Should Shakespeare be compulsory in schools?

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Shakespeare is the only prescribed author in the UK schools’ National Curriculum but not everyone thinks compulsory Shakespeare is a good idea, least of all teachers. Before the launch of the National Curriculum in 1988 examining boards advised teachers to steer low achieving students away from Shakespeare and in 1993, after he became required reading, five hundred academics signed a letter to the Times Educational Supplement saying, ‘We are all committed to the study of Shakespeare; but to make such study compulsory for 14 year olds […] is to risk permanently alienating a large number of children from the pleasurable understanding of classical literary works.

Knowledge of Shakespeare constitutes what Pierre Bourdieu called ‘cultural capital’, part of the built-in advantage which children from educated, middle class families have over those from less privileged homes. Education is a key enabler for social mobility and including cultural education as well as practical learning in the National Curriculum is intended to level the playing field and help give every child a fair start in life. But the National Curriculum is not as national as it sounds and it hasn’t had the impact politicians hoped for. Scotland was always exempt, as are academies and independent schools in England and Wales, free schools will be and Shakespeare is not required for either the English Baccalaureate nor IGCSEs.

And for every person who discovered a love of Shakespeare in school someone else was turned off him. Helen Mirren doesn’t think students should have to read Shakespeare in school, ‘Honestly, I don’t think kids should be made to read Shakespeare at all. I think children’s first experience of Shakespeare should always be in performance in the theatre or in film – mostly in theatre, but it should be a performance because that makes it alive and real.But theatre attendance is heavily skewed by class, ethnicity and region so if you wait for young people to discover Shakespeare in the theatre then the most socially deprived never will and you’re in danger of reinforcing rather than breaking down social inequality. Mirren also seems to have forgotten about her own English teacher whom she had previously credited with introducing her to Shakespeare. Patrick Stewart was another clever, working class child who owes his love of Shakespeare, and subsequent career, to an inspiring English teacher rather than a theatre visit, It was the first time I ever held a copy of Shakespeare in my hand and it was certainly the first time I ever had Shakespeare’s words in my mouth. That’s when it happened for me.’

When the RSC launched its Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign the then director of learning, Maria Evans, said boring lessons were putting students off Shakespeare for life. The Government is currently reviewing the National Curriculum so do we need to teach him better, make him optional so teachers can decide when and if he’s right for their students, or should we think the unthinkable and drop him altogether?

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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
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  • Andrew

    I couldn’t agree more, Tyler, but then I’m a drama teacher so I would, wouldn’t I? I find myself pulled in different directions on this, on the one hand Shakespeare’s 400 year old language represents a form of abstraction which Bourdieu condemns as ‘predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences’, which is obviously a bad thing. Given that Shakespeare has been turned into an expression of class it makes sense to give working class children access to him rather than locking them out, but does that just perpetuate the class difference? Would we be better off validating working class culture rather than entering working class children into a race in which they start miles behind their middle class contemporaries? There are no easy answers but it’s an endlessly fascinating question so thanks for joining in the conversation.

  • The Shakespeare Forum

    I find it interesting that this article references the low achieving students away from Shakespeare. It seems to me that Shakespeare is and will be taught as high art. Treating it as classical works that should be placed in museums or fancy theatres for the wealthy to see will OF COURSE alienate the children.

    For students who are struggling in schools there’s nothing better than alternative learning.

    Listening to Helen Mirren does not necessarily mean banishing Shakespeare from schools but it means not sitting down and reading it in a classroom. Standing up, acting out, discovering that these characters and these plays were often written FOR these children who want to rebel or discover their feelings and emotions, that’s what Shakespeare can be used for. 

    Our societies were not built upon the backs of books, they were built on the backs of stories. These are stories that can be interpreted and re-interpreted a thousand times and are invaluable to the creativity and discovery of all future generations….

    ….now if you’ll excuse me, this soap-box is kind of tall….

    Much love

    Tyler Moss
    Artistic Director,
    The Shakespeare Forum

  • Anonymous

    Andrew, I agree with you and read the Guardian article with interest.
    The BBC series did little for me; it improved when Jonathan Miller took over but was a great missed opportunity. For the history plays the ESC productions have exciting and clear story telling but are sadly only available (if you can find them) in VHS.
    Sam Wanamaker met Shakespeare in 30 minute adaptations at the Chicago World Fair.  I wondered how that could work until I saw the Animated Tales.  Each in a different style and cleverly adapted by Leon Garfield.  The artwork provides another link into schools through creativity projects. They provide a splendid introduction.

  • Andrew

    Couldn’t agree more, Alan, I sometimes suspect that Baz Luhrmann has done more to reconnect young people with Shakespeare than all the rest of us put together! The BBC’s complete works series is over 30 years old and it’s hard to find good, contemporary versions to show young people with no access to a theatre how exciting Shakespeare in performance can be. I would still, on balance, prefer to keep him in schools on the grounds that if you’re not introduced to demanding ideas by a teacher than when will you be, but the problem is how? When he was dropped from SATs at age 14 that should, in theory, have freed schools to teach him how they like but in practice a lot of schools simply dropped him ( ) so I don’t pretend there’s an easy answer to this.

  • Anonymous

    Andrew, it is certainly an argument against rigid central government instructions!  Shakespeare’s inclusion smacks of nationalism and Tebbit’s cricket test. 
     ‘Please sir, why are we doing this?’
    ‘Because it’s good for you and should make you proud to be British {or do I mean English).’
    Seriously though, there is a risk of putting children off for life at aged 14 if not presented in an exciting way.  We need more films like Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet to use as classroom material.  

  • Andrew

    Thanks Alan. That almost sounds like an argument for making Shakespeare optional, or have I misread you? I certainly have friends in the drama teaching world who quite like the fact that drama is outside the National Curriculum which is, as you say, too crowded and they have more scope to tailor their lessons to the needs of their students rather than having to follow rigid central government instructions.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for the reply, Christian. I agree with Lev Vygotsky that learning is primarily social but my question is not really how to teach Shakespeare but why? Bourdieu says taste is a class marker and a preference for Shakespeare over, for example, James Bond movies, is class-based and mandating that all children should master a form of learning which privileges the ‘sublimated, refined [and] disinterested’ over ‘coarse, vulgar, venal, servile – in a word, natural – enjoyment’ legitimises more than it bridges social differences. (Bourdieu, ‘Distinction’). I think making him mandatory is, on balance, better than making him optional but I can see the argument on both sides.

  • Alan Butland

    Shakespeare is first and foremost a playwright and this is the route to enjoyment and understanding.  It was an English teacher who showed me the theatre of the plays, opening my eyes and ears and leading to my joining the Southsea Shakespeare Actors.  The theatre has remained at the centre of my life ever since. 
    Teaching Shakespeare as theatre has evolved over the years but to do it well is resource intensive and the National Curriculum is too crowded to give it enough breathing space.  However I am heartened, for example, by Globe Education’s approach which engages children at all levels in the most exciting ways, and involves teachers in developing and delivering their programmes.

  • Christian Smith

    I agree with Sylvia that the key has to be good teaching. This includes seeing the play and performing (at least some of) the play.  When I trained to be a teacher I developed a method and wrote it up as my thesis. It is called empathy in the zoped. The zone of proximal development is Vygotski’s notion of the space between what a student knows and what the teacher wants the student to know. The movement across that space is accomplished when the student and teacher enter into a social relationship called teaching. They construct knowledge through this social relationship. It is my contention that the most effective posture for the teacher to take in the zoped is empathy. By this I mean that the teacher understands and can feel the student’s learning experience as the student understands it herself. The teacher must be able to sense the student’s movement across the zoped and adjust her teaching accordingly. If the teaching of Shakespeare were to be done in this manner, then students would not stay bored or feel alienated from the plays, because the teacher would sense it immediately and vary the teaching style. This style can even be done with large groups – it requires sensing the group learning as a whole. The negative effects of teaching Shakespeare that some people complain about arise from not being sensitive enough to teach it in the zoped. The world of Shakespeare is a space for people to engage with each other, not a lesson to be crammed into one’s head.

  • Andrew

    Thanks Sylvia. As a drama teacher myself, my short answer to the question is, unsurprisingly, ‘yes’! I’ve taught Shakespeare at primary, secondary and tertiary levels and to students with learning difficulties and I’ve never met a group that couldn’t learn from and respond to his work but the key is, of course, teaching methods. Milton has already gone the way of Latin in most schools and the range of Shakespeare plays taught seems to have shrunk to maybe 10 at most so I think there’s a risk Shakespeare could be gone in a generation. But the advantage Shakespeare has over Milton is that Shakespeare is drama, not just literature, so young people can see him performed by Doctor Who or dress up and perform him themselves but I’d love to hear how teachers with a literature rather than a drama background bring the plays to life in the classroom.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Andrew, I was taken to Shakespeare on the stage when a child and we also acted out scenes in class, but I only got really hooked when we looked really closely at the speeches and scenes in English lessons at school. The key has got to be good teaching, but I don’t know how this is defined especially since different people react so differently. It’s a fascinating subject for discussion though!

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