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Teach students that Othello could be white, say academics

Could a white man play Othello? What if Romeo was cast as a girl? Delia Jarrett-Macauley, research fellow on the University of Warwick's multicultural Shakespeare project, believes questions like these could be the key to reinvigorating school Shakespeare. Here, she explains why.

My earliest memory of doing Shakespeare was of playing Puck in a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. For me, Shakespeare was all about acting and was a world away from the texts we studied in class, where we took parts and read around the group. Lessons weren’t exactly interesting − and there certainly wasn’t any specific material about black and Asian Shakespeare.

Young people today are luckier. They have lots of amazing ways into the bard’s work, from specially-targeted productions to imaginative online materials from the Royal Shakespeare Company, TES and companies such as Tara Arts. However, more could still be done to open up school Shakespeare and make it really inclusive.

That’s why I launched a writing competition for young people as part of my involvement with the AHRC-funded Warwick University multicultural Shakespeare project, British Black and Asian Shakespeare (BBAS).

The competition asked young people aged 14-25 to explore the idea of casting Shakespeare’s plays, with a focus on changing from traditional casting to something more innovative and challenging. We have received some fantastic responses from our partner schools and colleges and are hoping to repeat the competition next year. The winners, who will be announced on 20 March, will receive £200 and tickets to a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

My advice to teachers who are looking to introduce a more creative approach to teaching Shakespeare is simple: be fearless. Encourage play, questioning and experimentation. Where possible, take your students to see the work of Tara Arts, Talawa and other non-western theatre companies. Most run educational workshops and have teaching packs with exercises and background materials.

Professor Tony Howard, lead investigator for BBAS, says, “Historically “Shakespeare” has meant, and too often still means, “exclusion”. Every time we open up Shakespeare to more young people we shall make Shakespeare better − truer and more diverse.”

Traditional productions still have their place, but it is exciting to help young people develop their sense of identity by also seeing people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds working together to make art. 

Delia Jarrett-Macauley is also the author of the novel Moses, Citizen and Me, which recreates Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in post-civil-war Sierra Leone. You can find further resources for teaching Shakespeare here on TES.

The competition winners were Shirley Ahura and Honey Debney-Succoia. The runners up were Malka Wallick and Holly Waterworth.

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