Please stop teaching them Shakespeare

Shakespeare. Let’s say it again. Shakespeare. A word which strikes fear into the average schoolchild, and eye-rolling boredom in the average adult. But why? Received wisdom says that Shakespeare is the great genius of literature, so far ahead of the pack that many refuse to believe he even existed, putting his plays down to a ‘tortured genius’ like Marlowe, a simple genius like Bacon, a toff like the Earl of Oxford, or some sort of literary conspiracy.

All nonsense, of course, but it reflects the fact that Shakespeare is more than simply the playwright. He’s an industry, an icon of Englishness, the cultural glue that binds. His legacy amounts to something more than the sum of the parts, the plays, the hundreds of phrases he introduced, or the slightly misleading truism that the OED lists more words as having their first outing in Shakespeare than in any other writer’s work. For some, Shakespeare practically created the English language, and if you believe Harold Bloom, he invented the human being. This, I presume, is why the government recently decided that children as young as five ought to be studying Shakespeare. As schools minister Jim Knight put it in these pages a mere brace of weeks past, “Shakespeare is the most famous playwright of all time. One of our great Britons, his work is studied all over the world. It is fitting then that his work is a protected part of the curriculum in the country he came from.” It’s certainly true that, as one of my MA students recently observed, Shakespeare “straddles high and low culture”, as he’s simultaneously the autocthenous bard of bawdy ribaldy and testy insults, whose characters swear, drink and fornicate, and the absolute of high culture. Name a character ruder than Falstaff, a work of art held in higher esteem than Hamlet. I dare you.

Ay, there’s the point. So why is it that when undergraduates are presented with the choice of a course on Shakespeare, they tend to skip it? Why do so few of them go to see his plays? The answer, I’m afraid, is simple. They don’t get Shakespeare. They don’t appreciate it. They don’t like Shakespeare. This is something of a problem, as the government, the school system, the Shakespeare industry and the media are constantly banging the “Shakespeare is the great cultural pillar on which our country’s character is based” drum. If we ignore the slight whiff of propaganda and brain-washing this pushing of Shakespeare onto our youth resembles, then there’s a real problem. We’re making our youth dislike the very thing we tell them is both the great unifying experience of Englishness, and the acme of high culture. Personally, I’m not convinced that this is a good thing.

Mr Knight was quoted in The Times as saying that “even very young children can become gripped by Shakespeare’s stories and characters,” and unsurprisingly, they’re going to be indulging in pastimes such as “using puppets and masks to retell their own versions of Shakespearean stories.” I suppose they can be gripped by these stories, and perhaps one or two of the characters, but there’s a problem here. As we all know, if you boil Shakespeare down to the plots he’s neither particularly good nor remotely original. In a very real sense, there are no Shakespearean stories. They’re all nicked. Every last jack one of ‘em. His manipulation of these second-hand plots is interesting, and worthy of study, but what school is going to make their children read The Iliad and Chaucer and Lydgate’s medieval treatments of the Troilus story before getting onto Troilus and Cressida? None. So instead we feed our children Bowdlerised versions of the least interesting parts of Shakespeare, while society tells them that when it comes to writing, he’s the one. And “one of the greatest Britons ever”, to boot. No wonder they’re disillusioned. Macbeth reduced to three scabby witches brewing newt soup is high culture? This was produced by a great Briton? Yes, they might love Romeo and Juliet, but that’s because of Leonardo di Caprio, not Shakespeare.

The genius of Shakespeare lies in the language, not the stories. Of course, the plots help frame and direct the language, but what Shakespeare did better than anyone else is writing. Why, then, must we insist on force-feeding our schoolchildren these great plays of western civilisation, and yet ignore the very essence of their greatness?.

But here’s the rub. Shakespeare’s language is difficult. Far too difficult for the majority of schoolchildren. And eventually they’ll have to put down their puppets and confront it. But it seems that making them struggle through it just because Shakespeare is this great, shining cultural edifice simply alienates them, makes them hate the man, hate the plays, while giving them the sneaking suspicion that high culture, and for that matter Englishness, excludes them. The government is perhaps right to note that Shakespeare isn’t embedded in the hearts and minds of our youth, but rather than trying to make it accessible by reducing it to a bundle of specious ‘universal themes’, we might do better to accept and embrace the fact that Shakespeare is tough. Accept the fact that it’s too difficult for most, if not all, schoolchildren (and I use the term so we don’t get confused with university students). So let’s not teach it to them until they get to university.

Yes, you read right. Of course, some will say that this simply puts Shakespeare back in the hands of the university elite, but it never really left, did it? It’s true that teaching Shakespeare at school just might turn on a couple of kids onto Shakespeare who’ll never go into higher education, but it’s already turning off far more than that amongst those who are going into University. Don’t ban them from reading Shakespeare, just don’t force them to.

In my experience, and I’m not alone, undergraduates arrive at University neither equipped to deal with Shakespeare, nor much liking it. The nature of A level study encourages them to spit out impressive-sounding but empty phrases and concepts they’ve learnt practically by rote rather than indulge in considered analysis. This is both because of the need to get A grades, and because Shakespeare is too difficult for them. The result is that we get some students who can barely string a coherent sentence together, let alone construct an argument of any kind. Re-training them is difficult when they’re already sick of the texts we admire so much.

But they aren’t ill-equipped because they are stupid, or because their teachers are rubbish: it’s simply that they’re ill-served by this Shakespeare obsession. The time they spend ‘reading’ something they really can’t get is wasted time, the net result of which is that when they read Shakespeare, they see ink, not poetry. First-year undergraduate essays on Shakespeare are too often Cocteau meets Larkin: they have a beginning, a muddle, and an end, just not necessarily in that order.

We can’t teach English without literature, of course, but let’s give them works they can access, appreciate, even if they have to be ‘classics’: literature which they can read without having to translate it first. The literary minded A level student is more likely to see themselves as a type of Byron or Bronte, a Coleridge or a Camus than a playwright like Shakespeare – unless you consider Joe Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. But Joe played Shakespeare as a Byronic or Keatsian hero. It’s the romantics and the existentialists who provide perfect reading for the angst-ridden years. So, let’s take the Lyrical Ballads as a starting-point, throw in Wuthering Heights, perhaps some Wilkie Collins. Give them Keats, Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson. Stuff that inspires, not confuses. Give them writers they’ll want to quote, writers they’ll want to steal lines from. Compare Churchill with George Bush, not with Henry V. When they get to University they can study the difficult stuff like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser.

Dropping Shakespeare from the school curriculum is not sacrilege, it’s wisdom. Sacrilege is making them hate Shakespeare by forcing them to read it at school as a result of misguided cultural arrogance. A student will only read the difficult, truly rewarding stuff if they want to. If they’ve read Pullman, for example, by the time they’re given Paradise Lost they might actually want to read it, and not give up after ploughing through the argument. Read enough, and you soon notice that Shakespeare turns up everywhere. It isn’t long before you want to go direct to source.

Let’s do a thought experiment. You’re a thoughtful, skillful and accomplished reader, because you’ve been shown how to read properly at school. And you still read books. You keep bumping into Shakespeare in other works, so you decide to read some, because he must have something going on, right? Everyone talks about him, after all. You pick up Richard III. Imagine reading his opening soliloquy for the first time. Imagine reaching the passage where Richard meets Anne with the corpse of her almost father-in-law (killed by Richard) and practically seduces her, before making off with the body. Now that’s the power of words. It would blow your mind. Show it to a kid and they’ll go ‘whatever’. And rightly so.

So. To sum up. Leave Shakespeare until university. At school, teach children to read confidently and write clearly. Equip them with the tools they need to read the difficult stuff themselves, later on, should they choose to. Then when they get to University, or pick it up through choice, they’ll meet this great literature and it will be fresh and new and it will amaze and entrance them, not bore them. And we’ll produce graduates who really can read, who really can write, and not just churn out stock phrases and arguments without understanding them. And, more to the point, I won’t have to mark any more essays which use words like ‘widespreadily’, suggest that things were done ‘in a plotish way’, tell me that Spenser finishes his stanzas with an ‘alexandrian’, or write sentences such as ‘it is consciously self-aware of itself as a new self-reflexive style’. Oh, hang on, that last one was Derrida, wasn’t it?

© Pete Langman 2008

To see what chapped my hide so much, just go here:

6 thoughts on “Please stop teaching them Shakespeare

  1. I truly enjoyed your perspective on the challenge of teaching Shakespeare in high school. I teach Grade 10 English and am beyond frustrated arguing with colleagues who want to “teach Macbeth”. Well, he’s dead so I prefer to think about teaching students to read, think and articulate ideas. Sometimes I think I am the crazy one. Your post has assured me I am not alone in this world. Thanks.

  2. I am glad someone has brought this up. I came to Shakespeare through Tom Stoppard. Then went to recordings of Hamlet, then to movies, which I didn’t much like, then to the play itself. Henry V I saw in a movie theater & missed much of the dialogue. Viewed a home copy until I understood all I missed. Then the play.

    What a joy to read all the bits left out of production. Commentaries help too. I think if you connect with the ideas your on your way. You find he has a certain way of saying things and often repeats word order & use. A triumph for an inner city American.

  3. Its refreshing to hear some-one talking some sense!

    Personally I have never “got” Shakespeare, I initially failed my GCSE English, and managed to scrape through with C eventually – then went on to be successful at University, not studying English or anything language based but Science subjects.

    I still find Shakespeare totally impenetrable, and would never choose to read it. I believe our future generations would be much better served by using English lessons to teach correct use of language, using literature that’s far more accessible. Yes give the more advanced students access to him, but don’t force it on every-one else.

    Personally if I were to compile a list of important English people over the centuries – Shakespeare would be a long way down the list. Most of the people above him would be utterly unknown to the vast majority of the English population.

    The obsession with Shakespeare is utterly beyond my comprehension.

    • An interesting angle. It does, however, underline my point, if rather unwittingly. I could happily take umbrage with the concept
      of ‘correct’ use of language (even as I approve of it). Not even ‘science’ is constant, as knowledge changes over time. Education is, to
      me, imparting the gift of flexibility of thought. As Bacon said, a student owes his master but temporary belief.

      Shakespeare is, without doubt, one of the most influential individuals to have sprung from the soil of this sceptered isle.

      That’s why you should try again.

  4. I am a student and have been constantly frustrated by learning shakespear. It does not combine with anything we have been taught this year. But, our teachers goes on how important it is bla bla and I really want to say it is not important it is irrelevant. Waste of time! It has no relation to any of the work I do in class and if I was to use Shakespearean language in any English assignment it would be an instant fail.

    If schools are so desperate to teach students shakespear then create a separate subjects for shakespear and don’t make us poor children have to deal with this absolute rubbish.

    • I fear you misconstrue … Shakespeare is neither irrelevant nor rubbish (definitely not rubbish), and education is a while lot more than ensuring that things ‘combine’. My point is very different.

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