The Shakespeare cult has steamrollered past better writers in our schools – and he’s not even that good

What could possibly be wrong with wanting to bring more women onto the syllabus? Or perhaps give teachers the opportunity to teach set texts from an author who isn’t white?

Rebecca Reid@RebeccaCNReid
Thursday 25 April 2019 16:23
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Simon Callow reads Shakespeare's The Tempest: 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on'

There are a few things that you are just not allowed to dislike. The Beatles, for instance. David Attenborough programmes. And as I found out today, Shakespeare.

But the thing is, I don’t like Shakespeare, and I especially disliked studying it. Which is why I agree with Hilary Mantel that Shakespeare shouldn’t be an exam topic on the UK school syllabus.

Whenever I reveal this view, someone will jump in and tell me that either I don’t understand it or that I’ve been badly taught – something which I find enormously grating. I have two degrees in English Literature. I’ve seen the RSC more times than I can count and I’ve frozen my arse off at the Globe.

I’ve watched adaptations, read literary criticism and written 10,000 words on colonialism and The Tempest. I do not dislike Shakespeare because I am stupid or because I haven’t tried. I dislike his work because for the most part I don’t think it’s very good.

It’s often said that you can reinterpret Shakespeare to make it relevant to the modern day. I can’t help wondering why we’re trying to twist a play from the 1600s to have some resonance to modern life rather than simply producing new work which actually reflects society as it stands today.

Yes, The Merchant of Venice might have some passing comments about antisemitism. You know what says more about antisemitism? The 1987 play Perdition – which is actually about antisemitism.

Much Ado About Nothing had some nice things to say about dating in the 1600s, but Patrick Marber’s Closer has many more interesting things to say about the way that humans treat each other night now.

Romeo and Juliet could arguably be cited as a play about gangs and knife crime, but if you want to see a play about gangs, surely you’d be better off seeing The Diary of a Hounslow Girl by Ambreen Razia?

The UK has produced some of the most amazing writers in the world. Why can’t we study John Osborne, Tom Stoppard, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Lucy Prebble, Polly Stenham, Caryl Churchill and Bola Agbaje, rather than going over and over the work of one man?

Why are we leaving school having read five Shakespeare plays but with no idea who William Wycherley is?

I’m not saying Shakespeare should be erased from the canon, but he is disproportionately represented on the British curriculum. I studied him more than any other author, several times over. I, like many students, really struggled to understand the Bard.

Despite having dyslexia, I have always loved to read. I read Jane Eyre when I was nine, Pride and Prejudice at 11 and attempted War and Peace at 13.

But then came Shakespeare. English, my best and beloved subject, was suddenly stolen. In place of the words that I’d worked so hard to be able to read were new words. Words which looked like English but weren’t.

Strange punctuation marks and short lines masked any kind of meaning. Once again, reading had become a battle something which I have heard time and time again from other dyslexic people.

I battled on, and 15 years later I have two English degrees, a two-book deal with one of the UK’s biggest publishing houses... and a long-held grudge against Shakespeare, who dominated my education when there are other infinitely more interesting plays to read.

Some 16.4 per cent of people in the UK have “very poor literacy skills”. One in six UK schoolchildren doesn’t speak fluent English. Around 10 per cent of people are dyslexic. Shouldn’t there at least be an option for kids who struggle to read English to study a set text play which doesn’t have ancient language and outdated punctuation?

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Given how few of us read Shakespeare or watch his plays as adults (only 22 per cent of UK adults have been to the theatre in the last year at all, let alone to see Shakespeare) I am shocked at how much outrage the suggestion of replacing him with a more diverse curriculum creates.

How could it be a bad thing to spend less time studying the work of one man who died hundreds of years ago, and more time studying a wider and more diverse list of authors?

What could possibly be wrong with wanting to bring more women onto the syllabus? Or perhaps give teachers the opportunity to teach set texts from an author who isn’t white?

We will continue to study Shakespeare, inevitably. But I still hold out hope that he will take up a smaller and smaller section of the UK curriculum, leaving space for the litany of other brilliant writers. We have an astonishing literary legacy as a nation. Why hide it in the shadow of one man?

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