Tragedy and farce

6th November 1998 at 00:00
SHAKESPEARE'S MAJOR TRAGEDIES. A-level Resource Pack. By Gill Jefford. Philip Allan Publishers Pounds 59.95 + Pounds 5 postage.

MASTERING SHAKESPEARE. By Richard Gill. Macmillan Pounds 10.99.

These two approaches to Shakespeare could not be more different, says Peter Hollindale

How do you turn today's school students of Shakespeare ("with their short attention span, their over-stimulated minds", according to Germaine Greer's evangelical foreword to Gill Jefford's pack) from bored resistance to a discovery of pleasure and relevance in the plays?

Gill Jefford herself attacks the question with marked sobriety and practicality, aware of the ideal aim but also the need to ease the hard-pressed teacher's task with well-designed and easily administered materials.

Shakespeare's "major tragedies" (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello) are covered in about 30 photocopiable worksheets each, following a methodical scene-by-scene progress through the play. Each worksheet has a corresponding page of teacher's notes.

The worksheets are effectively designed to meet the balance of attention the A-level teacher needs to maintain. How do you combine attentive local reading with an emerging sense of linguistic, thematic and theatrical continuities in the text as a whole? "Note" and "Question" points focus on close reading, and "Link" and "Revise" points reach out to the tragedy's dramatic wholeness. The approach is broadsheet rather than tabloid, and well judged to develop students' confidence and understanding.

The teacher's notes are a little disappointing. They are too confined to possible answers to the worksheet questions, and inclined to moralistic character judgments that can sound like school reports, as on Edgar at the close of Lear: "Although he has been a suitably dynamic hero in this scene,and has learned a great deal during the course of the play, it is not clear whether Edgar has learned to overcome his tendency towards mistaken optimism." Could do better!

Even so, this is a valuable, well-organised resource. The same could not be said for Mastering Shakespeare, a misguidedly over-ambitious attempt to do everything for everybody. All the regularly studied plays are given about eight pages of commentary in inconsequential note-like paragraphs, determinedly popularist in tone. (The elderly Antony and Cleopatra are people "who'd no longer go clubbing". ) The level of comment is erratic, and it is hard to see how the book might be used. Much of the critical material is standard, but there are sweeping generalisations, lapses and sheer oddities. We are told, for instance, that no audience can miss the difference between Volumnia's pride in Coriolanus' scars "and the modest way he is reluctant to show the people his wounds". Coriolanus? Modest? Original ideas are rare in Shakespeare studies nowadays, but a precedent for this would take some finding.

Peter Hollindale is reader in English and education studies at the University of York

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