A little bit of drama

Here are two samples of my dramatic work, Bowling at the Death and Shakespeare Must Die!, written for the radio and stage respectively. You never know, you might find them amusing.

Bowling at the Death is a play for the radio rather than the stage, and it based around the great game of cricket. The protagonist is a batsman denied his first century by what he considered a wild miscarriage of justice at the hands of the umpire. The ‘outrageous’ LBW decision to which he he falls victim unleashes years of pent-up jealousy and fury, with murderous results.

Shakespeare Must Die! is a response to the slew of conspiracy theories surrounding the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays. The most common idea is that the plays were truly written by Christopher Marlowe, who subsequently faked his own death in order to escape censure at the hands of the authorities for his many and various sins, and that Shakespeare was a cloak. The play takes as its premise that Shakespeare is in fact being employed by a shady cabal to write political works under the name Christopher Marlowe. An altercation in a public house leads to a fundamental shift in the playwright’s firmament.

Continue reading


Those of us who teach or have taught, whether at school, college or university, are familiar with the manner in which film informs students about literature. Mel Gibson and Glenn Close in Hamlet, Leo and Clare in Romeo and Juliet, even Larry in Henry V – students all too often mistake the film for the playtext. This is inevitable and often quite useful, as it allows entry into the debate about originality, sources and so forth.

Anonymous would be the same. As is being reported everywhere, renowned Shakespeare scholar Roland Emmerich has bought into one of the conspiracy theories which state that Shakespeare was a cipher, and the real, secret author was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. I won’t bore you with explanations of why this is nonsense, and of why the arguments being peddled are intellectually dishonest, specious and demonstrate a whole heap of ignorance about the period, the plays and the nature of authorship, because this has been done better by better minds than mine.

But I was alerted yesterday to a worrying phenomenon – the hollywood-sponsored study pack.

A group called ‘Young Minds Inspired’ of the UsofA have produced, for Sony Pictures, a work book which not only implies that anyone believing in Shakespeare is a fool, but is riddled with advertising. It keeps moving, but the New York Times has a link here.

This is a little like McDonald’s producing literature on nutrition.

‘Uncover the true genius of William Shakespeare’ it has as its strapline. On every fucking page.

There are a number of interesting suggestions here. To whit:

Fears about the power of performance actually came true in 1601, when the Earl of Essex used the Globe Theatre to help incite a public uprising against the Queen’s counselors.

‘Know ye not I am Richard’ – is what Elizabeth is meant to have said, on hearing of this specially commissioned performance. She did so a few months later, however, and the performance, if an incitement to rebellion it was, was something of a failure, as Essex and his men mostly lost their heads over the issue. But, apparently, ‘fears about the power of performance actually came true’ … apart from the coming true bit, then.

Another delightful bit of speciousness is this paragraph:

According to director Roland Emmerich, Anonymous has “all the elements of a Shakespeare play. It’s about Kings, Queens, and Princes. It’s about illegitimate children, it’s about incest, it’s about all of these elements which Shakespeare plays have. And it’s overall a tragedy.”

That’s right, Roland. All of Shakespeare is about this. All Shakespeare is riddled with incest. Well, actually, this is the same nonsense that gets education ministers excited about teaching children Shakespeare’s stories. Sorry, but they ain’t his. Like everyone, he used old stories, messed them up a bit for fun, and made them into plays.

Shakespeare is about language.

Then the worksheet asks this:

After you have seen the film, discuss these questions in class:

•How does the plot of the film compare to a Shakespearean tragedy?

•How does the filmmaker’s use of scenes performed by Elizabethan actors compare to Shakespeare’s use of actors to stage a play within the play?

•How did the film affect your opinion about the theory that de Vere was the true author of the Shakespeare plays?

Oh. My. God.

This is, as a friend of mine recently remarked, the humanist equivalent to evolution-doubters. The same arguments obtain here ‘we haven’t got x, therefore x didn’t exist, I can’t conceive of y without x, therefore god done it’. That is quite delightful reasoning, and no mistake. People who doubt that evolution through natural selection is by far the best explanation we have for life on earth don’t understand how it works.

But let’s start at the beginning. This is the big intro:

Dear Educator,

There’s little debate that William Shakespeare is one of the world’s greatest poets and playwrights. But who is William Shakespeare? The answer to that question is the starting point for Anonymous, Sony Pictures’ exciting new historical thriller directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) and starring Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave, which arrives in theaters on October 28,2011.

Anonymous takes us back to a time when plays and politics were intertwined,and when uncovered secrets reveal how the works we attribute to William Shakespeare may have actually been written by Queen Elizabeth I’s one-time favorite, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

Your students can explore this theory,and gain a fresh perspective on Shakespeare and his times,with this free educational program from Sony Pictures and the curriculum specialists at Young Minds Inspired (YMI). The program includes easy-to-implement activities for English literature, theater,and British history classes. Students will investigate the true identity of William Shakespeare,and discover how power struggles surrounding Queen Elizabeth and the political strife of 16th-century England impacted the players and playwrights of that Golden Age.

Oh. My. God.

‘The answer to that question is the starting point for the film Anonymous’

‘Students will investigate the true identity of William Shakespeare’

That’s right, children, the maker of Independence Day has single-handedly overturned several hundred years of academic orthodoxy (oh, and just because it’s the orthodoxy doesn’t make it automatically right, but it does make it more likely to be right than wrong. Until something serious in the form of evidence comes along. In his case, it hasn’t).

How about this for quite beautifully unbiased writing, designed to allow students to make up their own minds:

Set in the political snake-pit of Elizabethan England, Anonymous(Rated TK) speculates on an issue that has for centuries intrigued academics and brilliant minds ranging from Mark Twain and Charles Dickens to Henry James and Sigmund Freud, namely, was William Shakespeare the author of all the plays for which he is given credit? Experts have debated, books have been written,and scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding the authorship of these most renowned works in English literature. Anonymous poses one possible answer, focusing on a time when cloak-and- dagger political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles hungry for the power of the throne were exposed in the most unlikely of places—the London stage.

‘scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories …’

This is quite subtly unsubtle. The question really hasn’t engaged anything but a core cohort of romantic fantasists who wish Shakespeare had been more bloody interesting, or romantic. Sorry. Genius can be dull, too.

Check out this bit:



Young Minds Inspired—www.ymiclassroom.com

Declaration of Reasonable Doubt— www.DoubtAboutWill.org

For a complete list of references, go to www.ymiclassroom.com/AnonymousReferences.pdfSincerely,

Well, now there’s authority for you.

Well, I could take this piece of ‘educational literature’ apart piece by piece. It’s not hard, but I’m more worried about the rhetoric. For impressionable young minds, I’m afraid that this will be persuasive. Why? Because it’s specious. It looks good, but (insert the obvious Shakespeare quotation here). The worksheet admits some of what we know, followed by this:


Skeptics accept all these facts, but they find it impossible to believe that a mere grammar school graduate could have written the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it make more sense, they ask, to suppose that William Shakespeare was only the stand-in for a better educated author?

Well, no, actually, it doesn’t. Fuck it. Look. Jonson was the son of a brickmaker. Bacon’s grandfather was a sheepreeve (look it up). This is pitiful snobbery. It doesn’t ‘make more sense’. Oh, and while we’re going down this route, it ‘made more sense’ that the earth was stationary. Hardly anyone believed that the earth went round the sun in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries.

Without getting too snobbish, the rigours of academic proof revolve around evidence, not around ‘common sense’ – common sense is what the Daily Mail peddles – and the evidence overwhelmingly points to Shakespeare, not to De Vere, Bacon, Marlowe (and speaking of Marlowe – where is the proof that he existed? Letters? Examples of handwriting? MS copies of his plays? ‘Common sense’ dictates that he therefore didn’t exist, right?). What we do in academia is make observations, and come up with theories based on those observations. This is all backwards. This is coming up with a theory and trying to find stuff that fits.


Now. The real scandal is not that people believe this shit, nor even that they teach it (after all, Intelligent Design?), but that this misleading advertisement, which is happy to fuck up the intellectual development of students for the sake of bums on seats is trumpeted at the last because it ‘Meets Common Core and National Standards.’

Be afraid. Be very afraid. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Go direct to, er …

The trials and tribulations of the purchasing of a house.

So. We currently have no fridge, no washing machine (it was taken away this morning), and we are a-dongled for the internet.

So we’re in the pub. It seemed like the only rational solution.

Currently we’re discussing whether it’s time to break out the fois gras …

But all is not rosy as can be. Why not? Well, due to applied muppetry of the solicitation profession, it still isn’t bloody well signed, sealed or, god forbid, delivered. It’s the fact that no-one seems to bother talking, or listening which galls.

This means I cannot order a fridge. Which sucks. I cannot order a van, which also sucks.

Normally, I would hire the van myself, but I am in the strange position of not having a valid driving license, but being legally ok to drive. That’s be interesting to explain to the rozzas were I to be pulled over. It would be Smiley Culture time.

It works like this. Because of the various symptoms which PD can deliver, like a malicious santa, I am now on a three-year limited licence – which recently expired. In effect, it’s my three year anniversary … I wonder how they go for such things? The golden would be a bottle, because it’s plainly only magical powers that will keep you going that long.

There are always milestones in such conditions. This is one of them

If Jacques had had PD, his speech might have been very different. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bastardize Shakespeare’s words. I have not the wit. But there are stages. And there are things which make the symptons worse.

Cold is one.

Stress is another.

Tiredness is another.

I’m not functioning at my best. Yesterday, I looked at this piece I was writing for Guitar and Bass magazine and for the life of me had no idea why I was writing it.

For some reason, PD seems to affect the organisation centres of the brain.

Which sucks.

So it seems as if PD fast-forwards you to the ‘Last scene of all’, or ‘second childishness and mere oblivion’, and while it may not affect one’s teeth, it certainly does odd things to the eyes, messes up your standard of taste, and simply fucks up everything. Sans PD? Yes, please.

That bloody de Vere.



An upstart crow

Once upon a time, I was at a party. I began talking with a young lady, and the conversation turned to Shakespeare. ‘Oh’, she said. ‘Francis Bacon wrote that.’

The conversation continued thus:

Me – I don’t think he did.

Her – He did.

Me – I know a bit about Shakespeare, and I don’t think he did.

Her – No, he did.

Me – Hmm. I teach Shakespeare at university, and I’m pretty sure it was Shakespeare.

Her – No. You’re wrong. It was Bacon.

Me – Hmm. I know a little bit about Bacon, and I don’t reckon he wrote Shakespeare.

Her – He did.

Me – Ok. I know a lot about Bacon, and I’m sure he didn’t write Shakespeare.

Her – He did.

Me – Right then. I have a phd on Bacon, and I can categorically state there is no evidence whatsoever that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. For one thing, he wouldn’t have had time.

Her – You’re wrong.

Me – So … er, what do you do for a living?

Her – I’m a waitress.

Me – Well, it’s been lovely.

Now, I don’t mean to insult waitresses anywhere, but this is the single-minded idiocy that emanates from the so-called anti-stratfordians.

The release of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous has started this all over again. Now let’s get this straight. Shakespeare was not written by the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon, and Marlowe did not fake his death and then write under the pseudonym Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

I contributed a couple of things to the Guardian post on this today (http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2011/sep/05/shakespeare-anonymous-roland-emmerich?) The first was this:

The problem here is simple, really. We suffer from a post-Romantic notion equating artistic genius with the tortured artist pose. Shakespeare seems to have died fat and happy. Which utterly denies the way we want to view artists.

That the greatest writer the world has produced wasn’t a Kit Marlowe (Spy, ‘homosexual’, ‘atheist’ etc), or a Ben Jonson (cantankerous git), or even a Francis Bacon (polymath, serial underachiever, genius, practically written out of the history he began) simply will not do.

Shakespeare was too great to have been a normal bloke.

Except that he quite plainly was. Get over it, people – the author of all those great plays was … William Shakespeare.

Are we done now?

It’s all getting rather dull, this. The argument turned to Shakespeare’s ‘illiteracy’ (yes, the ‘upstart crow’ was illiterate).

This was my reply to one commentator’s asserting of the following:

My evidence that Shaxspere was illiterate :

1) His letters – there aren’t any. Can you defenders of the status quo tell us why?

2) His library – he didn’t have one.

The quill on his monument – where he was inexplicably writing on a woolsack – was added later.

This is high-level intellectual stuff, as I’m sure you can see. I got a little sarky at this point:

Wow! I’m utterly convinced suddenly.

A lacuna proves nothing – even King Lear worked that out

No letters … hmm, let me have a think. Ok. No-one kept them. They all burnt with the Globe in 1614 or whenever it was. They were eaten by rats. They perished in the Great Fire. The paper was recycled – or ‘put to posterior usage’, as one wag had it.

HIs library – how do you know he didn’t have one? Have you evidence of people writing to each other saying ‘cor, that Will, he doesn’t have any books, you know …’?

Sorry, but this is non-evidence of the highest calibre.

One anti-stratfordian told me that the Merchant of Venice contained specific legal stuff Shakespeare could never have known. But Shakespeare knew Ben Jonson, who knew Francis Bacon, who was Lord chancellor and knew a bit about the law. But not Venetian law! he crowed … well, yes, but if you think that Bacon only knew English law, and knew nothing of any other country, you’d be a bit daft – he had clients all over the place, Henry Wotton in Vienna, for example.

Just get over it. So far as we know, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. With a little help from his friends, yes … but nothing wrong with that.

Jeepers. Can we all get on with something sensible now, please?

Thanks …

The fact is that some people are desperate to believe that Shakespeare wasn’t just an actor manager who wrote the plays because he did it best. It was Jonson who started this ‘I’m an author’ nonsense …

Now, I once taught a class full of anti-Stratfordians, and jeepers were they a pain. Clever. Very clever. Well-informed. Totally single-minded.

I was teaching palaeography, or reading old handwriting. As the final test I gave them a really tough letter from 1611. After a few minutes I went to see how they were doing.

‘Stuck on the first word.’

‘I’ll get you started, then …

[blank] whereunto J referr you, sence [blank] J have [blank] of the

12 August, the which was most welcome unto me; and by the contents

thereof do rest fully satisfyed of all former doughts, wherewith

J was (before the receipt therof) much intangled, for [blank] …

They looked at me askance. But what about that word?

Can’t read it – we’ll work it out later …

but, what about that word …

And I realised the problem. They spot one tiny thing, and that’s it. The pivot point around which everything revolves.

Sorry, but like life, literature and bibliography simply don’t work like that.

The one thing may look momentous, but is the result of tons of other stuff – at least, if it’s truly significant it is.

Bacon wrote that the human mind is predisposed to find order where there isn’t any. He was a clever bloke. And a great writer. But he didn’t write Shakespeare.

The rest is silence. Isn’t it?

Shakespeare, education and independence

I, along with many, many others, have done and do still bemoan the state of preparedness of students when they rock up to university, clutching their brace of braces, their four poached A*s.

Obviously, it depends on the tutor they end up with, but should they alight on one such as I, they tend to get one hell of a shock on receipt of their first essay mark. ‘But, but, but I always get As’, they say, staring in disbelief at the steaming C grade which rises from the page like an indoor firework, promising much, delivering sweet FA.

Just to give you an example or three, here are some real (and I mean real) lines from real essays:


‘I have insofar presented observations of kate’s convincement …’

‘shakespeare might not have anticipated an audience of 2009; therefore he cannot be held accountable for our distaste’

‘our youth is fleeting and spent in poverty and old age,’


It seems odd that not one of these students chose to read what they had written before submission – and these are by no means the worst offenders. They were simply the first ones I found that I’d noted down. I’m not sure which is worse, their writing or their reading. Too, too often I hear the fateful words ‘that wasn’t what I meant’, and my heart sinks.

Many moons ago, I was studying music in Los Angeles and was in a class run by Scott Henderson, one of the fusionistas of the day. He recounted that when he was recording with Joe Zawinul, legendary keyboard stroker of Weather Report fame, he recorded a solo and immediately asked if he could re-record it. ‘Why?’ he was asked. ‘Because it’s not what I wanted to say’. ‘So why did you say it?’

It’s different with writing. You write. You read. You edit. You polish. It works. Oh, ok. The point. The point is simple. Almost as simple as the essays too often delivered. These students are brought up in a culture where they are taught to test. They are simply not taught to read. They don’t have the time, for starters. They are given lists of what thou shalt write.

A student, and a bright one, on my asking her why she kept using such poncy phrases – you know the ones, those cod-academic words and formulations which scream ‘I have no fucking idea what I’m doing but I think I can fool you if I write lexis often enough’ – said simply ‘we were told that academics never say word, they say lexis’. I sighed and pointed out that it didn’t work in her essay and it sounded poncy and what’s wrong with just saying what you mean. She just repeated her maxim. I asked who told her this, and she said ‘my 6th form tutor’. Ah, I said. Answer me this. Who am I? ‘My tutor’. Yes, but more generally? ‘An … academic?’ Bingo! Did your 6th form tutor have a phd? ‘No.’ Did he/she ever teach at university? ‘No.’ And yet you take their word on what an academic will write over mine? Silence.

Everyone likes to be given simple instructions. Do this, and this will occur. Cause – effect. But the study of literature simply is not like that.

To study literature you need to do one thing above all others – read books. These need to be real books, not books about books. And yet there is increasingly no need.

The Guardian has launched a set of resources for teachers. They are designed, no doubt, with the best interests of both teacher and student at heart. But, like york notes, spark notes and all the rest, the fuck children up. And Universities will increasingly do the same, as parents demand their darlings be drilled rather than educated. Fucking idiots.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

But only when they attend to your every need. Ignoring the fact that the Guardian may put these cheat books out of business, the real problem is that they replace the one great need for students. It is no longer necessary to read the text, so by the time they’re at university, they have forgotten how to. To add insult to injury, they then proceed to expound with no little eloquence on one text. Impressed at their sudden ‘getting’ of it, you ask a question, or, more daring, pose one.

Suddenly, you’re stuck with Nigel Tufnel being asked the fatefull question, ‘why don’t you just make ten louder?’

‘But … this one goes up to eleven …’

And, once more, you hold you head in your hands. Stop it, Guardian. You’re not helping. In fact, you’re making it worse. This may well be why so many of your bright young journalistic things write such egregious tosh. It’s not because they don’t read, but because the can’t – they see the words, but no meaning reaches their dull little brains. And when they read it back, they don’t think to themselves ‘what a load of shit’. They just smile, and wait for the credits to appear in their bank accounts.

They may not be able to read, but they sure can count.



To shave or not to shave, that is the question

Don’t you just love women?

Well, yes, actually, but what the hell. This morning an ‘article’ was published in the Guardian about the trend towards pubic hair removal. Ostensibly about permanency, it soon turned, well, ugly. Actually, downright offensive (as well as factually inaccurate)

I have several problems with this piece. The first is perhaps the juvenile nature of its rant: ‘If porn told you to jump off a cliff …’ This is pitiful, playground stuff. This is meant to be an intelligent paper. It’s no surprise that comments were not opened.

If Bidisha wants to discuss this intelligently, then all well and good. She might consider asking people their thoughts. She might find that for some, it enhances sexual feeling, especially cunnilingus, and allows the ‘linguist’ greater access to sensitive areas … this leading to more pleasure for the woman. Surely that’s allowed?

Bidisha makes one frankly stunning assertion: ‘They [men] are not going to make the effort to do anything to please a woman, at the cost of their own comfort.’

Really? What a sad bunch you must think we are. And you respect that? Good heavens. This is offensive and, quite obviously nonsense.

More to the point, I believe that more and more men are following the trend – it’s not called a back, sack and crack for nothing.

But she ignores the vast, gaping hole in her argument. Men have been shaving for years. Now, what on earth does shaving one’s chin represent? Let’s ask Shakespeare:

Fulvia perchance is angry; or who knows

If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent

His Pow’rful mandate to you:                                                (Antony and Cleopatra, I.i.20-22)

Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair,

send thee a beard                                                                      (Twelfth Night, III.i.44-45)

You may light upon a husband with no beard.

What should I do with him? dress him in my apparel

and make him my gentle-waiting-

woman? He that hath a beard is more than a youth,

and he that hath no beard is less than a man;                   (Much Ado About Nothing, II.i.32-37)

Hmm. The prosecution rests with the fearsome Beatrice.

So, by Bidisha’s logic, shaving the chin is designed to imitate the youth. Or, in Shakespeare’s terms, the boy. Imagine if I, a man, wrote this:

‘A woman who likes a man without facial hair despises adult men so much that she wants us to resemble children. She should stay at home instead in front of a computer, masturbating alone to the hair-free images she reveres.’

And yet she feels it is fine and dandy to write this:

‘A man who likes a woman without pubic hair despises adult women so much that he wants us to resemble children. He should stay at home instead in front of a computer, masturbating alone to the hair-free images he reveres.’

And we’ll not even think about all those men who wax their chests … none of whom are ever presented as sex objects to women. No, no, no.

Now I don’t in any way intend to belittle the many, many serious issues that pornography raises. The fact of the matter is, that is articles like Bidisha’s, this is what the author unwittingly does.

She draws a delightful conclusion thus:

I worry about these men too, of course, those poor poonani-policing body fascists. They are now in danger of returning to a Victorian naivety. They may well believe that, like the hairless, passive and benign feminine allegories of grand masters’ paintings, women naturally do not have any body hair. Upon seeing some real hair on a real woman for the first time they may well vomit or faint, or both. That is something I’d like to see: a man so dizzied by the shortfall between reality and his own ignorance that his brain can’t take it and he loses consciousness.

Bless her and all who sail in her, as they say (don’t be filthy minded).

She finishes with this rather odd paragraph:

‘As for the women, don’t you have anything more interesting to do than dutifully coif your cassoulet? I got “cassoulet” from The Joy of Sex, by the way. It means “general musky pussy area”. Check out the original 70s hand-drawn illustrations. The couple are as hairy as anything, but they look like they’re having a lot of fun, fur and all.’

Now, ignoring the possibility that she doesn’t know what a cassoulet is (in the Guardian? Purlease!), and no, I’ve never heard it used as a euphemism, either, I wonder whether she thinks that the hairy figures in the Joy of Sex are any less stylised than the ‘grand masters’ paintings’. Furthermore, might she vomit or faint should she encounter partner who doesn’t have a lot of fun, ‘dizzied by the shortfall between reality and her own ignorance’?

Bless her. And I’m being ironically patronising. Because I can be.

Well, I’ve got that off my chest – now then, ought I shave, wax, or curl?

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: