Private Viewing: It’s time to stop reading Shakespeare and start watching him on stage
- Credit: Archant
If we really want our kids to love Shakespeare then we’ve got to take him out of the classroom says Arts Editor Andrew Clarke
Last week was Shakespeare Week in the nation’s schools – not that our children would have known it around here. It seems the closest events to Suffolk and north Essex took place in Cambridge, Norwich and Chelmsford.
The idea behind Shakespeare Week is to take away the terror so often associated with studying our nation’s greatest playwright. The idea is to take William Shakespeare out of the classroom and put him back where he belongs on a stage.
His plays were written to be performed and enjoyed not read. Bill Shakespeare was a working actor not a learned creator of literature. The literature aspect was a happy accident – the result of his natural gift for storytelling and his love of language. Many English teachers may cringe at this but Shakespeare made up, simply invented, a good deal of the words that he used and his inventions are now in common usage. Estimates vary but university experts believe that Shakespeare invented about 1,700 new words during his lifetime. So if you don’t have a word to express what you want to say – make it up.
He ensured that his sentences still had meaning by changing nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, connecting existing words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, as well as devising brand new words from you could guess their meaning through context.
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Among the words that Shakespeare bequeathed the versatile English tongue were: assassination, green-eyed, bare-faced, laughable, madcap, zany, fashionable and arouse.
Although Shakespeare loved words the classroom is not the best place to encounter The Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon. The place to do that is in a theatre. Before any child or student ever opens a playscript they should see that play performed. Then later on, they should perform it themselves. Only then can they get their heads around what the play is about. Only then can they be in any position to answer an exam question on Shakespeare. Being in a production also arms them with lines they can quote to back up their learned answers to the examiner.
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Macbeth is one of my favourite plays. I love it. It’s got battles, blood, murder, deception, greed, vaulting ambition, witchcraft and betrayal all in one evening. Who could wish for anything more? I studied it twice. Once at O Level and once at A Level (yes I am that old).
I hated it at O Level. I didn’t understand it at all. It was an English literature set text and we never left the classroom. The parts were carved up and we droned on reading words we didn’t understand until we reached the last page.
Two years later at A Level, the play was transformed. Suddenly I adored this fantastic play. We had a sixth form trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon where we saw Bob Peck as Macbeth with Pete Postlethwaite as Macduff. The performance was a revelation; what was dull and confusing in the classroom now made perfect sense – more than that it was fun. The play came alive. There were sword fights, sexy witches, stabbings, ambushes. It was exactly what a 17 year old boy wanted from theatre.
Seeing plays also works for comedies. You don’t get the bits of business and physical comedy or even the word play in a classroom. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Sheila Hancock and starring Daniel Day Lewis pitched up to Farlingaye High School in a circus tent in the early 80s – that was a riot. Roger Alum and Susan Fleetwood were hysterical as Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing in the early 1990s.
Seeing the plays performed is the only real way to study these plays. Having seen them then act them out. These great pieces of drama are not written in a foreign tongue. By putting Shakespeare on stage unlocks their meaning.
Funds need to be made available for schools to start taking pupils to theatres and to take advantage of RSC and NT Live events. Tickets need not be expensive. Some schools tickets for NT Live events are priced at just £3 a ticket with staff going free, so there’s no real excuse not to take students out of the classroom and see some of the country’s greatest actors make Shakespeare and his fantastic plays come alive.
The government believes that Shakespeare, quite rightly, provided an important part of our national identity but by imprisoning The Bard in the classroom they are ensuring that William Shakespeare, playwright, storyteller and lover of language is just a dead relic of a bygone age. Let’s resuscitate him.