Simon Schama has made his opinion on the ‘Shakespeare in schools’ debate known. And he makes a very good case against those who believe that Shakespeare is not accessible, “I think it's incredibly patronising of anybody to suppose that is true of Shakespeare.”
But do those who want to reduce the amount of Shakespeare on the curriculum have a point?
This is actually a matter I’m deeply divided over. On the one hand, I believe Shakespeare to be fundamental to, quite frankly, the world’s culture and particularly key to England’s literary and theatrical heritage.
On the other hand, however, I know many adults who refuse to touch Shakespeare with a barge pole, because they were scarred by their experiences of being taught his work at school.
Why Does School Put People off Shakespeare?
Now, I don’t for one moment condone the notion that Shakespeare isn’t accessible. Like Professor Schama, I find that patronising and ridiculous in the extreme. I also believe that Shakespeare’s work is a gift that everybody should be made aware of and every school-age child should have a right to access. However, forcing it on them doesn’t appear to work, because many emerge at the other end with a deep loathing for all things Shakespeare related. So, what’s the solution?
Well, I think the problem is not the fact that Shakespeare IS taught in schools, but HOW he is taught in schools.
When I was thirteen or fourteen and studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, our lessons on the play consisted of us sitting at our desks, a handful of us being assigned parts and reading those lines aloud. Even to me, that was mind numbingly boring. We never went to the theatre to see a production, we never even got to watch a screen-adapted version - let alone get up and act some of it ourselves.
In short, it was an incredibly lazy and uninspired method of teaching and if it was the same for all those who now say they hate Shakespeare, then I can sort of understand their point of view.
How Shakespeare Should be Taught
And herein, I believe, lies the problem. Most teachers (not all I’m sure) seem to forget that Shakespeare's plays are exactly that: plays. They’re not novels, which are meant to be internalised. Instead, they are visual spectacles, with action and violence and, most importantly, excitement.
Not only does experiencing Shakespeare’s work in the way the man himself intended make the plays much less boring, but it also makes them easier to understand, because, suddenly, when put into a context, those more archaic of Shakespearean words begin to make sense.
Even more importantly, Shakespeare needs to be taught in a way that keeps the dynamic, excitement of the plays alive. Sitting in a stuffy classroom, listening to the monotone strains of a fellow pupil awkwardly reciting the ‘to be or not to be’ speech is not the way to incite excitement for Shakespeare’s work.