What's all this drama about Shakespeare?

10th May 2013 at 01:00

Mary Bousted is on the right track when she calls for teachers to present Shakespeare as compelling drama rather than sacred text ("Excessive esteem is the real tragedy", Comment, 3 May). Yet while the spirit of her article is admirable, the detail risks being misunderstood.

When Dr Bousted suggests that students start Macbeth in Act II, we should take this as an example of how to pique their interest, not a blanket ban on reading Shakespeare from the beginning. What could be more dramatic than the way Hamlet opens, in pitch darkness? "Who's there?" "Nay, answer me: stand and unfold yourself." "Long live the king!"

More importantly, if teachers choose to begin with the Bard's more accessible scenes, the difficult parts must still be covered later. Learning to cope with Shakespeare's obscure phraseology is more than just a comprehension exercise. Many literature students will go on to be actors, whether in an amateur or a professional context. If they want to perform Shakespeare, they will need to know what the tricky passages mean. Indeed, the emphasis that Dr Bousted puts on Shakespeare in performance is spot on: the best way for a teacher to engage students with the plays is to get them to stand up and act out the words.

Max Marenbon, Former president, Oxford University Dramatic Society.

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