Review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

How to Think Like Shakespeare, Scott Newstok. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Summary: A concise and engaging guide to the habits and practices of mind that enable clarity of thought, expression, and learning.

“I have not read very much Shakespeare in my adult life. Will this book make much sense to me?” In an email exchange with the author who asked me to consider reviewing this book, I asked this, seeing the title of the book. The author assured me that wouldn’t be a problem.

Here’s why. What this book is really about is education’s purpose. He writes:

“My conviction is that education must be about thinking—not training a set of specific skills.

Education isn’t merely accumulating data: machines can memorize far more, and far less fallibly, than humans. (Albert Einstein: The value of an education…is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.)

Scott Newstok, p. .ix

So where does Shakespeare come in? Newstok, an English professor and founder of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College draws on Shakespeare to identify the formative habits and practices that are evident in Shakespeare’s work and helped shape his particular genius. And then he draws on others from antiquity to the present day to make the case for thirteen aspects of learning to think well.

Newstok begins two introductory chapters on the hard work of thinking and the ends of study. He proposes that the formative practices of Shakespeare were very different than the current practices of our schools. He had classes in Latin, had to submit to a variety of writing exercises, copied out quotations, imitated other writers until he found his voice, and so forth. In the chapter on ends, he proposes that modern education focuses far too much on means and not on the ends of forming people who speak and do well, who are useful citizens who can think well about every aspect of life

The next twelve chapters focus on a particular aspect or habit of thought and expression:

  • Craft: The ability and power to work with raw materials to create a work. Shakespeare was a playwright; the etymology suggest dramas wrought with words.
  • Fit: Whether the glove on the hand, two pieces of wood joined, or the apt word or phrase.
  • Place: Learning and careful thought arises in thinking spaces, whether Shakespeare’s school or a classroom.
  • Attention: Often in his plays, Shakespeare’s characters are distracted. Newstok focuses on how learning, thought, prayer, and our best selves emerge from attention.
  • Technology: Writing in the sand, or with any other technology. Do we get distracted by the sand or attend to the writing, the message of which abides when the marks in the sand disappear?
  • Imitation: Art begins with imitation. Shakespeare borrowed all over the place until he came to sound like himself.
  • Exercises: One cannot write well unless one writes…and writes…and writes. Exercises, from imagining oneself in a different gender or station in life, or finding the myriad ways to express a thought all hone the gifts of expressing our thoughts.
  • Conversation: Newstok shares the fascinating image of Kenneth Burke of joining a conversation in process, learning the topic, and issues at hand, putting in our own thoughts, learning to question and explore the ideas of others, and then leaving the conversation to others as an image of the intellectual conversation that has run through history.
  • Stock: The wide reading that offers a store of ideas from which we assemble thought in creative new ways.
  • Constraint: Thought and expression works within the constraints of words, sentences, grammar and forms, such as the sonnet, and liberty is found within the bounds of our art.
  • Making: We not only make things with machines but also with words, and often in these words, we make ourselves.
  • Freedom: Not just freedom from but freedom to. At the heart of the “liberal arts” is to practice the craft of freedom.

Newstok concludes with a reading list, “Kinsmen of the Shelf” for going further in the practices of good thought, connected to each chapter of the book. I was reminded of some old friends and learned of some intriguing new ones.

This sounds like a serious book but Newstok treats serious matters with an artisan’s lightness of touch. The chapters are short, filled with quotes that will offer additions to your own commonplace book, and introduced by fitting artwork. It is a work worthy of attention by educators, whether in the liberal arts or not. Our present time underscores the vital need for education to be far more than the inculcation of information. Otherwise, in the words of Stephen Muller, former president of Johns Hopkins University, we are just turning out “highly skilled barbarians.” It is also a book that may be read reflectively and repeatedly for any of us who care deeply about the work of thinking and writing. We all have a long way to go in our craft.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

3 thoughts on “Review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

  1. Maybe going off topic a bit, but your comment, “Our present time underscores the vital need for education to be far more than the inculcation of information” is extremely important this year. Many teachers and parents have been concerned with a side effect of the (very necessary) switch to distance learning has been a loss of the very important interactions that take schooling past just that “inculcation of information” that sometimes is all that online education can provide. Yes, there are gifted teachers maximizing the technology (I saw some of this first hand when sitting in on some of my exchange student’s classes), but the in person interactions that are currently very difficult are a greater loss than may be thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2021 | Bob on Books

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