In Defence of Shakespeare

Or joining the Great Conversation and Singing a Different Song

In her latest post Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner) returns to the conversation about what should be taught in schools and why. It is, she argues, all about offering choices.

Probably a quote referring to someone looking at an English curriculum daring to include Shakespeare. Judging by Twitter anyway…

‘Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.’

Henry VI, pt.2

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about cultural capital in my classroom. It was prompted by my reading of Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts’ new book Boys Don’t Try? and how some of their experiences in education had paralleled with mine: a working class girl, with barely literate parents and a desire to know more.

Many people saw aspects of themselves in the blog, and the links to Educating Rita were clear. However, there seemed one main thing which caused contention with it; the teaching of Shakespeare.

I mentioned in the post that amongst the other rich and varied texts I teach, I believed that Shakespeare was something important in developing the cultural capital of my students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was clear that this was considered some sort of snobbery, that Shakespeare had no place on the curriculum for my students and that by emphasising him I was omitting many other texts which were of equal or greater value. As already stated, his work is just one strand that runs through five years of the secondary curriculum amongst a varied diet of texts from different cultures, time periods and forms, giving students a number of voices to compare. Yet, the focus on Shakespeare’s plays it seems was a sticking point for some. I may as well have said ‘I only want to teach Shakespeare in my class and nothing else has any value!’ That is far from the truth.

However, I have pondered on this over the last few weeks and wanted to take the time to explore why I think Shakespeare is an essential ingredient on the curriculum, especially if we want to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to join in with what Ben Newmark called ‘The Great Conversation’.

Let’s begin with that then. What do I take that phrase to mean? I believe that what he was referring to was a language and understanding which allows you to think about things in a different way. Not necessarily a better way, but a different one. 

One of Shakespeare’s most enduring qualities is his universality. It doesn’t matter where you are, or what your race or gender is, his plays have a quality which transcends these barriers. That is why we see new and exciting productions, such as those in the National or Donmar theatres, exploring changing gender in all female productions or omitting it altogether by not making gender an issue. Debates and discussions about power, ambition, good and evil, masculinity and femininity, nationality, race, love and hate, can all be found within the pages of his plays and can open up conversations around these topics. They raise questions, challenge us and enable us to explore elements within ourselves in a way we may not have done before. Isn’t that after all what good theatre should do? Why would I then not want to allow my students to partake in this?

Some took the idea of a ‘Great Conversation’ to only relate to trying to engage with the elite, dismissing the cultural experiences of others as inferior or unworthy. This is of course not the case, but when I think again about what prompted me to write, Matt and Mark’s experiences, let’s try to imagine things if you had never encountered any Shakespeare.

For a start that would be nearly impossible within our society, due to the influence he has had on our language and our understanding of characters and narratives. The tales he has told are replayed time and time again, both directly and indirectly. Regardless of whether these tales predated him, it was his writing which gave them infamy and it would be hard not to bump into a reference to his work or language. If you started to explore how many of his phrases have wormed their way into our English language you won’t find yourself on a ‘wild goose chase’ (Romeo and Juliet) or have to wait ‘with bated breath’ (The Merchant of Venice) to find them. Our language is riddled with his influence and provide a something which enriches our discussions.

So even if we could delete his influence, then where would that leave you. References to his work abound and have invaded not just the literature that has followed but appears throughout our popular culture. Imagine then arriving at College or University and never having been made aware of where these references come from? Feelings of alienation and being lost, unable to join in with the discussions would surely quickly follow? In my first year at University I was required to study six different Shakespeare plays in a twelve-week block. One of these I had done at A Level, one at GCSE, but to say that was intense would be an understatement. If I had never really encountered his work, his stories and his language at all, I can imagine that this compulsory unit might have sent me heading for the hills. Why would I want to put my students into that position? Why would I want to exclude them by deciding I didn’t think it was important?

Others suggested that Shakespeare should be removed as he was racist. We all know that there are many examples of less than enlightened attitudes to difference in our past. Don’t even get me started on Kipling. But now think about this approach with my Year 8. We look at the description of Caliban in The Tempest. Quite clearly he is a monster. His behaviour, his desire for revenge and anger, depict him as a savage. Everyone agrees that this is what Shakespeare is showing us. Now we look at some different portrayals of that character, ending with a black actor in the role. The room initially falls silent. We then explore how this shifts our thinking. We discuss colonialism, race and ‘othering’. We are suddenly involved in one of those ‘Great Conversations’ and want to consider this more deeply. We then look at the eloquence with which Caliban talks of his Island, so full of noises, and we consider where our sympathies should lie. I am not about to suggest that Shakespeare was somehow ‘woke’ amongst the racial politics of the time, any more than I am going to believe that Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’ was ironic, but to introduce these topics in such a way, is something I would hate my students to miss out on.

Finally, I want to return to a key point in my original post: choice. In my reference to Educating Rita it was her mother’s sadness as being unable to sing a ‘better song’, that I focused on. I am not saying that Shakespeare is a better song, but it is one that has been sung for centuries now. It is sung in colleges and universities, it is sung in theatres and it is sung in our unconsciousness as he has invaded so much of our modern world. I want my students to sing along if they wish. I want my students to say they don’t like that song and go and sing another one. I want my students to be able to sing wherever they are. What I don’t want is my students to feel is trapped singing the same song. The song they don’t like. The song that has been deemed suitable for them by someone else as they are ‘disadvantaged’ students. If they aren’t going to be taught the words and the tune by someone else shouldn’t I teach them? If I don’t, what am I telling them about the conversations I think they should be involved in? I want them to be able to choose, including choosing if they never sing the Shakespeare song ever again in their life. Education should be about choices and Shakespeare will allow them to choose from something which all of us could sing about if we wished to.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The Essential Guide to Effective and Efficient Teaching is available for pre-order now!

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