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" 'Lay On, McGuffey':
Shakespeare and the Shaping of High School English in America"

Jonathan Burton

Department of English

West Virginia University


With sales of more than fifty million volumes between 1836 and 1900, the McGuffey Readers were second in popularity only to the King James Bible.  Instrumental to the growing common school movement of the mid-nineteenth century, they were being used in 37 states by the century’s end.  Passages from Shakespeare were used more than any other author in the advanced readers, both to illustrate modes of elocution in the first part, and as more lengthy readings in the second.  Over numerous editions, selections changed to reflect shifting cultural attitudes and pedagogical strategies, but what is most interesting is the ways in which they were often expurgated, rewritten, and/or presented entirely out of context.  With regard to cultural contexts including industrialism, the burgeoning feminist movement, and slavery and abolition, I will evaluate the extent to which Shakespearean excerpts were enlisted in the readers’ socializing projects of inculcating Protestant morality and bourgeois values.  By way of example, I turn to a scene from The Merchant of Venice , cut, expurgated, and in places even re-written for the 1844 Fourth Reader.  In considering the role of the McGuffey Readers in the institutionalization of certain of Shakespeare’s plays for secondary school curricula, I will briefly consider the evolution of nineteenth-century readers in general to derive a clearer sense of how and why certain passages came to be seen as representative of Shakespeare’s works.  In addition, I will draw from this broader survey speculative conclusions regarding two shifts in American pedagogy, the first from the study of excerpts to whole plays, and the second from a wide array of genres to an almost exclusive study of tragedies.


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