Leading Article: A dead male playwright

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The Independent Online
JOHN PATTEN's decision to include a play by Shakespeare in the national curriculum for all 14-year-olds has produced angry reactions from some teachers' representatives. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the union NASUWT, was quoted as saying the proposal was 'fine for grammar school kids, but I think it will be boring and irrelevant for a good half of pupils'.

Such attitudes are supposedly sensitive to gritty classroom realities and the needs of the mass of pupils, but they can easily become patronising. They suggest either that the works of our greatest playwright are too difficult for most teenagers, or that the dramas have nothing of value to say to them. This is to deny a great opportunity to children of average intelligence or below, to those from the working class or from ethnic minorities. They have a right to expect the challenge and the satisfaction of coming to grips with a crucial part of their nation's cultural heritage.

Shakespeare was, indeed, a white, middle- aged male who died some 400 years ago. But that is no reason for his works either to be studied, or marginalised - as happened until relatively recently in many schools. He should stand or fall on the merit of his art. Of course Shakespeare is not easy. Few rewarding experiences are. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest (pace Mr De Gruchy) that there is a growing amount of good teaching of Shakespeare going on, and that good teachers recognise and are able to bring out the excitement and fun, as well as the contemporary relevance, of many of his plays.

Hamlet, for example, is far more than a study of the theological implications of regicide in medieval Scandinavia. It is also a timeless drama of teenage angst. At this level it concerns a boy coming to terms with sexuality and corruption, with the death of his father and with the behaviour of his mother who has, he fears, betrayed her husband. Macbeth is about the price people may be required to pay as they claw their way to the top of any organisation. Julius Caesar is about the assassination of a once-noble Father of the Nation and the confusion, civil war and eventual military takeover that came in the wake of the killing.

Many youngsters whose parents came to this country from former British colonies will have family tales of the night the president was shot and the soldiers took to the streets. Any child who has witnessed the violent collapse of Communism night after night on television news will know that power does not always pass peacefully via the ballot box. In addition to being rattling good yarns, replete with action, blood and guts, Shakespeare's plays have great contemporary resonance.

The key to teaching his works successfully to pupils who may have little interest in English as an academic subject and no inclination to go beyond GCSE level, is to remember that Shakespeare wrote popular commercial drama. He did not write texts to be pored over 400 years later. He wrote vibrant blank verse to be exclaimed aloud and exulted in. The first essential is that children should get out of primary school and attend performances. Then they can discuss and re-enact for themselves. Only later need they be led to more formal literary analysis. The fact that Shakespeare retains such a wide box office appeal among adults suggests that Mr Patten has identified a popular mood.

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