Education Letters: Bard reactions

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Brandon Robshaw's groan of despair is surely only defensible if Shakespeare is taught as an academic subject, and the teacher fails to respond to the drama of the plays ("Why it's time to give the Bard the heave-ho!", 24 April, EDUCATION & CAREERS). The man was an actor, for heaven's sake – and the plays should be taught up on the feet not lumpenly over a desk. Everything makes more sense if you're standing up and speaking the stuff.

Language of that order is empowering to those who have never been asked to follow a thought to its conclusion, and to whom no one has probably ever listened. It's all very extreme stuff, and kids, as I understand them, like extreme; nothing namby-pamby and colourless here. It's more likely the teachers, not the students, who need encouragement to be braver. Bad teaching puts the kibosh on the best of tirades.

Janet Suzman, London, NW3

Brandon Robshaw's reasons are convincing. Sixty years ago, I too found the texts too archaic to understand. Then I played Bottom the Weaver, and A Midsummer Night's Dream came alive. I relished the language, and eventually became a first long-contract artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company, staying throughout the 1960s.

My point is that some children, if taught to understand the characters' thinking, will be released by becoming supremely articulate through rolling those unique lines on their tongues and lips. Acting the stuff reveals the humanity under the archaic fog.

Clive Swift, London, NW8

I agree that we should stop teaching Shakespeare in school. I disagree that if you don't like Shakespeare, you "don't get it". Quite the reverse, I should say. It's those who like Shakespeare who need to wise up. We have a huge Shakespeare industry, relentlessly promoting the myth of his brilliance. Teachers, lecturers, professors, actors, directors, novelists, playwrights, politicians... they all know that playing the Bard card is never a bad move.

From what I can gather, Shakespeare was respected but hardly revered in his own lifetime. There was no obsession with Shakespeare until as late as the 19th century, when the Bard's hype machine went into overdrive. Why weren't we told that at school? Judging by the quality of his typical audiences, Shakespeare's modern equivalent is probably a scriptwriter for EastEnders. Can you imagine some pretentious clown telling us, 400 years hence, that if we don't like EastEnders, we "don't get it"? Ah, such incisive characterisation and dazzling psychological insight. The bleak humour and poignant emotion that sears every page. And above all, the divine use of language: "You slag!"

Mike Hockney, Newcastle upon Tyne

Congratulations to Brandon Robshaw. I have felt for a long time that forcing all children to "study" Shakespeare from the age of 13 will have the counter-productive effect of putting many of them off the Bard for life. As the article suggests, Shakespearean English is a foreign language, in which most pupils have little or no training.

It is a self-evident principle of learning that students will try to master a skill that is only slightly beyond their range, but we've all had experiences when something has been so far beyond our ability that we've simply given up in despair. That is the case for countless numbers of our native schoolchildren, not to mention those for whom even modern English is something they, with the best will in the world, are struggling to master.

Graham Griffiths, Bury, Lancs

Our experience of working on Shakespeare in schools has been very different from Brandon Robshaw's. Over the past 30 years, the RSC has worked with literally thousands of young people of all backgrounds and abilities, and has constantly seen them both "get" Shakespeare and not just "like" him, but love him. In our manifesto for Shakespeare in schools, "Stand up for Shakespeare", we recommend that, for young people to have the most enriching experience of Shakespeare, they need to do it on their feet, exploring the plays as actors do; see it live; and start it earlier.

Some of the most inspirational teaching of Shakespeare we have seen has been in the primary classroom, where children delight in learning new and unusual uses of language, and approach texts with a playfulness that we see actors and directors use in rehearsals.

We treat the plays as if the ink were still wet on the page – we are constantly asking ourselves what these texts mean to us today. Asking this same question of the young people we work with, and giving them the tools they need to unlock the language and living dilemmas in the texts is a way of ensuring that Shakespeare remains one of the most exciting, and relevant, parts of the curriculum.

Jacqui O'Hanlon, Acting Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company

Brandon Robshaw believes that force-feeding children Shakespeare can only induce nausea and a lifelong aversion. I suggest the opposite. Tore Wretman, the great Swedish chef, argued that you need to be "tortured" by traditional Swedish food as a child to love it as an adult.

Per Sodersten, Stockholm, Sweden

nnn I recently introduced my Year 5 class to Hamlet. Given that they come from a mixed socio-economic area with some deprivation, I was anxious to make the experience as exciting as possible. Implementing ideas and techniques from several RSC courses, we acted out parts of the play, explored characterisation, motivation and dilemmas. This was supplemented with a trip to a Shakespeare4Kidz production at The Lowry. The children's responses were uplifting, with comments including, "This was the best school trip ever."

If a group of primary-school children from a deprived area feel like this about Shakespeare, surely there is hope for all school children?

Jennifer Bolton, Longton, Lancs


Thank you for the thought-provoking article by Rachel Pugh about transgender pupils. Things can be so much worse for them than for adults, partly because their access to help and medical intervention is much more restricted, and because staff in schools and colleges are often completely ignorant of the issues.

Howard Miles, UCU National Executive Committee


We must take issue with the table headed "employment prospects" in the story about degrees and jobs prospects in The Complete University Guide (24 April, EDUCATION & CAREERS.) The table focuses on one statistic – that 34 per cent of chemistry graduates are employed in a graduate job six months after graduating. You have omitted the key fact that only 7 per cent of chemistry graduates are unemployed.

A glance at the full table reveals that just 14 per cent of chemistry graduates are in non-graduate jobs – 79 per cent are in fully fledged graduate roles, or are still studying.

Chemistry graduates are, in reality, subject to high demand, in fields directly related to chemistry, and in professions such as the financial services, where their proven skills – not only in data analysis and numeracy, but also their understanding of the physical world, and the providing of robust intellectual challenges – are highly valued and well rewarded.

Dr Richard Pike, Chief executive, Royal Society of Chemistry

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