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If a society has rules, how far should they be bent in a time of war? Heather Neill joins teachers discussing Coriolanus at a Shakespeare and citizenship conference.

At the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Andrew Wade, the Royal Shakespeare Company's head of voice, was leading a workshop. He had chosen a speech full of unfamiliar vocabulary but with an all-too familiar theme. It was the description by Junius Brutus, a tribune of the people, of the adulation being lavished on the hero Coriolanus in act II, scene 1 beginning "All tongues speak of him...".

All 36 of us, mainly teachers brought together in January by the British Council, the Council of Europe and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, were on our feet, choosing words to roll around the tongue, seeing the connection between sound and meaning, discovering the disgust in Brutus's language. It is the kind of exercise Andrew Wade would do with actors in rehearsal, but it had other resonances for us as well.

All the conference delegates, most of them English teachers, many from eastern Europe, had attended the RSC production of Coriolanus the previous evening. The conference theme, "Teaching Citizenship through Shakespeare" could scarcely have had a more suitable focus than this play about a charismatic leader who is a brave, even reckless soldier, but whose arrogance in peace-time makes him a liability.

The system of government in the Rome of the period provided for the people to be represented by spokesmen called tribunes who had some power in curbing the excesses of the leader. Coriolanus, of course, refuses to bow to them and join forces with the Volsci, Rome's enemies.

So questions are immediately raised: how can a leader, given his head in a crisis, be reined in afterwards and what qualities does he or she need in different circumstances? If a society has rules, how far should they be bent in time of war? How can ordinary citizens make their voices heard? And - implicit in that speech by Brutus - are crowds easily swayed by glamour and success to the point where they lose judgment?

Coriolanus was, for a short time, the ultimate celebrity. What implications do these questions have when applied to a modern democracy? Such considerations came up in discussion throughout the day, the first of a week-long conference.

Teresa O'Connor, co-ordinator for the schools and teachers programme at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is an experienced drama teacher. Many of the ideas in her session on "Citizenship and Shakespeare's World" could be adapted for English and drama lessons on other themes or different texts.

After a few minutes' introductory talk about the inteconnectedness of human systems, personal, social and public, and the need to combine imagination with action and emotion in communication, we began with some loosening-up games.

Teenagers (or teachers) instructed to rush around attempting to touch other people's knees soon lose their inhibitions. Shakespeare's playfulness with language prompted some pleasurable insult sessions. O'Connor had made three columns - two of adjectives and one of nouns - some obvious, some obscure, from the canon and, soon, normally polite teachers were relishing addressing each other as a "gorbellied, knotty-pated fustilarian" or a "mewling, hedge-born puttock". Enjoyment is the key here; meanings secondary. As in Andrew Wade's class, the physicality of language, the way meaning relates to sound and movement became clear without recourse to concordances.

Children learn to find their place in the world through play and theatre is a development of that. In Shakespeare's time the connection was more explicit, with actors generally calling themselves players who performed in playhouses. Theatre's ability to tell a story can be quickly demonstrated in action. Teresa O'Connor handed round the main plot points of Coriolanus, 14 of them, to small groups which had to work out how to make them clear in tableaux or "frozen pictures".

Then, as the short summaries were read out, the sequence of events unfolded in a few minutes. We looked in some detail at the source for the speech made by Menenius, Coriolanus's friend, about the rebellious Body. He uses this as a metaphor to try to persuade the populace that they must work together; selfishness will destroy the whole social structure. The original Aesop's fable could be used just as easily to teach citizenship or drama.

The "Members" of the Body say they no longer wish to provide food for the fat Belly and refuse to do so, but soon the whole Body became debilitated and the feet, mouth, hands, and eyes realise their mistake. Explain that, said Teresa O'Connor, in simple terms, as if to a child. Then try doing it without words. It is a fruitful exercise, requiring understanding and concentration.

That first packed day ended with a thought-provoking talk by Dr Paul Edmondson of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He placed the Roman plays politically, pointing out Shakespeare's freedom to comment safely on his own times by removing the action to another time and place. The politics in the plays remain, it seems, relevant still.

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