Castle Shakespeare: Why study the Bard?

Let me give you, let me share with you, the City of Invention. For what novelists do… is to build the Houses of the Imagination, and where houses cluster together there is a city… Let us look round the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, the heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant … but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries and, build as others may they can never quite achieve the same grandeur; and the visitors keep flocking, and the guides keep training and re-training, finding new ways of explaining the old building. 

Fay Weldon, Letters To Alice

It’s hard to escape the spectre of Shakespeare in British life. Newspaper headlines and advertising copy liberally mine the bricks of Castle Shakespeare; a hologram of the great man’s head is a mark of the authenticity of your credit card; there’s a national, heavily subsidised theatre company dedicated to putting on his plays, and a whole country – Warwickshire – has been rebranded as ‘Shakespeare’s County’. What’s more, he’s the only compulsory author specifically named in the English National Curriculum, with students expected to study at least two of his plays. Shakespeare’s reputation, both home and abroad, is towering. A BBC Radio 4 poll named him British Person of the Millennium; his plays have been translated into scores of languages and can be seen in theatres around the world.

Students, however, when confronted by a dog-eared copy of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, are often underwhelmed. As far as they’re concerned Shakespeare is alien, old-fashioned, boring and unintelligible. The funny bits aren’t funny and everyone ponces around talking endlessly to themselves in rhyme. Why do we bother? Why not let them read something contemporary, accessible and relevant?

Ben Jonson’s famous observation that Shakespeare is “not of an age, but for all time” has led to the traditional assertion that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language and his plays are the finest examples of English literature. This argument rests on the artistic merit of the plays, the values they teach us and their universal appeal. Shakespeare is an incomparable genius and to study his plays is not just to bask in the glory of his poetry but also to connect with and learn from the highest human spirit; because we are all moved and affected by his characters, ideas and language, his plays express the hopes, thoughts, fears and ambitions of everyone who has ever lived.

If we take a cultural materialist perspective, we might point out that Shakespeare wasn’t considered all that great in his own lifetime and in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy and the reopening of London’s theatres, manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays began to circulated and the plays performed again, but even then various of his contemporaries (including such now practically unheard of playwrights as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher) were more popular and more regularly performed. It was only from the end of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century that his reputation began to grow. There are many other writers who could potentially be considered as important and influential but for accidents of history. Sophocles wrote 120 plays in ancient Athens and, arguably, invented the whole idea of action by having as many as three characters on stage at once. Sadly though, only seven of his plays survive. The Spanish playwright Lope de Vega was writing at the same time as Shakespeare and was equally as successful, writing even more plays than the Bard, but the decline of Spain as a European power meant that Vega wasn’t translated and today fewer than 10% of his plays are available in English. Shakespeare though had the British Empire and was shipped to the colonies as a civilising influence.

As to whether Shakespeare teaches ‘universal values’, it’s hard to really know. We are so familiar with some few of his plays that their original messages have been lost beneath archeological strata of countless new interpretations. When we watch a play or see a film we’re experiencing the artistic vision of the director who chooses what and how to bring to the stage. Shakespeare might be the ultimate victim of cultural appropriation with everyone feeling able to reinvent him to express whatever it is they see as pressing or important. At the same time, whole swathes of society see Shakespeare as ‘posh’ and representing the values of the elite. With all this baggage, can we really say Shakespeare is the greatest ever writer? Can we even say he’s the best in English?

Maybe not, but that’s not why we should study Shakespeare. As Weldon acknowledges, Castle Shakespeare is “shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts”. But despite that, “the Castle keeps standing through the centuries  … and the visitors keep flocking, and the guides keep training and re-training, finding new ways of explaining the old building.” Students need to study Shakespeare because of the way he has been appropriated, reinvented and branded. Understanding modern life, never mind understanding literature, is made immeasurably easier by understanding Shakespeare’s place at the heart of the canon. It doesn’t matter whether we like his plays or if we can identify with his characters, the fact is ‘we’ have collectively decided that Shakespeare is a big deal. The consequences of this decision are enormous and not knowing at least a smattering of some of the plays is to mark oneself out as a pariah and a philistine. Familiarity with Shakespeare is a mark of culture and education; depriving children of this cultural capital is to deny them the opportunity to decide for themselves.

Some of the most interesting questions to ask of Shakespeare are about power – who has it, what it rests on whether it’s challenged or overthrown? Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves to analysing the role of woman – how they’re presented and how gender operates.  None of this can be done from a position of ignorance. There’s nothing liberating about not studying Shakespeare. The ability to criticise, analyse, reinterpret and deconstruct rests on what you know. If we allow students not to know anything about Shakespeare, we are marking them out as less than those who do.

20 Responses to Castle Shakespeare: Why study the Bard?

  1. I think you could put the same argument forward for studying the authorised version of the Bible
    Not knowing something of that, too, diminishes people’s cultural capital.

  2. Carl says:

    Do you think Primary School is too young for children to listen to Shakespeare (abridged versions possibly)? If not what are your thoughts on the age children should be knowing about Shakespeare stories?

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t think primary school children should *study* Shakespeare (if by ‘study’ you mean language analysis) but reading, preforming and enjoying are all good

    • teachwell says:

      I’ve taught abridged versions of Shakespeare. Given what I know now about cognitive load theory, I think it’s a good idea to have studied one or two this way before they get to the full version. Not only will it enrich the primary curriculum, it will pave the way towards secondary, without taking up the time they need to study the original plays.

  3. Tony Smart says:

    Forcing functionally illiterate children to read Shakespeare is no different to making someone run a marathon if their exercise regime involves walking from the sofa to the fucking fridge and back. The GCSE curriculum is, terrrrribly, out of touch. But let’s all keep telling ourselves we’re doing it for those less fortunate. They deserve it. The need 6 weeks of unintelligible pomposity xx

    • David Didau says:

      I’d rather not damn children with your low expectations Tony. Forcing functionality illiterate children to read anything is pretty pointless unless your teaching them to be functionally literate. My view is that a child leave school unable to read it is the school’s fault.

  4. How do we decide which plays should be studied? My schooling focused mostly on the tragedies, though I did study a comedy in Grade 11 (because the teacher thought all the literature of that year was quite dark, and wanted to lighten the selection). I didn’t study a historical play until university. Should we just focus on the plays that carry the most cultural capital, or should we explore more of a range of the medium?

  5. David F says:

    I always recommend to anyone who will listen that schools in the US do a disservice to Shake by only teaching Hamlet, R&J and Macbeth, as is usually the case. I’ve had the most luck with Henry V and Richard III, especially HV. I usually show the Branaugh film after we go through the text, so it all comes toghether very well and the issues in HV resonate with the students.

  6. ZebaC says:

    Shakespeare can and should be taught from primary school onwards and there are several reasons for this – first is the way he has shaped our language, his virtuoso vocabulary range and the multiple aphorisms. Then there is plot and the way he embodies the ways in which writers use and develop plot. Then there is characterisation – still psychologically acute and perceptive about aspects of human experience from love to sleep deprivation, including, as you rightly say, themes of power and authority. Finally, there is sheer theatre-craft and developing an understanding of the power of drama.

    I think that this is fostered by children using the language of Shakespeare from the get-go. Both my children were introduced to Shakespeare at primary age by terrific and enthusiastic teachers who found pared down versions of the play to perform. There are also multiple ways to unpick the language and help those students struggling with it to enjoy it that can be used right the way through secondary school. But the fundamental is that students need to be up on their feet and getting an understanding of the language and its implications for movement and performance.

  7. It’s important to remember that although we may teach Macbeth (R&J etc) a thousand times, each student is only taught it once: that’s great common cultural commentary. The same argument applies to Of Mice and Men. I’d also add that when I ask my students what texts they most enjoyed learning, Shakespeare is almost always top of the list. You get everything with a Shakespeare play: drama, films, great quotes, universal themes and historical context. Why wouldn’t they enjoy it? Finding the best novel to engage them is much more difficult.

  8. One of the best primary schools I ever saw (Ranelagh in Newham) had spent a whole term doing a whole school project on ‘The Tempest’. From Nursery through to Year 6 they had worked with different aspects of the play – or indeed the whole play for Year 6. Fantastic.

  9. DocMills says:

    Shakespeare is written in an archaic language that GCSE students will be not be familiar with.

    Cognitive load theory tells us that the students will have to spend so much of their time trying to comprehend the 16th century prose that they will have little (cognitive) space left to provide any meaningful analysis of the literature (and will instead resort to Letts Study Guides for their answers).

    It’s a bit like asking someone learning GCSE French to read the original version of Les Misérables and except meaningful insight.

    • David Didau says:

      This is a terrible argument. By the same logic, algebra is unfamiliar so let’s just do counting to ten on our fingers. You’re right that CLT tells us that novices will struggle to find meaning in Shakespeare’s plays which is why they will need carefully sequenced, explicit instruction in order to be able to appreciate them. If we shied away from anything that induced cognitive load we would have no need of schools.

      • DocMills says:

        It wasn’t intended as an argument either for or against. Just an observation – that “no Shakespeare, no Shakespeare, all of Hamlet” is going to be hard. And hard enough to be counterproductive for many.

        (To re-abuse your analogy, I would suggest it’s more like teaching time tables using algebra.)

        I think, though, a better comparison is calculus. It is a hard but an important topic. It was removed from core GCSEs (when there were created) and is now just taught in Further Maths (for the more able kids) and at ‘A’ level.

        • David Didau says:

          So your “observation” is that teaching Shakespeare is “counterproductive” because it’s hard? By implication should we therefore just teach easy things? Is it ‘productive’ to teach things children will find simple and accessible? What it that likely to produce?

          Surely the purpose of teaching is to make what is remote and abstract accessible?Shakespeare is not so hard. Like most things, once you gain some familiarity and get a feel for the cadences, it becomes increasingly enjoyable.

          It may well be calculus is too hard for the majority but if so that makes an exceedingly poor comparison with Shakespeare.

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