Teaching Shakespeare: encouraging personal development, sharing cultural capital or submitting to a political agenda?
The annual Birkbeck Arts Week enables a public audience to engage with those who study and lecture there – sharing ideas on subjects they are jointly passionate about. Those who come along are sometimes students themselves, or wish to be – considering BA, MA or PhD qualifications at an institution which has enabled life-long learning since it began as the London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823 (opening up to female students only 7 years later). The session on 22nd May this year, entitled ‘Shakespeare in the Classroom: Text and Performance’, was destined to stir particularly strong passions amongst the attendees. Shakespeare – especially the vexed question of his place in the school curriculum – always does.
The contributions of three speakers addressed issues of teaching from Key Stage 3 to undergraduate level. Many of those in the seminar audience were themselves classroom practitioners, working within the specifications which valorize Shakespeare – the only writer currently named and obligatory for all school students. Plans afoot to change GCSE Literature for future cohorts, of course, made this session even more topical.
Paul Larochelle, teaching in London and pursuing an MA in Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance, explored interesting examples of the potential power inherent in Shakespeare teaching. Examining first the ability of young actors to engage with works on stage, with reference to a project led by Susan Biondo-Hench in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and then Dr Laura Bates’ project working with Shakespeare in US prisons, it was clear to see how the vision of these women enabled both children and men convicted of serious crime to re-examine their lives and find a way of understanding both characters and themselves.
Discussing developing attitudes to Shakespeare teaching, Jackie Watson (a teacher finishing PhD work at Birkbeck) examined how Shakespeare has sometimes been seen as a literary equivalent of cod-liver oil: one recent educationalist opining that students are told ‘brushes with greatness, like some potent but ill-tasting medicine, are good for them’. Building on ideas Paul had raised about changing practice in British classrooms, she discussed attitudes to teaching on and off the page. As far back as 1908, there was – to some extent – recognition that simply reading at a desk didn’t quite open up sixteenth century texts. ‘It is desirable’ said the English Association, ‘that all the Shakespeare chosen for study should be read aloud in class … In a class of beginners the teacher must take a liberal share of the reading, but the pupils should be brought into play … the forum scene in Julius Caesar comes one step nearer the dramatic if the teacher is Anthony and the other parts are distributed and the class transformed into a Roman mob’. Sweeping aside thoughts of Year 7s with sweaty nightcaps, not all those working in drama recognize this active approach in English classrooms, with one professional recently noting that ‘It’s an English teacher’s remit to analyse language, but pick apart every word of Shakespeare and you’ve dissected the butterfly – pretty in parts but a nonsensical whole and certainly unable to fly’.
As the session moved on to the current politically charged context of English Literature teaching, Birkbeck’s Lecturer in Renaissance Theatre and Drama, Gill Woods, raised issues the whole group wished to discuss further. Was the supremacy of Shakespeare – firmly fixed in university as well as school curricula – discouraging a questioning of the literary canon? Did students’ desire to study him raise wider issues about the acceptance of Shakespeare as cultural capital? Did the valorizing of Shakespeare have unintended consequences and perhaps lessen the amount of wider early modern drama experienced in schools? Few present, of course, argued that Shakespeare is not worth acting, reading and/or teaching, but, lying as he does at the centre of the ‘English Literary Heritage’ and appropriated by the political right, what we do in classrooms has become the centre of an important debate. Passions should run high…
 Susan C. Biondo-Hench, ‘Shakespeare Troupe: An Adventure in Words, Fluid Text, and Comedy’, English Journal 99.1 (2009), pp. 37-43 and Jeremy Berlin, ‘Shakespeare in Shackles: Laura Bates’, The Innovators Project, National Geographic Online, < http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/innovators/2014/04/140428-innovator-laura-bates-prisons-solitary-confinement-shakespeare/> [accessed 4 May 2014].
 Richard Adams, ed., Teaching Shakespeare (London: Royce, 1985), p. 2.
 The English Association, The Teaching of English in Schools (Leaflet No. 7, 1908), p. 2.
 Mark Powell, Associate Director at Salisbury Playhouse, writing for The Guardian, March 2014.