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When I was thirteen my father bought me a ticket to the RSC production of Julius Caesar. I had no idea what to expect. Two and a half hours later I left the theatre with a sense of walking on a pavement several feet above everyone else. The first scene had confused me - what was that all about? But the second scene - in which the jealousy-racked Cassius, in a furious attempt to persuade Brutus to join him in a conspiracy to kill Caesar - thrilled and transported me throughout the rest of the complexities of the play. Of course, I did not understand every word and reference. What held me was the psychology - above all of Cassius, who still fascinates me today and whose utterly believable combination of pettiness and nobility makes him as recognisable now as he must have been in Shakespeare's day - and in ancient Rome!

Perhaps, most crucially, I - from an immigrant background and with parents whose first language and culture had not been English - felt embraced by the play. The ancient Roman setting and the Elizabethan language proved no barrier between me and my complete immersion in its world.

At school we "did" Shakespeare. He came in small books with lots of notes at the bottom of each page. A play would last the twelve weeks of term. It was the focus of scene analysis and essays which required the dissection of plot and character. Quotations were learned for exams. No-one ever suggested acting any of it. But, by the end of term, we knew it - line by line. I - for whom Julius Caesar was the start of an avid theatre-going habit - found this deadening. It killed several plays, among which Macbeth has never recovered.

Clearly, Shakespeare has survived successive generations of educationalists' attempts to stifle him. Shakespeare sells out in every theatre-going country around the world. And successive education ministers still insist that Shakespeare is on the curriculum. In other words, every pupil in the country will encounter him in some form while at school. And they will be examined on him at GCSE.

This is a challenge. One in seven UK schoolchildren speak a first language other than English. For anyone - native speaker or not - Shakespeare - who is, after all, 400 years dead - can, on paper, seem daunting. And successive directives from education tsars have done much to put up barriers between the plays and the pupils.

Politics and dogma have beset the setting of the English curriculum and, above all, of the way it is examined. One of the stupider approaches to this in recent decades has been to prescribe "scenes from" a Shakespeare play. Out-of-school tutors were besieged by bemused pupils who'd been set character studies of Lady Macbeth on the strength of three scenes but who had little grasp of the overall story. This was dumbing down of a particularly numbskull kind and has, thankfully, been abandoned.

It has, however, been succeeded by a similarly pointless stipulation that the play should be studied in its "social and cultural context" taking in " attitudes in society...expectations of different cultural groups and the way in which texts are received and engaged with by different audiences, at different times..." .

Why is this so stupid? Millions of words have been written about Shakespeare in his time. The economic, social, political, religious and cultural complexities of, for example, just one year - 1599 - was the subject of a sizeable book by James Shapiro and then another on 1606 - the year of Lear. Stipulations such as those in the GCSE specification ensure that pupils get a ludicrously over-simplified idea of historical context. In effect, this means that they learn that women did not have equal rights in Shakespeare's day and that everyone was racist (think Shylock and Othello). In the 50-odd minutes in which they are expected to write in depth and detail about their play, these stipulations are a simply foolish and outdated nod to political correctness.

Take a strange island setting, a lonely princess, a pair of jealous rivals, a resentful, half-human monster, a murderous plot, an angry father - add magic and mystery, and you have The Tempest. Take a black war hero, revered for his heroism, despised for his race, marry him to an aristocratic white woman and send him as governor to a war-ravaged island where he is fooled by a jealous underling into killing his wife and you have - O, Iago, the pity of it! - Othello. Take a pair of old lovers determined to fight and hate each other while their younger, more romantic friends, fall in love. Take a cruel trick, the seeming death of the bride-to-be, turn the wit and banter into soul-searching and honesty and you have the hilarity and poignancy of Much Ado.

The point is that the stories, the drama and the human sympathies to which they appeal transcend barriers of language, geography and social milieu. English teachers with experience of teaching multi-ethnic classes often find that learners with a family history of conflict, deracination or deprivation can engage most immediately with the plays and their essential humanity.

So - how to make the experience of Shakespeare an overwhelmingly positive one for today's learners? Pupils who encounter Shakespeare as performance - and many schools now have inspiring performance spaces, technical facilities and production values - can have a very different and creative "take" on the bard. Those taking GCSE drama are also required to see and appraise live theatre and many are introduced to professionally produced Shakespeare this way. In recent years, the huge popularity of eg David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch has led to thousands of TV-fed youngsters rapturously cheering productions of Much Ado, Richard II and Hamlet.

But, not everyone has access to professional theatre. The plays need to leap off the pages. Confident English teachers know how it's done. Take King Lear - a brilliant option for GCSE learners - though, sadly, not often prescribed at this level. The sheer drama of the piece will stir up any class if it is not treated reverently. The pathos of the discarded king who learns too much too late, the audacity of the duplicitous but irresistible Edmund, the rivalry of the daughters, the selflessness of Kent and the Fool, the savagery of Cornwall, the surreal story of Gloucester, the terrible, inevitable, end. Plenty of time to go back, once the story has been encompassed, to look at specific scenes, at language, at imagery, at structure. The fact is that Shakespeare is, fundamentally, theatre - meant for three hours' intense experience. In reading Lear you should feel the pain. Much Ado should shock you with injustice, crease you up with fun. And Macbeth - even for Game of Thrones-hardened youngsters, will still appal.

What matters is intense engagement between the play and the pupil. This should not be a forum for social engineering but an opportunity for a teacher to involve the pupils in the world and drama of the play itself, thus opening a whole new source of pleasure and fulfilment that can last a lifetime. Teachers - always the best judges- can do just fine this if left to get on with it without political interference.

Shakespeare writes about us - his characters are rounded, infinitely various, wholly human. In exploring them, we explore ourselves - whoever we are. Recent productions, for example the National Theatre's As You Like It, using modern settings and contemporary references, make him accessible to everyone. Once we tune in, we can also engage with the extraordinary freshness of his language and capacity to create visual explosions in the mind. We underestimate Shakespeare at our peril. To underestimate our pupils is more perilous still.

Susan Hamlyn, Director The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants

April 2016

The Good Schools Guide Blog


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