Literature education is an essential part of the school curriculum that is intended to teach students to read and analyze literary works. However, in the modern world, which is centered around information gathering and information processing, worker productivity, and economic success, it seems to be a redundant discipline that has no practical application (Gillespie 16). In the article “Why Literature Matters,” Tim Gillespie, a well-known teacher and writer, discusses the functions of literature and the importance and purpose of literature education at school. His ideas can be applied to individual literary works to understand their significance and the ways they can be discussed and analyzed to help students grow as individuals. William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when viewed from the perspective of Tim Gillespie’s ideas, provides a valuable source of material for developing empathy, imagination, and moral qualities in students.
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Tim Gillespie is a veteran of public-school teaching and a winner of a National High School English Teacher of Excellence Award from NCTE. For thirty-eight years, he taught reading, writing, and journalism in high school and wrote around seventy articles about his classroom experience (“Tim Gillespie”). In the article “Why Literature Matters,” he discusses the function of literature in the modern world and the importance of teaching literature. His arguments for literature include its contributions to the development of imagination and empathy, the moral value of literary conflicts, and the opportunities that literature provides for exploring human experience.
In this paper, his ideas are analyzed on the example of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is a comedy written by the English playwright in 1595/96. It is set in Athens and consists of several subplots that involve love-at-first-sight, mistaken identities, jealousies, friendship, rivalries, and love. In the play, Shakespeare explores how different people experience love and what motivates their actions. It is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and widely-performed plays that is often included in drama and literature courses in schools and colleges.
Gillespie’s Arguments for Literature and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
In his article, Gillespie presents a series of arguments to justify literature education at schools and discuss its importance. His first argument is that literature contributes to the cultivation of imagination and empathy in students. Gillespie claims that, in the modern world, people are often unable to see beyond the limits of their immediate horizons, and literature allows them to expand their perspective and get a vision of other lives (Gillespie 17). In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a world is described that exists on the intersection between reality and a fantastic fairy world. The reader is encouraged to use their imagination to engage in this world and the events of the play and submerge into the experience created by illusions and dreams. The play fulfills the function of literature to transport readers to other worlds, stimulate imagination, offer different perspectives and wider worlds to explore.
Empathy is another important quality developed by works of literature. Gillespie claims that books facilitate “the cultivation of a deeper form of imagination, the empathetic identification with other humans, often people quite unlike ourselves” (Gillespie 17). Throughout his experience of judging a fiction-writing contest for high-school writers, he observed that most students lacked empathy in their description of characters. Having mastered writing techniques and tricks, most of them could not create complex, movingly-rendered characters due to poorly-developed empathetic and imaginative skills (Gillespie 19). Gillespie believes that can partially be explained by how literature is taught at school, with a focus placed on formal literary analysis rather than the essence of stories (Gillespie 20). The exploration of human experience is the heart of literature, and only when studying it from this perspective can students develop empathy, which is an essential quality of any human being.
William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream gives readers multiple opportunities to learn empathy. Although the developments of the plot mostly excite amusement rather than compassion, the masterfully created characters encourage readers to sympathize with them and reflect on the motives of their behavior. When studying the play at school, students should be asked to discuss why characters acted in a certain way, what was their motivation, and how their behavior characterizes them. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare explores how different people experience love and how it motivates their actions, and students should be encouraged to study the play from this perspective. When trying to understand the characters’ behavior and identify themselves with it, readers develop empathy, which they can use in their everyday lives.
Another important quality of literature addressed by Gillespie in his article is its moral value. He notes that “literature does not teach morals in a didactic way; rather, it gives us a chance to experience moral dilemmas” (Gillespie 18). Unlike the materialistic, quick-solution vision of life offered on TV, literature portrays lives that have complicated problems and tough choices and invite readers to engage with them (Gillespie 18). This quality of literature is closely connected with imagination and empathy, as literature draws readers to submerge into a story and summon their imaginative power to identify with characters. When a character is faced with a moral dilemma, readers relive it with them, imagine their struggles, consider the consequences of their actions, and reflect on their own moral choices.
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In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, multiple ethical conflicts are encountered and resolved in different ways. The character’s stories are intertwined, and they often interfere with each other’s love lives throughout the play. Their actions lead to unintended consequences, and they have to rectify them by making other ethically-ambiguous actions. To restore love and justice, Oberon, king of the fairies, influences human affairs, causing confusion and suffering among four lovers. Egeus demands that her daughter marries the person he has arranged for her rather than the man she is in love with. Affected by the love potion, characters fall in love with the first person they see, forgetting their previous love interests. The world of Shakespeare’s play is full of morally ambiguous situations that encourage readers to reflect on the nature of love and the legitimacy of influencing other person’s choices, even with the noblest intentions.
Finally, Gillespie claims that literature allows readers to explore human experience in a way that other disciplines do not. He notes, “Information most often represents human experience in abstract and generalized forms: facts, statistics, data. Literature represents human experience in the very specific individual terms of a story or poem” (Gillespie 20). Literature deals with people’s most pressing concerns: love, life, death, morality, religion, good and evil, destiny, will, and justice, which are the issues not covered by other scholarly subjects (Gillespie 20). It encourages readers to not just process information and data but to participate, feel, and think. It is the primary function of literature, which is sometimes undermined by the too-practical approach to literacy education. Gillespie claims that students should be taught to think about the characters, the questions of right and wrong they face, justifiable and unjustifiable actions, admirable and antisocial qualities, choices and limitations (Gillespie 21). William Shakespeare’s works allow readers to submerge into the worlds he creates, relives his characters’ experiences, and explore the deepest human concerns. If literature is taught with enthusiasm, students learn to exercise their empathetic imagination and, as a consequence, better understand themselves and others and connect with other humans.
In the article “Why Literature Matters” Tim Gillespie discusses the importance of literacy education in the modern world. Although it is regarded by pragmatists as a discipline that lacks a practical approach, Gillespie claims that literature is an important subject that provides the key to understanding other human beings and personal growth. Each literary work can be analyzed through the perspective of his ideas and explained in a way that allows students to think and develop emotionally. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is an essential part of most school’s literature courses, is a perfect example of a literary work that encourages readers to exercise their empathy, imagination, and moral judgement. When reading and analyzing the greatest works of literature, students learn to relive other people’s experiences, reflect on moral dilemmas, think of the world, identify themselves with others, better understand themselves.
Gillespie, Tim. “Why Literature Matters.” The English Journal, vol. 83, no. 8, 1994, pp. 16–21.
“Tim Gillespie.” Stenhouse Publishers, n.d., 2020. Web.