Teaching Shakespeare  

So given that he’s our greatest ever writer how should we teach Shakespeare in schools? Look at the text? Do it as drama? Read story accounts of the plots? Or, maybe, just maybe, you quietly think that it’s all a bit outdated, old fashioned and irrelevant so you sideline it as much as you can. 

The late Michael Bogdanov (1938-2017) a controversial but highly respected director of Shakespeare was on record as saying that he didn’t think it should be done in schools at all because teachers ruin it for pupils. He had a point. I came within a hair’s breadth of being put off for life by a teacher who managed to make Henry V – actually one of the most exciting and powerful plays Shakespeare ever wrote –  into a miserably dreary O level chore.

There was nothing in my very poor teacher training course where I did English “main” about how to teach Shakespeare to school students although one of the lecturers managed to scoop it right off the page for those of us who were in her sessions. And that was where my real interest was sparked. My copy of Macbeth still has my notes in it from those days. And I got a special tick for using the word “indulgent” in my essay on the play. The bar was pretty low.

Ten years later and I was in a new job as an English teacher in a Kent comprehensive school. In the stock cupboard was an ancient set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I asked the Head of Department if I could “do” it with what we now call Year 7. She looked at me quizzically. “With these girls? Well you’re welcome to try but …” Bear in mind there was no national curriculum at that time and most students could – and probably would – have gone right through secondary school without ever seeing any Shakespeare.

I did it. We had fun. We looked at the text, but we also acted out key scenes. We made a frieze of all the characters for the classroom wall. We listened to Mendelssohn’s overture. The best moment came at the end of term when one of the students asked me if we could please do another Shakespeare play after the holiday. And after a term or two, I was amused to notice that the Head of Department was beginning to do similar things with her own classes.

I suppose that the early 1980s was the beginning of a Shakespeare renaissance in schools. I wasn’t doing anything especially original. I was simply, without realising it fully, part of a movement which was happening in lots of places at the same time. The wonderful redoubtable Rex Gibson (1932-2005) ran an organisation to support it, published a magazine to promote Shakespeare in schools and ran very inspiring courses, one of which I attended for 10 very memorable days at Girton College, Cambridge. Rex was adamant that Shakespeare is his language and that you must always work on that and allow it to speak. It should, he insisted, never be paraphrased or “translated”, He knew most of the plays by heart and, a real character, was a dab hand at launching into Shakespeare’s verse and making his listener(s) join in like a priest with prayers, but less solemn.

And although the precise specification has changed many times Shakespeare has always been enshrined in the National Curriculum which first took effect in the early 1990s at both primary and secondary level. That has meant that organisations have moved centre stage to support teachers.

The RSC, for example, launched its manifesto, Stand Up for Shakespeare in 2008. It has three very simple prongs: Do it on your feet. See it live. Start it earlier. And the RSC Education department has for years run courses and offered resources to help teachers as well as producing a fine series of abridged First Encounter shows which tour to schools nationwide. The National Theatre has also toured Shakespeare to London primary schools.

Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation (formerly Shakespeare Schools Festival) offers 30-minute versions of plays for primary, secondary and special schools to rehearse and produce – with input from CSSF staff who help to train teachers as directors. It can be very empowering and participants routinely comment on how it builds confidence at all levels. A CSSF staff member once told me that she’d taught an eight year old from a fairly poor background who said “Now that I’ve done Shakespeare Schools Festival I can be a doctor!” The Shakespeare effect is far reaching. 

Today, I believe with passion that Shakespeare really is the greatest writer in English – and quite possibly in any other language. It is therefore a totally unacceptable from of deprivation to allow any child/young person to go through school without experiencing it – not as a burden or a hurdle but as something joyful and life enhancing. 

Equally it is quite wrong (and believe me it still happens) for teachers to convey negative attitudes, make it boring or – worst of all – patronisingly deem it too difficult for their students. Shakespeare was the Lloyd Webber of his day. He could fill theatres almost like no other. People loved his stuff – and they still do if it’s presented in
the right way.