Bethan Marshall: The play's the thing to win the battle for the Bard

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In 1908 the recently formed English Association suggested that the best way to teach Shakespeare was to get children to act out his plays because, "There is a serious danger in the class-room, with text books open before us, of our forgetting what drama really means."

Such views have been echoed throughout the last 100 years and, given the consensus, it is surprising that there is any need to debate how best to engage pupils with the Bard. But debate there is.

The problem is in some ways inherent to the reason we study Shakespeare in the first place. It is not so much what he says as the way he says it that has made his plays an essential experience for anyone interested in literature. And therein lies part of the rub. How do you get the average child to appreciate the language of Shakespeare?

For those of us odd enough to enjoy a spot of practical criticism, the more you understand what he did with the English language the more fascinating and extraordinary his achievement becomes. Take Hamlet, for example. He extended the number of words he had previously used by around 600. The number of new coinages he introduced to the English language as a whole was over 100.

And then there are the ways he played with old rhetorical devices, like, for example, hendiadys, which have contributed to the way we now have a tendency to think in complimentary couplets of words such as law and order, or in education - teaching and learning, gifted and talented. Hamlet is full of them: "slings and arrows", "book and volume", "heat and flame", "skin and film". They act like a linguistic balancing act, each word in the pairing creating a subtle commentary on the other that both frames and deepens our reading of the image he presents.

Or there is the way he brought poetry to the natural cadence and rhythm of spoken English, in the iambic pentameter. The following exclamation, which illustrates the point, was said to be overheard by a playgoer leaving the theatre in Stratford upon Avon, "I've lost my bike. I've lost my fucking bike." And again, that well-known apocryphal story about Shakespeare - the woman who left a performance of Hamlet because it was too full of quotations - highlights the way in which whole phrases have seeped into the language. Often we cannot place them but know, for example, that most famous question "To be or not to be" or have heard of "the laws delays".

But it is the analysis of these features that, for many, kills the enjoyment of Shakespeare stone dead and re-awakens the debate as to how Shakespeare might best be approached in school. Undoubtedly, also, the way his plays are assessed contributes to the pupils' negative experience of his work. The current system of testing, particularly at 14, reduces the study of Shakespeare to a few scenes in certain set texts. The questions are dreary and predictable, requiring little or no appreciation of the play as a whole.

Perversely, while making examination of the plays statutory, these tests have encouraged a tokenistic approach to Shakespeare. And the problem with tokenism is that it reinforces the reasons why Shakespeare should be avoided - the kind of reverential bardolatry that is at best superficial and sentimental and at worst jingoistic to the point of xenophobia. It is this latter view that has made many academics question the cultural implications of Shakespeare's position as unchallenged king of the canon and the need to teach him in schools.

The politics of teaching Shakespeare was most clearly thrown into relief in the Nineties when the Conservative government claimed him as their own. Nigel Lawson remarked that, "Shakespeare was undoubtedly a Tory". John Patten insisted on his place in the curriculum because of the need for pupils to study "our literary heritage". John Major, in what became known as "The battle of the Bard", used him to beat down left wing academics and rouse the Tory faithful at the 1993 party conference.

In the end, perhaps, the play's the thing, the only justification for and way of appreciating Shakespeare, and this is certainly the view the Royal Shakespeare Company has taken. As part of its complete works festival the RSC is re-launching its education programme. At a symposium at the end of September, it invited those with an interest in Shakespeare teaching, including Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, to consider ways of enthusing pupils about his plays. Part of this campaign will involve looking at how Shakespeare is assessed. But it will also be about giving teachers the confidence to push the desks aside and get pupils watching performances. Through such endeavours they hope to ensure we don't forget what his "drama really means."

The writer is lecturer in education at King's College London