors of the 1623 Folio praised Shakespeare, His mind and hand went together. Don’t you want yours to go together too?”
  • Of Fit – “The word “apt”…derives from the root apere, a verb meaning to fit things together, in the manner of a carpenter, joiner, weaver, bellows mender, tinker, tailor…. Like teaching, like writing, like thinking, these crafts all require pliability, threading things in the right place at the right time, and thereby strengthening them.”
  • Of Place – “Small physical classrooms emerge from a long heritage of “thinking spaces” that provide an anchor in time and space.” – Great chapter in light of all the changes to classroom learning during the pandemic.
  • Of Attention -“Iris Murdoch asked, What should be taught in schools? Her answer’s as simple as it’s daunting: To attend…to learn to desire to learn.”
  • Of Technology – “It’s human to avoid the hard work of thinking, reading and writing. But we all fail when technology becomes a distraction from, or, worse, a substitute for, the interminable yet rewarding task of confronting the object under study…”
  • Of Imitation – “Imitating good models strengthens every human endeavor, from infant sensorimotor development to the grueling practice of Olympic athletes.”
  • Of Exercises – “We all need practice in curiosity, intellectual agility, the determination to analyze, commitment to resourceful communication, historically and culturally situated reflectiveness, the confidence to embrace complexity. In short: the ambition to crate something better, in whatever field.”
  • Of Conversation – “Shakespeare’s era prized conversation’s capacity to rub and polish our brains by contact with those of others.”
  • Of Stock  – “The secret of stock is that it gives you the base to make something else….Knowledge matters. It provides the scaffolding for future inquiry.”
  • Of Constraint- “Sometimes I point out the more obvious ways in which creation emerges because of constraint, not in spite of it: the agreed-upon time limit for a sports game, or the restricted ingredients in a cooking competition; something as banal as a projects’s budget and deadline; something as profound as life’s finitude. There’s an artistry in “making do” with what we’re allotted”
  • Of Making – “It’s telling that the Greek verb for “making” or “doing” was poiein-the same word that gives us “poet”.”
  • Of Freedom – “Baldwin saw that he must move beyond the necessary but early stage of imitation, to the stage that makes that external voice internal, synthesizing it into one’s own…ultimately, an act of freedom.”
  • Kinsman of the Shelf – A chapter containing additional readings for each of the previous chapters. 

If you are a homeschooler looking for a fresh perspective on a classical or liberal arts education, you will enjoy this unique collection of ideas to inspire your own efforts, or perhaps nudge you in a different direction. I’m always hoping to draw out the best in my children (much to their chagrin) and Newstok’s book is a good boost as I prepare to head into our winter break and start planning for the second half of the year. Even non-homeschoolers will begin to think about how they can encourage Shakespearean thinking in their children. Older students working on the Bard could be encouraged to read this book to add context to their studies. If you are a lover of Shakespeare, you will enjoy considering the era and ideas that shaped the mind of such a great writer, and perhaps understand a bit more about the inspiration for, and the the inner workings of, the characters familiar to fans for centuries. Shakespeare’s stories are so timeless, we can sometimes forget how different their world was from ours, beyond just the spoken English. 

My only criticism is that while Newstok shares some wonderful ideas, he relies very heavily (and very unnecessarily I feel) on other people’s words. There are numerous citations and quotes on every page which I sometimes found distracting even though they were all in line with his theme (and he does give fair warning in his preliminary chapter). I would’ve much preferred to read more of just the author’s own writing. 

Click HERE to order Newstok’s book in time for Christmas. What other books are on your Christmas list? Share them in the comments below, and link up your posts. Be sure to include a link back to this post so your readers can find the rest of the Quick Takes. I look forward to reading your posts.

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1 Comment

  1. I keep reading the post title as “how to Like Shakespeare”. Which intrigues me since reading his plays are not a fond memory (Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade and Macbeth in 12th). What I remember most about R&J is the tan lines on Romeo in the old (70s?) movie version we had to watch.
    Should I ever be lucky enough to have kids and home school, I’d like Shakespeare to be a more positive experience for them.

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