Do you remember sitting in class on a hot, sticky day, taking it in turns to read aloud from your paperback edition of The Merchant of Venice or Macbeth or whatever Shakespeare play had been allocated to your curriculum that year?
Do you remember how stimulating and exciting it was to hear his words spoken by your fellow students and how instantly you became engrossed in the story written so long ago? No? … Not how you remember it?
Not a great start really was it? And do you know that the majority of English teachers in school still use this as a first approach? Don’t get me wrong, there are many teachers out there with a real passion for Shakespeare using fun and exciting methods to introduce his work to their students…but some seem to not have the first idea about where to start!
It was heartening and at the same time, somewhat worrying, to be told by a drama student of mine who I had taught since primary school, that her clear understanding and love of Romeo and Juliet which she was studying for GCSE came solely from her experience of drama and studying for her LAMDA exams. She ‘zoned out’ in class from the soulless approach and, like many of us, only woke up when it was her turn to read which she was able to do with clarity and meaning because she had engaged with his plays from such a young age.
A sad reflection on the state school system and its lack of resource, you may think, and you would be right, except that almost identical scenarios have been shared with me by students of both the state and the independent sectors.
The truth is, that:
We don’t start teaching Shakespeare to students early enough
We forget that his plays were not written to be read but to be performed and watched
But what does it matter? Really?
Fair question. Who cares? Don’t we arty/theatre types just bang on about Shakespeare like he was the be-all and end-all (a phrase coined by Shakespeare by the way – read on for more) when in fact, he’s 400 years old and now we have Philip Pullman and David Walliams – what do we need Shakespeare for?
A study by Angela Ramnanan of Georgetown University in the US concludes:
‘Teaching Shakespeare early yields numerous advantages such as: increased student confidence, expanded literary abilities, lower levels of anxiety when more complex literature is introduced later, and a life-long appreciation of high quality literature. Research presented about children’s language development support the claim that 3rd-8th graders not only have the capacity to understand Shakespeare at an introductory level, but that this early time in their development is actually ideal to expose them to Shakespeare’s rich language and universal stories. Using drama in the classroom with condensed versions of the plays and age appropriate activities are useful when introducing students to Shakespeare’s original language. Performance-based teaching methods were proven as one of the most effective ways to capture the attention of young students.’ (Ramnanan 2013, 1)
I simply couldn’t put that better myself and it also highlights the fact that Shakespeare is studied and considered relevant right across the globe. Indeed, it has been translated into 80 different languages including Klingon! Now that is a performance I’d like to see!
Even with creative approaches to teaching Shakespeare, secondary school students still often see his work as irrelevant and boring and difficult to understand. However, research does show that introducing it early at primary school level in its original language and using a performance-based approach can foster a far more positive perception and a long-term appreciation of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is entertaining. Yes. Really.
The Royal Shakespeare Company sells more than half a million tickets a year for Shakespeare productions at their theatres in Stratford-on-Avon, London and Newcastle – introducing an estimated 50,000 people to a live Shakespeare performance for the first time. (No Sweat Shakespeare, 2)
And that is only scratching the surface of the many, many productions being performed both in the UK and around the world at any one time.
Why do so many companies want to perform Shakespeare? Because there are innumerable ways in which each play, character and plot can be interpreted. The stories are so universal and the characters so complex that every director and every actor can bring something new to a performance. So you can see Julius Caesar performed live 10 times and every time you could have seen something completely different and fresh.
Often people argue that it is hard to understand making it boring and that children can be told his stories using modern language, but then you only get half the experience. One wouldn’t take a beautiful poem and remove the verse or the rhyme and put it into more simple phrases and expect to still enjoy it. It would no longer be a poem. Experiencing the language of Shakespeare is part of the joy of it and once one has discovered how to unlock it then it leaves you hungry for more. Besides, we have developed something of a mental block over the language, assuming we don’t get it because that is what we are programmed to believe. However, there are hundreds of words and phrases that are part of our everyday language in the 21st century that were invented by Shakespeare. In fact, he is known to have coined at least 1700 words! When he couldn’t find a word that helped him express himself adequately, he made it up! He also changed the way we used words that already existed so where ‘elbow’ had once been purely a noun he turned it into a verb to ‘elbow’ someone out of the way! If you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve or have ever eaten a dish fit for the gods, then you have been quoting Shakespeare!
Journalist, Bernard Levin, had this to say:
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare. (1)
And let’s not forget, that these plays were written for audiences from Royalty to impoverished peasants. 90% of people couldn’t read! And they didn’t go just to hear a good story because most of these stories were already known to them. Very often they weren’t particularly original, but Shakespeare had a way of presenting them that actually made them more accessible to every level of society.
For me, I can only speak from personal experience. I was no genius at school but my early introduction to Shakespeare, thanks to my parents, has lead to a lifelong love of his plays and characters and enough comprehension to be able to share my passion with the young people whom I have the honour of teaching. Life for me and for thousands of others, would be very much less colourful and a little less wondrous without him.