Make the Bard fun!;Reviews;General;Secondary

24th April 1998 at 01:00
TEACHING SHAKESPEARE. Rex Gibson. Cambridge University Press. pound;8.95.

Rex Gibson really is our Shakespeare Man. Interviewed recently, he told how he starts each day at about 6.45am by reading a few of the sonnets (he is up to number 64 in learning them by heart) and how while eating breakfast he often gazes out at a 10-foot statue of Hamlet's father that stands by his garden pond.

Teaching Shakespeare, packed with practical ideas for bringing the plays alive in the classroom, is just the kind of book to be expected of him, and its wealth of inventive strategies will already be familiar to those who use editions of the Cambridge School Shakespeare. It is the man himself, sharing an "archive of successful lessons" - many of them reported or inspired by the numerous teachers with whom he has had direct contact.

What, then, is now on offer is a systematic extension of the classroom activities that fill each left-hand page of the individual scripts in the series. Scripts, not texts. At the core of this generous book lies the conviction that dramatic enactment - often of just a small section of a scene - celebrates the openness of each play to question, instead of closing it with the full-stop of deskbound reverence.

Teaching Shakespeare also contains useful summaries of various ideological approaches (feminism, psychoanalysis, structuralism etc) and plenty of scholarly information about rhetorical terms, but never for a moment are the needs of a busy teacher and the demands of even the largest class lost sight of.

Although it must be admitted that Rex Gibson does on occasion sound a bit like a member of the Heritage Brigade ("Every student is entitled to make acquaintance of genius"), he has no truck with what he refers to as "celebratory bardolatry".

He demonstrates the ways in which cultural diversity adds to, rather than detracts from, Shakespeare, and enjoins teachers at all levels to "forget Shakespeare, think of Shakespeares", and always to remember that a play is animated language.

Teaching Shakespeare is a cornucopia of strategies that range from exploratory staging to such activities as getting students to listen to each other's heartbeat to understand the source of the iambic pentameter, and the "Insult Generator" - a whole page laid out in three columns so that students can chose a word from each column and "individually stroll around the room exchanging insults". Presumably the more this gets out of hand the more authentic it will become!

Humour is encouraged as a means of gaining insight on character. Suggestions for job interview role-plays include Lady Macbeth applying for a post as nursery nurse, and there is a wise section on the use of videos where, as throughout, the emphasis is on active engagement and against watching as a "passive activity, unexamined and undiscussed".

The closing chapter deals sensibly with assessment strategies, and even here Gibson comes up with some useful ideas and a plea that assessment should be characterised by variety.

He is so full of ideas that there are bound to be a number that will not work for particular groups or spaces, but most are well worth the risk.

"Try it right now" is his directive after the explanation of one technique. Who could resist? Teaching Shakespeare brooks no delay. A bit like Hamlet's father, but a happier outcome is guaranteed.

John Mole is head of English atSt Albans School, Hertfordshire

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