Excessive esteem is the real tragedy

3rd May 2013 at 01:00
Take Shakespeare off the pedestal and get down in the dirt to stir students

The trouble with teaching Shakespeare is not the distance between our contemporary use of language and Shakespeare's Elizabethan English. Nor is it the complex (and often, frankly, ridiculous) plots of his plays. No, the trouble with teaching Shakespeare is that the Bard is given far too much respect.

English teachers, trained in close textual analysis of blank verse and thoroughly versed in various critical interpretations of the play in hand, can't help but pass on their reverence for the greatest English playwright to their students. For them, the play's the thing, and they make sure that their students know it. Is it any wonder that so many grit their teeth, go through the motions, learn the lines and, when the exam is over, heave a sigh of relief remembering Shakespeare only as something that had to be endured?

It shouldn't be like this. An Elizabethan theatre needed to draw in audiences of as many as 2,000 spectators a day (around 1 per cent of the city's population), about 200 times a year. New plays were constantly needed to keep the audiences coming. Much of Shakespeare's playwriting was clearly done under great pressure. His plots are taken either from historical sources or "borrowed" from others (along with dialogue, names and titles). As Bill Bryson notes, in his excellent (and short) biography: "Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories, so long as someone else had told them first."

Despite all the shortcuts, what Shakespeare does, and where his genius resides, is to take mundane, plodding material and transform it into the most compelling drama. At his best, Shakespeare articulates just what it is to be human and to feel joy, despair, jealousy and hate. And Shakespeare does not stoop to easy stereotypes. His blackest villains momentarily show signs of remorse. His heroes are flawed - and in the tragedies it is their flaws that lead to their downfall. No writer has explored with more depth how routinely men and women deceive themselves and each other.

The tricks of Shakespeare's trade attracted audiences to his plays and made them want to come again. These tricks are used today in soap operas around the world, with their mix of high drama, tragedy and comedy. Students will approach Shakespeare more confidently if they are enticed into the play and are able to make connections between what they already know and the new, unfamiliar world that they are about, with some trepidation, to enter. So don't start at the beginning. Taking inspiration from film trailers, give novice Shakespeare readers a taste of the most highly dramatic scenes in the play.

Shakespeare sometimes warmed up slowly and beginnings were not always his forte. Macbeth is a prime example. The wounded Sergeant's speech, reporting the courses of the battle and Macbeth's heroic role in it, is virtually incomprehensible to newly minted Shakespeare scholars. Let their first encounter with the play be at a high point of drama: Macbeth's return to his wife after his murder of King Duncan.

There is a rich vein to be mined here. What has happened? What can we deduce about the relationship between Macbeth and his wife? At this point all opinions are valid. Each student will have a hypothesis; they need to know more to find out if they are right. They can now start to read the play without apprehension but with whetted appetites.

Begin Romeo and Juliet at the moment before Tybalt's death when the Montagues are out and about in the heat of the midday sun. All the concerns of the play coalesce in this scene: the hatred between the Capulets and Montagues, Tybalt's viciousness and Romeo's desire for reconciliation after his marriage to Juliet. This is a pivotal point, where the play moves from romance to tragedy. Mercutio's untimely death and his curse - "A plague o' both your houses!" - leads on to the fatal brawl between Romeo and Tybalt.

It would be hard not to speculate about the causes of the fight. How long had this feud been going on? What reasons could there be for Romeo's desire to make peace with Tybalt? The discussions can lead into the play, where all will be revealed. Then change the scene to the Capulet ball and to Romeo's exclamation when he sees Juliet for the first time: "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!"

And there you have them hooked: love, sex, violence, revenge. What could be more exciting? Let's begin.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of UK education union the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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