Just as in Shakespeare's times

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Gang culture; fights; stabbings; suicides; teenage mothers; wild parties; foolish religious figures trying to get in touch with youth; and a punitive state that has lost all respect and seems out of control

Gang culture; fights; stabbings; suicides; teenage mothers; wild parties; foolish religious figures trying to get in touch with youth; and a punitive state that has lost all respect and seems out of control.

What I have in mind is not the media image of contemporary Britain, but Shakespeare's "fair Verona". In his Verona, we find gangs brawling in the streets (Capulets and Montagues); young men stabbed (Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris); young people committing suicide (Romeo and Juliet); a mother boasting about teenage pregnancy (Lady Capulet); parties getting out of hand (the supper); a confused church (Friar Lawrence), and a state that can't guide or control its citizens (aristocratic Verona).

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has long been a cornerstone of the curriculum and trendy teachers have produced many relevant and updated versions of the play, all pale imitations of Bernstein's West Side Story. Isn't it reasonable to suggest that this violent play about star-crossed lovers is unacceptable, as it inadvertently glorifies the blade and gangs and presents suicide as a way out of the unpleasantness involved in growing up?

Shouldn't it be banned along with all the other material that corrupts young people's minds?

The consequences of another Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, being widely read as part of the curriculum, with its tale about a young woman who falls in love with an ass, is darkly worrying. Of course, it could be worse. If Hamlet featured more prominently on the syllabus, we could see slaughter everywhere on our streets. Shakespeare is just not morally good for you. Indeed, he is bad for you if you have no subtlety, no sense of irony and no feeling for tragedy.

The popular perception of Jane Austin as a writer of genteel costume dramas about the middle classes is an obvious example. Readers, if they really read her, seem to miss what Howard Jacobson once called "the violence of her wit" and, as he rightly said, "there is something in Jane Austin to offend everyone".

Literature is offensive to narrow conventional minds and the idea that it should be morally uplifting is to reduce it to mind-numbing propaganda. Harold Bloom, the literary critic, argues that Shakespeare invented the human and that his superiority is in his intellect. He can teach us how to think. Read carefully and well, Shakespeare can unsettle everything local, particular, and narrow. That's why the narrow-minded will always oppose thinking of the Shakespearian sort, as it leads to criticism of their ideas, which is always an offence. To make him safe, Shakespeare is now bowdlerised through teaching.

There is no crude causal or other connection between reading Shakespeare or any other literature, and developments in contemporary society. But teaching it in certain ways can do damage. Romeo and Juliet turned into a cheap morality play by socially-conscious or conservative teachers, or taught to celebrate "British culture", or as a sentimental drama of death and reconciliation, cheapens the minds of young people.

The question is open as to whether the teaching of Shakespeare in a climate of general cultural anxiety about young people and their own anxieties about life has any social impact. But the question is not open as to whether teaching Shakespeare for any reason other than to understand Shakespeare, and therefore ourselves, damages the minds of the young. It does.

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Education, Canterbury Christ Church University.

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