Why Study Shakespeare?

Published in Sydney's Child, August 2003

Many of us have mixed feelings when we think of studying Shakespeare at school. Such recollections can range from the depths of boredom and anguish to the heights of sublime joy and intellectual awakening. But regardless of our opinion of Shakespeare, we speak his language everyday. It is estimated that Shakespeare added around 1500 new words to the English language. Whenever we use our mind’s eye, to find method in someone’s madness, as they eat us out of house and home, because we thought they had a heart of gold and a spotless reputation but we were actually living in a fool's paradise; whenever we decide that discretion is the better part of valour or detect something in the wind; whenever we remark that brevity is the soul of wit, that  love is blind or caution someone that all that glistens is not gold or advise someone to be neither a lender nor a borrower;  from the salad days of youth, through the  pomp and circumstance of marriage to the sea change of retirement,  until we exclaim what the dickens!, accept the unkindest cut of all, and  shuffle off this mortal coil, we  are speaking Shakespeare’s language.

Studying Shakespeare benefits students in a myriad of ways. Shakespeare's language is tricky to read aloud and comprehend, and it is harder still to perform in front of a theatre full of family and friends. If children can understand Shakespeare they can understand anything. Some may argue that this is a reason not to teach Shakespeare in schools. But students gain strength, determination and the capacity to deal with minor hardships (like forgetting your lines on stage) by studying, memorising and performing Shakespeare. Obviously they need to be taught in an appropriate manner with support and understand and not be pushed too far too quickly. But with skilful teaching and gentle encouragement they grow in stature through the study and performance of Shakespeare’s plays.  

Performing a Shakespeare play also builds class unity. Students learn to rely on one another and learn that they themselves need to be reliable, and that others are relying on them. You only need to miss your cue once in a performance to learn what it is like to let people down. Acting also takes students out of their small circle of friends and forces them to connect with and cooperate with all members of their class. My own experience of taking a number of classes through Shakespeare performances is that by the evening of the final performance the class has been transformed and there is a magical sense of unity, happiness and lightness. The simple fact of compulsory cooperative action seems to bring about these qualities.

It may be argued that the advantages, of character building and class unity would accrue from the performance of any dramatic work. But Shakespeare has an added benefit. There is greatness about Shakespeare which cultivates the spirit and raises one to a level of transcendent reflection and pure sentiment. Shakespeare represents the pinnacle of the English speaking world’s contribution to literature. A study of Shakespeare connects the students to their cultural heritage, and equips them, in time, to make their own contribution. The experience for the student acting out a play is much stronger than say a lesson on morality or a discussion on human nature. The play involves them for that period of time in that space together. Without necessarily comprehending every the word and allusion, each child understands the drama to his own level, and is taken up in the play to experience the consequences of each character’s actions. Vicariously the students experience what life would be like if they enacted those motivations which are driving the characters. They see people in confronting circumstances struggling to know what to do and relying on their inner resources to survive a crisis. To the degree that the students experience the drama, to that extent they can undergo the catharsis the ending brings. The catharsis of being involved with murder, deceit and betrayal and experiencing the consequences of those dark emotions can free the student from the need to enact those traits in his or her own life. Because Shakespeare portrays these emotions so accurately and perfectly the students can fully experience those character flaws and be freed from them. Performing the plays on stage ensures that the children learn their lines (and the lines of many of the other characters) by heart. The words stay with them for life and form on important part of their intellectual capital.  

Not only is the language of Shakespeare sublimely beautiful and richly poetic, the subject matter of his plays covers the whole gambit of human experience. Within his plays we find the martial ardour of Henry V, the jealous ambition of Lady Macbeth, the evil scheming of Iago, the doubting hesitation of Hamlet, the dereliction of duty of King Lear, the degradation of Caliban, the wisdom of Prospero, and the arrogance of Coriolanus. The children are exposed to some of the most excellent practical advice for life and observations of human nature expounded in pithy and memorable speeches. For example in Measure for Measure man’s arrogance is describes thus:

 But man, proud manDress'd in a little brief authorityMost ignorant of what he's most assur'dHis glassy essence, like an angry apePlays such fantastic tricks before high heavenAs makes the angels weep.

Shakespeare’s ability to uniquely blend the familiar and strange makes his plays both accessible and fascinating. He expresses a profound knowledge of human behaviour and offers insight into the world.

Shakespeare can be used as a pivot point for introducing students to: mythology, fantasy, marriage, Greek Tragedy, Italian Comedy, Elizabethan culture and history, Catholicism, and English, Scottish and French history. His writing can also be used as examples of plot, characterisation and poetry in English classes. Moral questions and philosophical concepts are also addressed in his works. 

For example the puzzling question, particularly relevant at the moment, of who takes the blame in an unjust war is addressed in Henry V.  Are dutiful and loyal soldiers to blame if their political leaders order them to fight in an unjust war, or do the leaders take full responsibility themselves? Shakespeare addresses this question when Henry V is walking disguised among his troops on the eve of battle.

KING HENRY. I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King's company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable. WILLIAMS. That's more than we know. 

BATES. Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we know we are the King's subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.

WILLIAMS. But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopp'd off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place'…Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

Here Bates and Williams expresses the view that it is not the concern of the soldier whether or not the cause is just and that by showing loyalty to their king they are placing all responsibility on his head.  Henry rebuts this argument saying that each man is the master of his own conscience, that the King is not responsible for the acts of his soldiers and that each of them must fight with a clear conscience or not at all.

KING HENRY: …You may call the business of the master the author of the servant's damnation. But this is not so: the King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services. … Every subject's duty is the King's; but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed- wash every mote out of his conscience; and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained.

Whether or not you agree with the King, it’s a great way to raise the issue and get discussion going.

Study of Shakespeare also gives the students an appreciation of the craftsmanship and innovation of Shakespeare the playwright and allows the students share in the knowledge base that is our human right and cultural heritage.  Exposure to the greats of English literature gives the students a benchmark against which they can compare other works. It refines their taste and teaches them a cultural vocabulary which they need to understand and enjoy further works of art and literature.

There is a growing number of opportunities for school students in NSW to study and perform Shakespeare.  John Bell, director of the Bell Shakespeare Company is a strong supporter of youth education in Shakespeare. He believes that young people should study Shakespeare because “his vision, his understanding of the world was so big - his understanding of people - how they work and think and operate. Also he doesn't judge people. He is very generous, but also very critical, so he's not soft centred but nor is he unfeeling.”

Des James, Associate Artistic Director of the Bell Shakespeare Company, has this to say on the subject: "Shakespeare’s plays remain the greatest in the English language and despite the passage of time, his works endure and grow in popularity. This has much to do with the range of their moral and philosophical concerns, the richness of their characterisation, the lyrical beauty and dramatic power of the writing, and the extraordinary story telling and theatrical structure at the heart of all his plays."

Shakespeare’s writing was clearly designed for the stage and his performance forms include high and low comedy, grand tragedy, romance, historical chronicle and metaphysical speculation. Above all Shakespeare’s works capture the spirit and complexity of the human condition and remain the finest examples of character study for students to engage with today. When given the opportunity to interact with Shakespeare, students enter into a bold, vital and imaginative world. They also have the opportunity to recognise and identify aspects of themselves in Shakespeare’s vast array of characters and situations, and to share in his profound understanding of humanity.

As part of their commitment to encouraging school students to study Shakespeare, The Bell Shakespeare Company tours Australia each year performing plays specifically aimed at a younger audience. They provide resource material and support educational programmes. They have a program called “Actors at Work”. This program comprises two teams of four actors, one based in Melbourne and one in Sydney. These teams visit school and explore scenes and characters from Shakespeare and demonstrate to young audience how an imaginative approach to a text can illuminate the works for Shakespeare for young and old. Experts from the BSC also conduct master classes with teachers to help them bring the magic alive for their students.

The Shakespeare Globe Centre Australia runs a National Shakespeare Youth Festival for secondary school students. Started in 1993, it now attracts young actors, musicians, and dancers from throughout Australia. This festival cumulates with the announcement of the Young Shakespearean Artist of the Year and the Shakespearean Teacher of the Year Awards.

The University of New England holds an annual Outdoor Shakespeare Festival. The Festival is held in March-April to coincide with the UNE Graduation. One of the goals of this festival is to allow senior school students from around New South Wales to participate in Shakespearian performances, both as audiences and actors.  The productions are accompanied by a series of supporting events, including lectures, workshops, and other performances, some by school students from the region.

John Colet School in Belrose holds a four-day Shakespeare Festival at Glen St Theatre each year. Each class performs an excerpt from a Shakespeare play and the festival culminates in an hour long performance by the 5th and 6th class.

So whether it is team building, cultural enrichment, philosophical insights into the human condition or just great fun, Shakespeare provides and excellent addition to your child’s education.


Charlotte Rees said…
that was really helpful, a great report. Helps alot with understanding why it is important and the benefits of Shakespeare being taught in Schools :)
Charlotte Rees said…
That was a very helpful report. Thankyou :) really helped me understand why it is important to teach shakespeare in schools :)
Deborah said…
Mr. Farrelly,

I am on the board of the Island Shakespeare Festival on Whidbey Island, Washington, USA.
We were delighted to stumble upon this blog post and would like to quote you in some of our promotional materials. We are committed to bringing Shakespeare into the schools in our rural community and beyond. After 6 years of building our festival we are now attracting thousands to our summer plays. All seats are free (we pass the hat in order to pay our actors, many of whom are experienced professionals) and our stage is inside a huge circus tent on an open field at the back of a public school.
Please find us at www.islandshakespearefest.org.
Thank you!
Ross Farrelly said…
Thanks Deborah - good luck with your festival and feel free to quote me. You may also be interested in John Colet School in Sydeny - they have an annual Shakespeare Festival for children.

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