'Don't simplify complex Shakespeare with emojis'

The joy of great art is in the understanding – to reduce it to emojis does our pupils a disservice, write one author

Martin Robinson


In the 1970s, living, as I did, in a rural area, Sundays felt as though the world had stopped. Nowadays, I might think of this as bliss, but then it was hell. No TV, no shops, no buses: one felt trapped. If I could meet up with friends then that was good but it didn’t always happen. And the dread of school on Monday would seep into my consciousness earlier and earlier. I was ?.

Sitting in my room feeling sorry for myself listening to the dreadful Doors, for whom I retain a soft spot, and reading about Jim Morrison I came across a reference to Keats and his Ode to Melancholy. Later that week, digging around in the school library I read the poem. Now I had a way into my Sunday feeling, I was no longer sad, I was melancholic – which sounds so much more interesting – and I had a way of dealing with it. Nowadays if I was a sullen teenager I might be sending out emojis of sad faces on social media, or grumpy cats.

The philosopher and clinical scientist, Raymond Tallis, describes our need for the arts as arising from ‘the wound in the present tense of consciousness’, and this was my need for Keats’ poem. This was unbeknownst to me at the time but it gave me a way of constructing an emotional world for myself that was richer, more varied, more romantic and thoughtful than the one word ‘sad’ from which there is no escape, no nuance, no possibility of warmth, calm, feeling at home with melancholy which became a well of creative possibilities. Thanks to Keats I could write my teenage poetry, which owed more to Jim Morrison than the romantic poet, more’s the pity.

This came to mind when I read in Tes week that ‘growing numbers of teachers are using emojis to help children engage with Shakespeare’s work’.  A teacher is quoted as saying after each bit of a play children are asked to summarise the scene with two emojis and then explain it in written form.

Yet, I argue, it is this very use of emojis to summarise that is so limiting and damaging to examining great art which can only truly be glimpsed through a glass darkly. The mystery of it unfolds its meaning –Shakespeare’s plays do not easily become packaged into reductive little visual summations. Everything comes to us imbued with our way of understanding it and this relationship between how we know, understand and feel something needs to be expansive rather than reductive.

Just like putting a B- on a piece of writing reduces it to a commodity for transactional purposes so does bunging a smiley emoji next to ‘With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.’ It misunderstands the complexity and by being the first reaction to something it forever simplifies it.

'Good things come to those who wait'

I think it is better to withhold reaction, to envelop oneself in the mystery and come to know it, rather than trap oneself into instantaneous reactions. The best way to grapple with Shakespeare is by reading it out loud, learning it, and performing it.

An embodied approach, by making it move, one can grapple with gesture, facial expressions, pace, pitch, pause, tone, inflection: the whole complexity of Shakespeare opens up worlds of understanding. Instead of summing up with a diminished emotional symbol we expand our understanding with the multiplicity of understandings that are found in his work and we no longer need to know straight away. Good things come to those who wait.

In her fascinating book ‘How Emotions are Made’ Lisa Feldman Barrett posits the theory that we construct emotions, socially and culturally. We have physical responses, but our understanding of our emotions are from a different place. Our felt emotions are constructed through complex networks of understanding. She suggests we are ‘architects of our own experiences’. For her the qualitative experience of being a successful architect is important. Our biology and environment conspire to structure our emotional response. She cites how emotional responses vary across different cultures and how different languages construct different emotional paradigms. She suggests that ‘children with richer conceptual systems for emotion’ are likely to do better. Her way of ensuring this occurs is to open children to more art, literature, philosophy, the humanities, to give them a wider vocabulary in order to both be able to drill down into understanding how other characters and situations arise and make sense of the world but also to reflect on how they might be able to express themselves in a more nuanced and, ultimately, more thoughtful and eloquent way.

To learn that ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ the confusions and tangled tales of Midsummer Night’s Dream through rich and varied engagement with the text itself is one of the joys of being at school. It will last a lifetime and give a person ballast throughout their lives as lovers. To see it reduced to immediate emojis will instead give a child the idea that the reductive emotional emoji palette is the primary way to experience the world, but actually, that idea is ?.

Thanks to Keats, I learned to no longer be simply sad but to embrace the melancholic in order to ‘feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.’

Rather than a quick glimpse at an emoji to simplify, I was opened up to the creative possibilities involved in building, and continuing to build, a complex emotional architecture for my way of understanding the world.

Martin Robinson is an educationalist, author, writer, consultant, orator and liberal artist. 

In this week's Tes, Kate Parker looks at the use of emojis in the classroom, and asks: is there any proof of their effect on learning? You can subscribe to read it here, or find it in any good newsagents.

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Martin Robinson

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