We’ll All Be Poorer If We Ban Teaching Shakespeare’s Works In Schools

Watching Dame Helen Mirren’s acceptance speech for her BAFTA Fellowship in 2014 was memorable not only for the class and elegance Mirren always exudes but for her recognition of the importance of teachers in our lives and also, tacitly, the importance of our great works of literature. Mirren ended by quoting Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Statue of William Shakespeare
Image credit:  Pexels – William Shakespeare

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep” (The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1)

There have been many rumblings over the years about whether Shakespeare should still be taught to our children. Worse still, there have been cartoon and other dumbed down versions in a misguided (in my view) attempt to interest children in the Bard’s works.

Before I had my children, I used to work as a part-time English tutor and one year the ‘O’ level text was probably my favourite Shakespeare play – “Macbeth“. My pupil was a 15-year-old boy whose predicted grade was ‘D’.

Upon querying what teaching methods were being used, my eyes were swiftly opened to the rather ramshackle and disinterested way I suspect literature may be being taught.

“Have you actually read the play?” I asked. “No”. “Does your teacher read the play out loud in class?” “No”. “Does your teacher get you to read out loud in class?” “No”.

When I was learning Shakespeare in school, everyone had a copy of the text and we read the entire play, line by line through the class.

It’s only when you read Shakespeare’s (or indeed any other poet’s) works out loud that you get a sense of the true meaning of the language and the implications behind the rhythms.

It gives the teacher a chance to explain idioms and how the meanings of words and even the interpretation of the whole play can change over the centuries.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not sure the subtle nuances and beauty of our language are ever all that apparent either by re-writing Shakespeare in text speak, Cockney rhyming slang or “gangsta” rap. You get me?

I also hate modern reworkings of the play where the director has had a “vision” and decided to portray Henry II as Robocop and dress everyone up like extras from The Matrix.

Yes, the themes and meanings of Shakespeare’s works are universal – that’s why they stand the test of time, but when you are learning them, you have an opportunity to better understand the history and social mores of that period.

For example, I always remember being taken aback by my lecturer’s assertion that the central theme of “Romeo & Juliet” was not, for an Elizabethan audience that of “star-crossed lovers” but instead of parental disobedience.

I really hope that, when Caitlin and Ieuan start to study English literature, the works of our greatest authors are requisite reading. We need to preserve these works, not least to help maintain the ever denuded English language as it seems to sink beneath text speak, business jargon and lazy spelling.

I cringe at the number of tweets from businesses where the writer doesn’t know the difference between “there are” and “they are”, “you’re” and “your”. This is basic stuff, surely?

So I applaud Dame Helen for reminding us that the great actors and actresses of our time still owe a debt to one of our greatest writers, William Shakespeare.

And by the way, after re-enacting “Macbeth” (which is mighty tricky when there are only 2 of you – we spent lots of time laughing), and trying to explain how the play’s themes are still relevant today, my pupil got an A.

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