The Bard behind bars: how students are taking Shakespeare to court
At the Royal Courts of Justice, a teenager stands accused under the Malicious Communications Act. The barristers whisper as they wait for the jury to return with a verdict. Despite looking the part in their wigs and robes, these lawyers have never been in a courtroom before − because they are teenagers, too.
The A-level students are taking part in a dramatisation that puts Shakespeare characters on trial as part of a joint project between Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law (NCCL) education team based at the Royal Courts of Justice. The aim is to inspire young people from all backgrounds to pursue a career in law, while also demonstrating the current relevance of Shakespeare's work.
"Our education departments agreed that law courts are another form of theatre," says Georghia Ellinas (pictured), head of learning for Globe Education. "You have to rehearse, perform and persuade people. In that sense, law and drama are both about presenting a plausible version of reality."
While the mock trial is a common activity in the English classroom, this exercise focuses as much on learning about the law as it does on character analysis. Ellinas believes that putting a text into this type of real-world situation will help students to appreciate how the study of literature can be applied to other contexts.
"The analytical skills are very transferable," she says. "Pupils need to be able to select key evidence and weave this into a convincing argument. These same skills are being used across the curriculum. They tie into history, politics and even science to some degree."
The Malicious Communications Act has been used to prosecute people who make abusive comments on social media, so the imagined charge against Maria from Twelfth Night makes the trial particularly topical for a generation of teenagers who are spending increasing amounts of time online.
Helping young people to see the relevance of Shakespeare is a key concern for Ellinas, especially given recent research that suggests pupils struggle to relate to his work.
"Shakespeare is totally relevant to 20th-century children," she says, in response to the research. "You just have to make them aware of how it relates to them. The real-world context of the courtroom gives the material pertinence for young people and helps them see that the moral dilemmas in these plays are just as relevant now as they were in the 16th century."
At the end of the trial, the jury deliver a shock "not guilty" verdict. This leads to a dissection of the charge and debate about the freedom of speech and the nature of sentencing in UK courts. It might be more like an episode of Making a Murderer than a traditional English lesson, but the last thing it feels like is irrelevant.
Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio 2015