I must confess this blog post is going out a week later than it should have done, since it was last week that we were celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday and death day.
One of the questions I get asked quite a bit as an English teacher, is why always Shakespeare? I must admit, it does seem strange that we are still teaching texts by one writer that are four hundred years old. Surely something better has come along since then?
In this blog, I will explain why Shakespeare has never gone out of fashion with teachers, and how to help your child if he/she is really struggling to make any sense of the Bard.
Why do English teachers love Shakespeare?
I am obviously talking quite generally here, I am sure there may be some English teachers who are not so keen, but overall, most of the English teachers I have met do love Shakespeare. Everyone will have their own reasons, but here are a few of my thoughts on why he is still such a hit on the school syllabus.
1. His plays cover universal themes
I am not surprised that there are so many conspiracy theories out to prove that Shakespeare did not actually write his plays. After all, most of us would dream of being able to write one play in our lives, but imagine writing thirty-six? His plays really do cover the essence of what is to be human. Every experience and emotion is in there: falling in love, guilt, ambition, obsession, jealousy, depression, revenge, persecution - you name it, Shakespeare covers it! This is why once you get past the language barriers, his plays still speak to us four centuries later. Our language may have changed but our responses to comedy and tragedy have not.
2. His plays can be interpreted in so many ways
One of the things that makes drama such an exciting genre is the fact that the director and actors can bring new layers to the story based on the performance decisions they make. The written script is only the blueprint, the text does not come alive until it is put on the stage. It is definitely one of my pet hates when a student talks about the reader in Shakespeare - his plays were written for an audience and they belong on the stage! Directors are always bringing new ideas into the plays in order to address the concerns of a modern audience, and it is testimony to how versatile Shakespeare’s plays are that they can be retold so often.
3. He was the soap opera writer of his day
Shakespeare never wrote his plays for school children, they were written for people of all ages and classes to enjoy. The playhouses would have been packed with both lower and upper class people, and although they sat in different parts of the theatre, they were all brought together by the human need to hear and enjoy stories. His plays were the soap operas of their day! As I always say, if he were around today, he would not be writing for the theatre, he would write for television (probably on Netflix), making use of the most up-to-date technologies to get his stories to as many people as possible.
4. He wrote the English Language!
Well, a slight exaggeration, but there are several everyday phrases and words that found their first usage in Shakespeare’s plays. From “at the end of the day” to “green-eyed monster” and “wild-goose chase”, our language is full of Shakespeare. Your child may think Shakespeare is written in another language, but in fact he/she is speaking Shakespeare every day!
How can I help my child cope with Shakespeare?
With Shakespeare, the biggest barrier is always going to be language, so if your child is struggling, you need to find ways to reach the stories at the heart of his work. Here are some ways you can help your child do this.
Graphic Novels - I have used these in the classroom, and they are a great tool if you can get hold of them. They make the text visual and break it up into more manageable sections for students.They can be used as a great way to introduce the story and get students familiar with the themes, before moving onto larger sections of the text.
No Fear Shakespeare - This website is a brilliant resource that is completely free! It provides a modern day version of the plays, alongside Shakespeare’s original verse. I often recommend this to students when setting them homework, as it is a great place to go if they are feeling overwhelmed by the text.
Theatre Performances - Obviously, the ideal place to see Shakespeare is in the theatre, where it was meant to be. However, even when we are not in lockdown, this is not always possible for students, due to time and money constraints. More plays are now becoming available online, and The Globe Theatre has their own Globe Player service, where you can download/stream plays (although this is not a free service). Often students can struggle with watching the plays performed without the atmosphere of a live playhouse, so sometimes just showing them clips can work better, and you can find various clips of the individual scenes on YouTube (please note, I am not endorsing people who film live theatre performances sneakily - but the BBC do provide some short recordings of scenes that are available for education purposes).
Films - As I mentioned earlier, if Shakespeare was around now, he would probably prefer faster paced mediums, and this is why his work usually translates very well into cinema. However, be careful. Students need to understand that film is a different genre to theatre, and be aware that often Shakespeare’s verse may have been significantly cut, or in some cases actually changed. For example I have frequently had to call students out for referring to the Prince in Romeo and Juliet as the Police Officer, based on the Baz Luhrmann adaptation. So it is very important to keep reminding them that the film is not the play, it is an interpretation.
If you would like any further suggestions on how to help your child access any part of the secondary English curriculum, please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.