Is it important for the works of a playwright who died nearly four hundred years ago to be studied in our schools? Since the demise of testing at Key Stage 3, Shakespeare’s plays are no longer required reading for the under fourteens. Is it time to let them quietly slip from the curriculum? To do so would be an act of cultural negligence coupled with pedagogic cowardice. Studying Shakespeare is no more or less relevant now than it was when I was at school. The way we were taught then would make modern school pupils weep with boredom, but that grounding meant that I could study Shakespeare and understand him, see his plays and enjoy them. I would never think of Shakespeare as something alien, difficult, not for me.
The antipathy widely felt towards Shakespeare was pithily summed up by the comedian and actor Lenny Henry before he took on the role of Othello. To him, the plays were ‘gobbledegook for posh people’; full of ‘funny old words’; unfamiliar ‘stinky language’. This aversion and rejection is often confused with arguments about ‘relevance’ and ‘immediacy’, but these arguments are distracting and have little to do with the writer or his plays. Indeed, to decide that Shakespeare is ‘not right’ on the grounds of relevance, or anything else, is to begin to exercise a kind of cultural apartheid. Whether we like it or not, knowledge of Shakespeare, a familiarity with his work, is an important cultural (and class) signifier. If the study of Shakespeare is eliminated on the grounds of difficulty, relevance, or anything else, then whole areas of our culture become inaccessible.
If Shakespeare is a cultural right, then to teach him is a duty. It does not have to be that difficult. Shakespeare wrote for everyone. He was a man of the people. He came from humble working origins; he left school at around the age of fourteen because he had to earn a living. The world is grateful that he chose to do that in the theatre. He wrote for all, lord and groundling alike. He was a writer of his time, as all writers are, but his plays are just as accessible now as they were then, just as ‘relevant’, if they are approached in the right way. They are, to quote a teacher friend of mine, ‘cracking stories’: powerful narratives, full of engaging characters. Children still respond directly to the moral dilemmas posed, to the wit and humour. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s initiative to take Hamlet into Junior Schools should be applauded. It is the best place for him. To doubt that is to underestimate not just the ability of our children, but the playwright himself.
The plays are robust and powerful. By taking them into schools, by using a mixture of performance, story telling and role playing, children can learn that there is no need to be afraid of the language in which they were written. As Barry Rutter, Artistic Director of the Northern Broadsides Theatre Company, told Lenny Henry: ‘These words are special but they are not sacred’. The Literary/Cultural heritage shrink wrap can be removed, stripped away to reveal the power of the plays themselves. You can understand if you look carefully, if you try.
Shakespeare re-pays study. It is the only way to unlock the beauty of the poetry, the truths contained in the words. There is nothing wrong with study, it is what students are in school to do, but there has to be a motivation beyond desultory textual examination and reductive testing. Practitioners need to close the distance, to get back to the original. To do this, they have to be free to use every, and any, method available to bring the plays alive; to get students to the point where they really start to learn because they truly want to know.
Celia Rees, March 2010
This Article first appeared in Times Online, School Gate, April 2010.