Debate could well be the key to keeping Shakespeare's work alive and vital. John Gallagher reports
Should Antony have steered clear of Cleopatra? Might Isabella have been better off sleeping with Angelo? Is all really well that ends well? These were just some of the questions asked and argued over by Year 12 and 13 students from across England in the first Great Shakespeare Debate, a national event to be staged annually by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The two days of debate by 16 different schools showed just how our greatest playwright lends himself to the argumentative approach.
English teachers are quite used to lively disagreement over the dilemmas the Bard proposes in his plays. Why didn't Hamlet act sooner? Was Brutus right to join the conspirators against Caesar? Engaging with characters is, after all, half the point of literature.
Students taking part in the competition began with first-round debates on plays which they had already studied, or which they had been advised of in advance. Later rounds widened the topics to Shakespeare's possible opinions: that women should rule the world, for instance, or that his plays should be performed in modern dress.
Other motions were worthy of The TES website chatroom - should Shakespeare be compulsory in schools at all? Would he be working in Hollywood if he were alive today?
Many of the students participating found the debates were ideal preparation for the literature essays they will be writing later this year in ASA2 exams. Frankie Bonner-Evans, of Stratford's Grammar School for Girls, said:
"It gave me the confidence to believe I could create an argument from the knowledge I already have."
Playing devil's advocate on a motion with which they didn't necessarily agree encouraged the speakers to look again at the play for new evidence and face up to those "different interpretations" that examiners love to credit.
The three members of each team had to share out equally the introduction, development and conclusion of an argument, all hallmarks of a good essay.
Here in Stratford, we have already applied the debate format to the teaching of other literary texts, deciding, for example, whether Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a racist book that should not be taught.
Sixth-formers attending the two-day event were treated to debating workshops by the English Speaking Union, veteran organisers of schools debating competitions on more conventional topics such as capital punishment and world trade.
Harold Raitt, ESU education officer, describes the Shakespeare debates as "an interesting contrast to the moral and political motions we tend to encourage".
For the students, the combative style needed was a nerve-wracking change from the tolerant atmosphere of an A-level discussion. "You could be put on the spot," said Ingrid Matts, another Stratford Girl, "and then it was a case of fight or flight."
Sixteen schools, from Bradford to Kent, took part in the event, with visits to Shakespeare's birthplace and the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Crucible. The Birthplace Trust, which offered the visits and accommodation free to all participants and their teachers, is already planning to repeat the event next year. Dr Paul Edmondson, the trust's head of education, says: "It was wonderful to see and hear Shakespeare's language and ideas flying among young people beyond a classroom or theatre space."
The first winners were King's High School, Warwick; but all the students gained from the experience. As Ingrid Matts says, "I picked up an immense amount on William Shakespeare".
With next year's competition coinciding with the Royal Shakespeare Company's cycle of the complete works, interested students should start to brush up on Shakespeare and get ready for the next Great Debate.
* For further information contact the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: www.shakespeare.org.uk
John Gallagher is head of English at Stratford-Upon-Avon Grammar School for Girls