Brush up your Shakespeare

12th September 1997 at 01:00
ILLUSTRATED SHAKESPEARE SERIES. Edited by Neil King. Stanley Thornes Pounds 6.50 each.

GLOBAL SHAKESPEARE SERIES. Edited by Dom Salani Chris Ferguson and Tim Scott. Nelson Pounds 5.50 each.

APPLAUSE SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY Edited by John Russell Brown. A C Black Pounds 5.99 each.

OXFORD SCHOOL SHAKESPEARE. Edited by Roma Gill. Oxford University Press Pounds 3.80 each.

CAMBRIDGE SCHOOL SHAKESPEARE. Edited by Rex Gibson. Cambridge University Press Pounds 3.95-Pounds 5.95 each.


NEW SWAN SHAKESPEARE. Longman Pounds 5.65 and Pounds 8.90 each.

HEINEMANN SHAKESPEARE. Edited by John Seely. HeinemannPounds 4.75 each.

HEINEMANN ADVANCED SHAKESPEARE. Edited by John Seely. Heinemann. Pounds 5.50-Pounds 5.99 each.

SHAKESPEARE MADE EASY SERIES. Edited by Alan Durband, Stanley Thornes Pounds 6.50 each.

THE PLAYERS' SHAKESPEARE. Heinemann.Pounds 5.25-Pounds 5.50 each.

THE ALEXANDER SHAKESPEARE. Collins Pounds 4.45 each.

Confused by the variety of editions of the plays now available for GCSE and A-level study? Peter Hollindale sorts through the current series

Some years ago, the Open University Press produced a book called Which Shakespeare? A User's Guide to Editions. Concerned chiefly with the academic end of the market, it nevertheless gave space to the major school editions - or at any rate those used at A-level - and was a useful guide for teachers.

These days, such a book aimed specifically at school needs, would be even handier. The choice of editions currently available is bewildering, and schools now have to cater for everyone from Shakespeare beginners at key stage 3 to A-level students - and even Oxbridge scholarship candidates.

The transition from GCSE to A-level is a crucial test of the coherence of any text or series. Teachers need to know whether a publisher is attempting to cover the full age range, or firmly settling on one side or the other.

Much depends on a school's choice. The edition that is selected implies a decision about A-level English itself. Is it a gradual evolutionary step from GCSE, with reassuring similarities of approach but gently steepening expectations? Yes, if you patronise Heinemann and progress from Heinemann Shakespeare to the similarly formatted Heinemann Advanced Shakespeare. Or is the stride a bolder one, still keeping to a basic GCSE study method but with significant advances in ideas, concepts and vocabulary? Yes, if you stay loyal to Longman Literature but move (for example) from Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar to Othello or King Lear.

In the Cambridge School Shakespeare the rite of passage from GCSE to A-level is blithely and confidently ignored. This series is based on the Shakespeare and Schools Project, which proved (among much else) that Shakespeare can be done productively in primary schools. In consequence, the standard boundaries collapse. Behind this series is the assumption that, given the right approach and assignments, with a heavy emphasis on practical activity, the texts and issues reserved for A-level can be opened up much earlier. Just as importantly, A-level pressures do not render practical drama obsolete. Plays do not become mere books once GCSE has come and gone.

The Heinemann Shakespeare too is linked with practical school-based programmes, in this case the RSA Shakespeare in Schools Project. If Cambridge is waist-deep in forms of dramatic enactment, Heinemann certainly wades well above the knees. A section on drama activities - including hotseating, freeze-framing and forum theatre - is uniform to all the Heinemann volumes, including the Advanced ones, and the activities programme which follows each act of the play invariably includes a section on drama which makes use of these techniques.

At A-level, teachers can grade their departmental commitment to practical drama and choose their texts accordingly. The most full-blooded emphasis on theatrical interpretation can be found in the newly-available Applause Shakespeare Library (A C Black), which is an obvious choice for theatre studies. This is rather different from reliance on techniques of enactment for exploration and learning, and here the Cambridge School Shakespeare is the most single-minded series, with Heinemann not very far behind.

This is not to suggest that Longman Literature ignores the "play as play" completely. The study programme at the end of all the Longman texts includes a section "in performance", giving opportunities for practical work. But these are mostly brief and perfunctory. Pupils are asked to "act out" or "improvise" this or that, with little practical help on how to set about it. Teachers using Longman who believe that plays are physical actions will need to make the running for themselves.

Even so, the Longman Literature series does its chosen job at A-level intelligently: it comprises probably the most critically searching of recent editions. The same publisher has kept in print the long-established New Swan Shakespeare, and rightly so. The New Swan Advanced series of the major tragedies (Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra) is probably the most substantial of all school editions, with introductions consisting of almost 100 pages of close print and detailed textual notes. They are still an excellent resource, despite their lack of all the structured pedagogic apparatus that the national curriculum has instigated in more recent products. Like the Heinemann Players' Shakespeare, another deserving survivor from former times, they are far from obsolete.

These are from a different generation of texts, based upon different concepts of A-level study. Yet if you compare the New Swan and Longman Literature introductions to Lear, it is surprising to find how little has changed. The difference lies far more in techniques of student learning and support than in critical interests and focus.

At GCSE and below the Oxford School Shakespeare, virtually the single-handed editorial creation of Roma Gill, has set the standard for many years. Beginning in the 1970s, long before the national curriculum was heard of, this series seems effortlessly to have jumped the barrier of obstacles introduced by statutory teaching obligations, and remains innocent of modern educational jargon and acronyms while catering unshowily for current needs.

Many things we now take for granted - intelligent suggestions for relating the plays to students' own lives, updated views of "character", suggestions for drama and imaginative writing - have been features of this series from the start. The books are attractively produced and a pleasure to handle.

Heinemann Shakespeare and Longman Literature are in serious competition with Oxford and each other at key stage 3 and 4. Both have a comprehensive but more heavy-handed and schematic teaching apparatus.

The Oxford School Shakespeare manages (unlike Heinemann and Longman) to be a textbook without looking like one. There are less successful efforts to bring off the same enviable trick. One is Stanley Thornes's Illustrated Shakespeare. This rather curiously puts the text, like a pocket-size photocopy, in the middle of larger pages, with notes in the corners and production photographs below. In theory this appears a neat design but it proves cluttered and messy.

A newcomer on the scene is the Global Shakespeare series (International Thomson Publishing, distributed in the UK by Nelson). This enterprise is Canadian in origin, with associates in the US and Australia. The long list of educators consulted for the series does not include a representative from Britain.

These books have considerable attractions, not least their humour. They consist of sensibly annotated texts and related readings, which include criticism, stories and poems, These are imaginatively chosen, with an enjoyable irreverence. Macbeth, for instance, reprints James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery", and quotes the view of an American professor that "a number of Shakespeare revisionists now believe that Macbeth spied the ghost of Banquo not out of guilt, but as a result of having just dined on haggis". Unfortunately, the overseas origin of these amiable, well-produced texts means they are only loosely adapted to British curricular requirements.

Along with the new, some established series still survive. The Alexander Shakespeare (Collins) looks old-fashioned and is surely past its sell-by date, but Alan Durband's Shakespeare Made Easy series, first published by Hutchinson, was re-issued by Stanley Thornes, presumably in response to a demand prompted by anxieties about Shakespeare's language.

There are better ways of dealing with that worry, as the best new series clearly show. One wholly desirable offshoot of the national curriculum has been to raisethe linguistic awareness of English teaching, so that Shakespeare seems not so much a uniquely punitive and repellent linguistic obstacle, more a key figure in the wider context of language teaching. The best of these series can share the credit for this - especially those that place Shakespeare's language among the other rich, accessible languages of movement, grouping and dramatic action.

Peter Hollindale is senior lecturer in English and educational studies at the University of York and general editor of the Macmillan Shakespeare

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