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"Back To The Future:
What School Editions of Shakespeare Can Tell Us About The Teaching of Shakespeare in 1875-1930 America"

Peggy O’Brien

Corporation for Public Broadcasting


The prominence of Shakespeare’s place in American learning was clear decades before American schooling had settled on what that learning should look like in a classroom. During the years 1875-1930, the importance of reading and studying Shakespeare was already well-established--and yet, these were hot and unresolved times in the evolution of the American curriculum, pedagogy, and educational theory.   The business of what should go on in the secondary school classroom was still working itself out.


In both secondary schools and in colleges, the teaching of literature was, as Arthur Applebee tells us, “a very new and uncertain enterprise,” and important forces were just beginning to move:

  • In 1883, the Modern Language Association was formed. (Twenty leading colleges were represented, and 39 teachers of English included.)
  • The Vassar Conference, tasked with codifying the English secondary school curriculum, met in 1892.
  • In 1896, B.A. Hinsdale published Teaching the Language Arts.
  • John Dewey, running the University of Chicago Lab Schools, published School and Society in 1899.
  • In 1911, the National Council of Teachers of English was founded, with secondary school teachers an explicit part of its constituency.

In the midst of—and maybe in spite of—this dynamic environment, the Shakespeare “school editions” appeared, beginning around 1875. These were single-play, inexpensive volumes, with varying degrees of notes and front matter. Designed to make Shakespeare accessible—intellectually, as well as in slim, easy-to-carry little books—they exploded into publication in the latter part of the 19th century, first in the United Kingdom, later in the United States. The Folger collection alone includes all or part of 59 different series of Shakespeare school editions.


In this paper, I examine a number of American school editions—the play itself as well as preface, glosses, endnotes, suggestions for essay topics, examination questions and responses. In light of the evolutionary environment in which the school editions were produced, I explore the answers they offer to the following questions:

  • What was contemporary pedagogical theory (or theories) and classroom practice(s) with respect to teaching Shakespeare? What was expected of secondary school teachers and of their students?
  • How were the plays perceived and for what was Shakespeare valued in the school culture during this period?
  • How do these findings compare to theory and practice evidenced in American secondary school classrooms today? How do these school editions compare to more recent school editions, i.e. modern high school editions and anthologies?
  • What, if anything, about these editions makes them distinctly American?

Based on this analysis, I suggest more broadly the role that school editions played in advancing the excellent teaching of Shakespeare in American schools.  


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