This afternoon, I got to thinking about Shakespeare – my favourite plays, quotes and characters – and, in a rare hour alone in the office, I really thought about why I believe so strongly that we still need to teach Shakespeare in schools. Not, I hasten to add, as part of a mandatory literature GCSE (I cajoled enough 16 – 18 year olds through resists in my former life as an English teacher to know this makes no sense,) no, for me we should be exploring Shakespeare as early as possible – in EYFS, in Key Stage 1 and definitely in Key Stage 2. Let’s make it accessible, engaging, fun and exciting – because it’s still really, really valid and valuable. Here are my reasons why:
- The characters are real people, with real problems.
Ok, not all of them! But, on the whole, the characters that Shakespeare created have a timeless quality and exploring their worlds and their problems can help us to discover lots about ourselves. Hamlet teaches us not to procrastinate and obsess, Macbeth of course teaches us much about greed, Caliban lets us explore difference, diversity and assimilation, the lovely Hermia shows us parents what will happen if they try too hard to control their child and, of course, Romeo and Juliet demonstrate the futility of feuds and what can happen if your message (these days a text message!) doesn’t get delivered! And of course, there’s more – whichever play you look at, you see a tangled web of human emotions, relationships and complexities that are no less relevant today.
- The language is tough to understand.
There’s no denying it. But when you work with children to unlock that language and vocabulary – well, there’s nothing like it. Watching their faces turn from bewilderment to understanding as they realise they can read Shakespeare is phenomenal. It gives children (and young people) a huge confidence boost – to be able to do something which they previously felt unachievable is a powerful thing, it feeds their ego, makes them proud and elevates them. Letting children explore, play, fail and then succeed is what education is all about for us, and in the midst of one of Shakespeare’s stories is a great place to do this.
- And the language is so beautiful.
In a world where the subordinating conjunction is king and identification of a modal verb is a valid assessment model, I, for one, can’t help but think that Shakespeare’s poetry and emotive language could be part of the antidote. Yes, grammar is important (this grammar nerd and her metaphorical red pen will testify to that!) but listen to Helena wax lyrical about her love for Demetrius, witness the clever word play between Beatrice and Benedict or read Prospero’s final shattering poem about life and the living of it, now that’s what language is really all about. No-one’s ever done it better and we need to celebrate it.
- It’s fun!
It really is! The characters have silly names (Bottom anyone?), they act foolishly around each other, there’s slapstick and magic and mayhem and brilliance. Anything is possible in a Shakespeare play and, if played right, the comedies really are still funny. We love working on these sorts of scenes with children and showing them that humour hasn’t changed a huge amount in the last 400 years!
- It’s part of who we are.
I could ramble on here about Gove’s literary heritage and treasure house of wonder, but we’ve all heard it before. What I mean here, is that Shakespeare’s stories are part of us – our history and our heritage. So many modern stories, plays and movies are derived from Shakespeare’s work, and don’t get me started on the number of words and phrases he created. The plays themselves also teach us about those great British Values (even if half of the plays are set in Europe!) like courage in the face of adversity, fairness and justice, fighting against prejudice, standing up for what you believe in. These themes are part of the fabric of Shakespeare’s work – perhaps you could hang your whole British Values work on one of his plays? Now, that would be an interesting project!
Here at Altru, we are passionate about Shakespeare – about how we teach it, why we teach it and the contribution it makes to children and young people’s lives. We are eagerly anticipating Shakespeare Week 2017! Find out more about it here: www.shakespeareweek.org.uk.
And, of course, if you’re interested in working with us to develop or deliver a Shakespeare project then get in touch! And feel free to take a look at the website for some ideas and inspiration.
Thanks for reading!