No way to catch the plague
ROMEO AND JULIET. THE TEMPEST. HENRY IV PART 1. MACBETH. P.S. Publishers Pounds 12.50 eachAvailable from 104 Gordon Road Strood, Kent ME2 3HL
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?" asks Olivia in Twelfth Night, suddenly and over-whelmingly in love with Cesario. The love for Shakespeare himself can be caught just as quickly. It happened to me at the age of 10, and one line from Macbeth was responsible: "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon." The splendour of this gorgeous curse and insult was irresistible, and Shakespeare was forever de-gentrified.
Given the right presentation, 10-year-olds are very susceptible to Shakespeare's surprising rewards. The newsletters of the Shakespeare and Schools project regularly used to have items on primary Shakespeare and promoted much good work, but always with some sense that this was at the margins of a secondary centre. Already things are different. Years 5 and 6, key stage 2, are ideal for spreading this benevolent plague. For many children the secondary years are already too late.
Primary Shakespeare is an attempt to provide a "teacher-friendly" scheme of work for older juniors. The central item is a stripped-down version of a play, with brief extracts from the text linked by short narratives in modern English. These scenes are designed for classroom performance.
Around this dramatic centre are the items of hard currency, supplied to ease the teacher's load and make the scheme inspection-proof. There are brief factsheets on Shakespeare's life and times, suggestions for follow-up lessons, mostly involving writing, synopses of plot and character, and assorted worksheets.
The books may well be teacher-friendly; they are certainly author-friendly. The length, about 60 pages, and the quality of production, in cheaply bound A4 sheets, make them expensive for what they are. Any school with basic computer and printing equipment can readily produce publications of similar quality.
The cheapness of modern technology is a boon to do-it-yourself publishing enterprises of this kind. In diversifying teachers' choice this is all to the good, provided that pricing is reasonable and standards of quality maintained. But in Primary Shakespeare, as in other recent enterprises, you can pay a lot for the convenience of a photocopiable resource. In this case, much of the support material is familiar, standardised, and interchangeable from book to book. Buy one, and you have just about bought the lot.
The dramatised scenes themselves inevitably suffer from the effort to compress a complete plot into manageable fragments. The lines and shards of lines do not always make good consecutive sense, and the need to focus on plot-driving lines and phrases means that little space is left for all the savoury equivalents of "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon", a line omitted from this Macbeth. Primary children need elbow-room to play with Shakespeare's language and make action of it, without the constraints of a total narrative. The teacher as story-teller is needed as support.
Shakespeare in primary schools has never been more important, or full of possibilities. Teachers unsure of their ground may well find one of these books useful, showing how some things might be done. But they are no substitute for good in-service provision which will show teachers how to "write" their own.