Education Viewpoint: Shakespeare brought to life by murder most foul
Thursday 11 February 1993
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.
Exclusive: Abusers using spyware apps to monitor partners reaches 'epidemic proportions'
UK weather: Warning for more snow and ice as freezing temperatures and gales hit Britain
UK weather: Travel chaos continues as King's Cross train delays add to snow on roads
The Unluckiest People of the Year 2014 (and one very unlucky giraffe)
North Korea calls Barack Obama 'a monkey' in latest attack as 'The Interview' row festers
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'
- 1 Exclusive: Abusers using spyware apps to monitor partners reaches 'epidemic proportions'
- 2 Margaret Thatcher 'expressed fears of Asian rising' at Anglo-Irish summit in 1984
- 3 Sussex couple die in suspected Christmas Day 'suicide pact'
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 The Unluckiest People of the Year 2014 (and one very unlucky giraffe)
£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Operating throughout London and...
£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...
£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...