Hardly any child in England and Wales can escape Shakespeare. He is the only author prescribed in the national curriculum. Every pupil must study at least two plays between the ages of 11 and 16, and teenagers are assessed at the end of key stage 3 and at GCSE.
But the Royal Shakespeare Company fears exposure to his work may be putting pupils off Shakespeare later in life as his name becomes synonymous, not with the most memorable lines in the English language, but with classroom drudgery.
Today, pupils have to study either Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III or The Tempest between the age of 11 and 14. The National Assessment Agency, which replaced Macbeth with The Tempest this year, is inviting comments from teachers about which plays to study from 2008 onwards.
At 14, pupils are assessed by an exam based on two extracts from one of the above plays, concentrating on the text as it is performed, character and motivation, language and themes. The RSC has been highly critical of this exam model, describing it as too narrow.
At GCSE, pupils are required to study one more play of their choice and are again assessed in a written exam. In a campaign launched this term, the RSC is calling for a complete revision of the way Shakespeare is assessed to include some theatre-based practical element. Italso wants children to have more opportunities to see at least one live performance of a play by the time they leave secondary school and better training for teachers.
As the RSC points out, its campaign sounds eerily familiar. As early as 1908, the English Association warned that there was a danger Shakespeare was being confined to the classroom, with too few opportunities to see his work in the theatre.