Education Viewpoint: Shakespeare brought to life by murder most foul

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The Independent Online
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)