Education Viewpoint: Shakespeare brought to life by murder most foul

A FEW weeks ago my 14-year-old nephew phoned. An able, talented boy, he attends a prestigious local- authority grammar school that is proud of its achievements in the recent league tables.

Now his school is faced with the 'problem' of teaching Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream or Julius Caesar - for this summer's English tests for 14-year-olds.

My nephew's class was 'doing' Julius Caesar. He had not read or seen a Shakespeare play before. Boys and parents were advised to buy a book of study notes. And that was before they even talked about the play or looked at its script. Robert was apologetically requesting that his Shakespeare-loving, English-teaching aunt should produce from her bookshelves an instant crib, so that puzzled pupils could translate Shakespeare's immortal words into banal modern English.

Shakespeare's plays were written for the entertainment of ordinary people who flocked willingly to see them in such numbers that the playwright died a rich man. His plays still fill theatres. The stories of love, murder and revenge, on themes of jealousy, ambition or sorrow, are central to all human experience. They can be made accessible to anyone, regardless of age and background. If a young child can cope with Snow White, or David and Goliath, then at a basic level he or she will make something of Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice. Witness the recent animated Shakespeare on television, watched by many five-year- olds with pleasure, and some understanding.

I am delighted that almost all children (although personally I'd extend it to all) will now experience Shakespeare. I want them to share the pleasure and excitement I feel when I read or hear the epilogue from The Tempest: 'Now my charms are all o'erthrown,/And what strength I have's mine own', or the insomniac Henry V reflecting on the agonies of kingship: 'Not all these, laid in bed majestical/Can sleep so soundly as a wretched slave.'

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, is right. Our schoolchildren are entitled to encounter Shakespeare. But, as things are now prescribed, many teachers will merely regurgitate their own or someone else's notes to disengaged minds. Surely that is not what those at the educational helm really want?

It is all a matter of presentation. Julius Caesar is a good starting point for a group of novice Shakespearians, so I usually share it with pupils in their first year of secondary schooling. The story is simple. There is no sub-plot. At 11, most have some background knowledge of ancient Rome.

Making it quite clear that this is a game, we have great and memorable fun planning how and why we might publicly murder the headteacher. In assembly? How would we behave while we were plotting? We would be furtive, meeting by night. We would have to egg each other on by recounting tales of the head's inadequacies. We would all need hands-on involvement so that the responsibility or guilt was communal. Would it work? Would the governors appoint one of us as headteacher? Of course not. It was a flawed plan from the start. Thus imaginatively we feel our way into the atmosphere of Julius Caesar.

We look at Shakespeare's language, remembering that this is a play script, not a novel, so we do plenty of dramatic practical work. Blank (unrhymed) verse differs from prose. There are five beats in each line. We chant and march to 'O mighty Caesar] dost thou lie so low?/Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils . . .' and sing the lines to the tune of 'Abide with Me', so as to get the feel of the iambic pentameter.

Incidentally, why does Shakespeare make some characters use this verse and others ordinary prose? And if it's to characterise nobility, then why on earth does noble Brutus stumble prosaically at Caesar's funeral? Yes, there's plenty of scope here for exploration of character, style and Jacobean dramatic conventions. We learn about puns ('mender of soles'), assonance ('noblest Roman'), tautology ('rise and mutiny'), personification ('this is a sleepy tune; O murderous slumber') and so on. Important knowledge of literary devices is much more likely to be retained if met in an interesting context.

We also study what the characters say and why. Why does Antony in his funeral oration reiterate four times that Brutus is an honourable man? What tone of voice would he use? Which words in Brutus's 'It must be by his death' soliloquy tell you that Brutus now regards Caesar as poisonous or evil? In this way, then, even the weakest child will have some real grasp of what is going on.

In my single-sex 11-16 'secondary modern' school I strive to make Shakespeare effective, lively and pleasurable learning. We try to round off work on a play with a theatre visit or by bringing in a Theatre-in-Education group. It works. There is positive evaluation in the excited question often posed at the end: 'When can we do another Shakespeare play?'

Unsurprisingly, my nephew found Shakespeare very boring. He cannot see why I'm so keen on it. It is shameful that his teachers have let him feel like that.

I suspect it is almost deliberate. Some academic elitists in my profession resent the new obligation to share great literature with youngsters, falsely arguing that it is inappropriate, unsuitable and irrelevant. Apparently determined that their prophecy shall be self-fulfilling, they do it very badly. Robert and hundreds like him have probably been put off for life.

The writer teaches English at a secondary modern school in Kent.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Nurse and Room Leader - Hackney

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a qualified childcare p...

QAA: Independent member of the QAA Board of Directors

Expenses paid in connection with duties: QAA: QAA is inviting applications to ...

AER Teachers: PPA TEACHER/MENTOR

£27000 - £37000 per annum: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This is a large and vibra...

AER Teachers: EYFS Teacher

£27000 - £37000 per annum: AER Teachers: EYFS TEACHERAn 'Outstanding' Primary ...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea