Teaching Shakespeare is a Comedy of Errors, says star
Shakespeare does not belong in the classroom, and should be left off the English curriculum entirely, according to the actor Sir Ian McKellen.
Sir Ian, known for playing Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings film series, is one of the country’s leading Shakespearean actors. But he insists that the Bard belongs in the theatre, and not in schools.
“Almost any story that people tell you about Shakespeare in the classroom is negative,” he tells TES in an interview to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death tomorrow.
“You meet many, many people who say, ‘Oh, I don’t like Shakespeare – we did it at school.’
“I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Oh, we had the most wonderful class where we read Act I, Scene 3.’
“I don’t think Shakespeare belongs in the classroom. I’d much rather Shakespeare was a wonderful extra – that you left the classroom and went out and joined the real world, and Shakespeare could be a part of that.”
We have seen better days
Mick Connell, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, concedes that Sir Ian has a point. “There’s so much value, so much richness, in teaching kids a Shakespeare play,” he says. “But that dreadful breaking down, when a teacher goes through a soliloquy, teaching everything that’s in it – of course, it kills it. Because the kids haven’t thought it out themselves, and they don’t own it.”
Five years ago, Shakespeare was taught more imaginatively, Mr Connell says. “But teachers now say, ‘Well, I just haven’t got the time.’ It’s asking teachers to take more risks than they feel they can when they’re under pressure.”
Sir Ian invited TES into his home – a light-filled house overlooking the Thames in East London – to talk about the upcoming launch of a new Shakespeare app that he has developed together with the director Richard Loncraine (see box, below).
Sitting in a leather armchair, watched over by a portrait of himself as Gandalf, Sir Ian talks about spending his schooldays acting in amateur productions of Shakespeare plays.
“I could see everybody else bored to tears, reading the play – or part of the play – around the class,” he says. “It seemed so far removed from my experience of Shakespeare.
“For someone to just be given a text of Shakespeare and expect to understand it – in a way, it’s like giving someone the score of a Mozart piano concerto and saying, ‘Listen to that.’ The plays were written to be seen and heard in the theatre.”
He is particularly critical of any curriculum that requires studying only one section of a Shakespeare play. “It’s a bit like saying, ‘Here’s a little bit of a Rembrandt. Let’s just look at that.’ No! I want to look at the whole thing.”
The play’s the thing
However, the 76-year-old actor would not go as far as banning Shakespeare from the classroom. “There’s merit in trying to read a text, and talking about it and discussing it, and listening to what other people think,” he says.
“But you can’t expect someone who teaches English to have either the perspective of a professional actor or the perspective, really, of an academic who thinks about nothing but Shakespeare.
“All I’m saying is that it’s very, very, very difficult to teach Shakespeare, to bring him into the classroom, out of the theatre.”
Instead, Sir Ian would encourage pupils to see Shakespeare performed on stage: “You could see The Comedy of Errors, which is an impossible play to stage. Impossible! See it on the stage, nothing simpler. It’s a farce. It’s a laughter machine. If I gave you the script of Little Britain and you read it – you wouldn’t laugh until you saw it. It’s the same.”
Earlier this month, it emerged that pupils will now be able to pass drama GCSE without having taken a single trip to see live theatre, under new guidelines issued by the AQA and OCR exam boards.
The exam boards argued that they did not want to discriminate against those pupils who were unable to see a live performance. Many English and drama teachers already use film versions of Shakespeare’s plays to complement study of the text.
But Sir Ian believes that seeing a film of a Shakespeare play is not the same as going to the theatre. He cites as an example his own film of Richard III, which pares back the script considerably.
“I think, if you were to study my Richard III, or Olivier’s Richard III, or Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, it should probably be studied as a film, rather than a play,” he says.
“It’s taking a Shakespeare play and translating it into a film. It’s not the play.”
New app gives pupils the best of the Bard
Sir Ian McKellen and his Richard III director, Richard Loncraine, are launching a new smartphone app, which will enable pupils to hear Shakespearean text delivered by actors even if they are not able to see plays at the theatre.
To be launched tomorrow, it provides users with a version of The Tempest read by leading Shakespearean actors, including Sir Ian and Sir Derek Jacobi.
“Everybody playing a large part had played that part in a theatrical production,” Sir Ian tells TES. “So you’re getting the experience of maybe 10 different productions of The Tempest in one reading.”
Users will watch the actors sitting still and looking directly at the camera to deliver their lines. Their reading is accompanied by a scrolling version of the text. “There’s a difference between having Shakespeare read at you, or having it read to you, as though someone were in the room with you,” Mr Loncraine says. “If you’re looking someone in the eyes, it’s very different.”