Making sure the play's the thing
English teachers hate to see Shakespeare reduced. The best productions to which they take their classes, or which their pupils perform, have a life, energy and defiance of their own. Let all future testing be fair to the plays themselves, to their richness, ambiguity, and capacity to worry away at the irresolvable and difficult, as well as to the complex reactions of young minds as they encounter these texts.
English teachers have long held that assessment should do what it can to capture pupils at their best, at their most inventive and responsive. Now the Government is considering alternatives to the current, unpopular Shakespeare test at key stage 3. Weighing the worth of what the Year 9s can do should be possible without having to resort to right-answerism within the national curriculum tests.
Any kind of assessment should allow for performing and vocal activities as well as for written work prepared individually or collaboratively. The plays should emerge, from the assessments, as plays which can be interpreted from within, not as watched novels with added movement. Surely valid and reliable judgments can be formed about acuity of interpretation when the pupils, as actors, bring to a scene that special liveliness of encounter that shows how well the words on the page have become the basis of an engaged determination to find the humour, the pathos or the fullness of a character's power at the right moment.
The feedback from practical assessment will do much to ensure, in teaching, that the play's the thing. You cannot dodge visual problems if you perform a play, or part of a play, and solving the problem of what the fairies look like in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, deserves credit for perceptiveness. Whoever translates Cobweb, Mustardseed and the rest into plausible dramatic shape, colour and texture, interesting to the translated Bottom, deserves credit for having begun to penetrate the mysteries of the play.
The Dream contains elements that young adolescents might well find easier to apprehend through the experience of art than through purely verbal analysis of aspects of the unconscious.
However, some written work would be necessary, and in the interests of sustaining the idea of inventive engagement, I advocate such things as writing in a character's role, perhaps in extracts from their diary, but also in the form of brief poems exploring dilemmas at particular moment. Alternatively, from the point of view of an attentive reading of a given text, there are poems about different characters seen from without, using words collected from the play, but arranged in the "furniture game procedure" whereby the formal structure of lines runs, typically: "If Puck was a car he would be a sprite "If he was a bird he would be a robin "If he was a mirror he would..."
Low marks for the writer who sees Puck as a Robin if he was a car.
I do not mean to imply that analysis has no place, but valid and assessable forms of analysis are available through such methodologies as the written dialogue of a character on trial. There is so much wisdom contained in Rex Gibson's report of the Shakespeare and Schools project that it cries out to become the basis of wise patterns of assessment, wherein the assessors look out for the degrees to which pupils have taken imaginative possession of the plays, perhaps as analysts, but fundamentally as those able to show they have been caught up in that unique Shakespearean web. Mrs Shephard should commission action research to see how assessment can complement, inventively, the report's vision of teaching.
Stephen Clarke is lecturer in education at the University of Leeds. He acknowledges the help of Andrew Stibbs in some of the suggestions for practical activities