Tis neither here nor there

16th February 1996 at 00:00
APPROACH TO SHAKESPEARE. By Gilian West. Cassell Pounds 15.99

This slim textbook is an attempt to kill two national curriculum birds with one stone, by addressing simultaneously the requirements for studying Shakespeare and for knowledge about language. Sadly, it is Shakespeare himself who ends up dead.

The book claims "to provide an exciting means of introducing Shakespeare to students who are not yet ready to tackle the text of a whole play and at the same time to exploit the plays as a way of understanding the history of the English language."

Most of the text comprises extracts from a range of plays, and a curious range it is. The author believes that Shakespeare's early plays, "governed by the Elizabethan fashion for Ciceronian rhetoric", are easier and more, approachable than the later plays, "where the style is let us be honest for once extremely tortuous." Carried to a strange extreme, this principle means that almost half the book is taken from King Henry VI and The Comedy of Errors, snippets from both of which are linked together in a kind of narrative synopsis.

After the extracts come the questions a mere 12 pages of authorial material, presenting little islands of small-print interrogation in the middle of an otherwise blank page. The questions touch on particular concerns repeatedly the use of "you" and "thou", the choice between prose and verse, the occurrence of rhetorical devices, patterned speech and paradox, and changes in the meaning of certain words since the 16th century.

Some of the questions are very odd. After a snatch of Henry VI, the author quotes the words "if I be slain", and "if Death be so apparent", and asks "What have these two clauses in common that causes Shakespeare to use 'be' rather than 'am' or 'is'?" What is the point of this enquiry? To further "knowledge about language" by exemplifying the subjunctive in conditional sentences? Surely the most reactionary of grammarians responsible for national curriculum English never intended this. At the other extreme comes the winsome query, "What would you argue is the most beautiful line in all the 10 scenes?"

The extracts themselves are cut to make them more or less free-standing, and verse is systematically dotted with stress-marks to indicate the iambic line. Among such patronising content, and such linguistic and dramatic bittiness, the Shakespeare who really can excite children is entirely lost. One would think the Shakespeare and Schools Project had never happened.

There are no illustrations. Even if the book had merit, it would still be quite absurdly overpriced.

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