How to Think like Shakespeare by Scott Newstok

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Scott Newstok’s How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education really is a feel good book. A thick lather of the author’s enthusiasm, a comprehensive coverage of his subject matter, and the common sense inherent in his value judgments, work together to whip up a likeminded enthusiasm in his readers. It has an advantage of being a small book, easily transported in a bag.

A title that contains the word Shakespeare has an excellent chance of being given at least a quick glance. Something of magic clings to the name even after hundreds of years. When Shakespeare is linked with his way of thinking, as if his thinking is idiosyncratic to that particular writer rather than a generation of writers, then a clever piece of marketing is tied to an area of current academic interest. This means that the book has a heavy expectation lying like a cloud upon it.

The book delivers what it promises. Scott Newstok’s position is stated on the first page of the prologue viz that parents like himself are anxious because of a “worrisome muddle about what we even mean about ‘education’” (ix). Along with millions of parents and employers across the world Newstok is disturbed by what passes for education these days. His text “seeks to offer not only an exploration of thinking, [the true basis of what he means by ‘education’] but an enactment of it, for joy’s soul lies in the doing (Troilus & Cressida, 1.3.265)” (x). Newstok goes on to assert that:

“Play emerges through work, creativity through imitation, autonomy through tradition, innovation through constraints, freedom through discipline…Preserving the seeds of time enriches the present” (xii).

Once the reader is past the prologue, a section called How to Think Like Shakespeare reveals a list of fourteen chapters each having the title in this construction – Of Thinking, Of Ends, Of Craft, Of Fit and so on. Each of these chapters contains a balanced, but hard-hitting analysis, of the Shakespearian model matched against those of our own. To snatch something of the structure of these chapters, I shall instance Of Thinking.

The chapter is constructed thus:

There is a quote from David Willingham (Jossey-Bass, 2009, 4) to the effect that our brains are constructed for the avoidance of thought. In support of this position are quotes from three philosophers and three poets, all recognised as famous in their fields. An erudite discussion on the nature of thinking follows, along with agreement that “we’ve imposed educational programs that kill the capacity to think independently, or even the desire to do so” (3). The author argues that our children are subject to a testing obsessed regime (5). After several pages of diatribe directed at modern educational systems – unfortunately, most of which I support – Newstok reaches the conclusion that, “Shakespearian thinking does demand a deliberate engagement with the past to help you make up your mind in the present” (11). To think like Shakespeare, we need to reconsider the habits that shaped his mind.

The chapter’s contents are amply served by quotations from Shakespeare and numerous other sources gathered not just from Shakespeare’s contemporaries but from scholars across the centuries. If I have one criticism, it would be that the frequency of the quoted material interferes with the flow of the argument. Additionally, sources of all quoted material and references appear in footnotes on each page.

Newstok’s chapter Of Ends questions the strangle-hold that assessment has upon our educational lives, and chides a practice that removes learning how to learn in favour of learning what is to be assessed. He prefers the practice of Shakespeare’s time of “devoting] endless hours to its full arsenal of strategies for encompassing a situation: imitating vivid models, exercising elaborate verbal patterning, practising imaginative writing, and building up an enormous inventory of reading” (23). The author promotes the view that fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool to foster independent judgment.

The author does not hedge when he declares that, rather than measuring what matters, assessment measures what is easy to measure (19). Direct statements, issued without equivocation, are a feature of the book. No matter the topic, this is the preferred communicative mode. It is refreshing to read.

Not only the speech patterns but also the topics keep interest high in this book. The chapter Of Fit is a case in point. Using Aristotle, Milton, Leon Battista Alberti and William Hogarth as support, Newstok argues that, “Learning to think means picking up that ‘feel’, akin to a baker’s awareness of the consistency of dough, a doctor’s gentle pressure on the patient’s body, a sailor’s hand on the tiller” (42). William Hogarth writes, “Fitness of the parts to the design…is of the greatest consequence to the beauty of the whole” (Newstok, 42). ‘So it is with thinking’ is a prominent element in Newstok when, for example, Shakespeare’s characters tinker with their own thoughts to force them into a better fit for the moment. Richard II imagining the appropriate size of his grave, for example.

In Shakespeare’s time, people studied in the same place at the same time. Newstok supports children’s identification with their place of learning and attacks demands that insist on “demolish[ing] conventional’ classrooms, disaggregate[ing] the ‘components’ of education, and free[ing] ourselves into remote, asynchronous fora” (47). Savage criticism – but amply supported. He is just beginning. He sears the air with criticism of mobile phones, describing their suppliers as “merchants of distraction who know that information-richness produces attention-impoverishment” (56).

The chapter Of Imitation takes the reader into plagiarism (which was legal prior to 1710) and creative imitation in Shakespeare, arguing that our condemnation of the former often leads to indifference to emulation and the purported quashing of independent thought. People learn to write through their engagement with the thinking of other writers. “Even the most extreme form of imitation – raw reproduction – generates insight” (77), and hence new pathways to knowledge. This chapter, I found, unduly provocative.

Exercises leading to refinement, conversation generating precision, teaching a common stock of knowledge seen as privileging, constraints  on reading and thinking, failure to allow our thinking, as well as our words, to stretch the boundaries (“a curtailment of our birthright” (151)), all feature in Newstok’s breathtaking work. All aspects are argued in cogent fashion. Some views may be thought extreme, but no one can deny the passion, the brilliance of the thought, the cogency of the argument, and the depth and breadth of the writer’s knowledge.

I found the experience of reading Newstok nothing short of exhilarating.

How to Think Like Shakespeare


By Scott Newstock

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-17708-3

USD19.95; 209 pp

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