No holds Bard in the coursework wrestle

9th February 2007 at 00:00
Last summer, I watched The Tempest. Twice. I did so as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works festival and in response to the RSC's recommendation that all the Bard's works should be seen.

With each performance of The Tempest my understanding of the play grew. The bleak, almost stark rendition of the set dominated one's view of the direction. More importantly, the central character shifted and changed.

Prospero was at once the powerful ruler of the island but also a paternal presence. Miranda, his daughter, almost danced her way to love while Ariel, the fey spirit, was far darker. He loomed over the play throughout.

Had I been teaching Sats, I might have been even more grateful for the performances I witnessed. The Tempest is, after all, on the syllabus and a class might have watched one production of the piece, if not both. I suppose I could have brought out the differences if I had tried. But part of the problem with Sats is the way they are written. They lack finesse, and that is what you need here.

Shakespeare demands subtlety. Indeed, that is why so many English teachers want to change the way Shakespeare is tested at 14. Only at that age is an examination compulsory. And only at that age is a title to be picked off a list. At all other stages in the curriculum, Shakespeare can be taught with panache and flair for a coursework essay - and without the straitjacket of examinations.

The advantage of coursework is that it enables the pupils to do with the play what they will. No longer are they tied by the ropes of what the examiners ask them - they are free to explore it for themselves. While the number of titles that English teachers actually used might in practice be small, coursework would allow at least some variation.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority published a survey this week that allowed for As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet to be the new set texts. But they floated far more. A number of plays were unpopular, including Othello. For that reason the play was omitted, but a number of teachers believed that the themes of jealousy and racism were highly relevant.

If reason had its say, the desire to teach Othello would not be crushed.

Nor should any text be spurned. Then the turmoil of Titus Andronicus could be explored, the humour of The Taming of the Shrew examined. But if, and only if, the final product were assessed through coursework. Until then, it will remain the stuff of dreams.

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