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Why Should We Teach Shakespeare English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4693 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The writings of Shakespeare play an important part of the heritage of the English literature which sends us the moral obligation to teach Shakespeare. Constructed by critical approach, the narrow, elitist hierarchy of texts written by Shakespeare, which was considered as the apex as a touchstone of excellence to protest to match inferior productions, are now a remote view, quite different from the great variety and richness of human experience in the arts. However, personal sense of works should be encouraged to communicate with many people by sharing celebration, accessing to tradition of communal dramatic experience, not as the key to ivory tower.

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Language of Shakespeare contains not only specific historical and cultural context, but also introduces all kinds of linguistic development by widening the way of seeing and thinking. Besides, our language, concept, and perception can be enriched by coping with his language. As a teaching aid, Shakespeare’s innovative use of vocabulary helps show children how to use the language they are born with better than a bland textbook, even when used without this aim in mind. Children should be encouraged to access to Shakespeare, and since parents seem to be too lazy to read to their children any more, it must be the place of school to offer this education.

His dramatic and lyric poetry speaks powerfully and directly to the belief of the essential poetry in education. The idea that good poetry is deep, rich, obscure, and complex is sometimes promoted by textual analysis. Readers of Shakespeare’s poetry will find depth in simplicity, wisdom, or tragic mode.

Dr. Johnson (1765) considers Shakespeare as ‘a poet of Nature’ who filled his plays with practical axioms and domestic wisdom by his universal sympathies. Shakespeare treated his characters in action a depth and various insights that can sharpen our self-knowledge and knowledge of human condition which bring us context to test out our potential for good or ill in private reflection when discussing with others.

In the field of drama and theatre, scripts of Shakespeare’s plays provide us full range of practical activity, workshop improvisation and mime which is based on different moments or themes to full-scale public performance. Students from primary school onwards can experience through the formal and narrative structures, as well as the language of plays and poetry of Shakespeare. From this, deeper understanding his texts can be raised higher to each level. The texts in Shakespeare’s works are open to explore the way in which apparently settled notions of kingship, order, harmony, nobility, and social class and gender are threatened by unresolved forces. Difficulties and challenges in teaching Shakespeare are the opportunities.

Shakespeare is the cultural treasure not only of England but also the world. An education in England cannot ignore the vast cultural wealth of our country. For too long England have lost pride in its national icons and allowed nationalists to reclaim them as their own. Keeping control of the powerful icons such as Shakespeare is a tool for integration.

Shakespeare has enlightened the lives of the people of this country for 500 years, and for good reason. His poetry and drama represent the pinnacle of the English language, and influences the way we speak today. It is a beautiful body of work, ranging from comedy to tragedy, murder to hatred, treating difficult subjects brilliantly.

If we are to remain proud of the history of this country, we cannot ignore the contribution made by this one man to our culture, and wider European culture. Shakespeare made his name here, but has been read by an audience far beyond the reaches of “this sceptred isle” (Shakespeare: Richard II, 2.i).

Shakespeare is also the cultural integration. Many people are worried about an upcoming generation of immigrants that do not identify themselves as British, while living in Britain and paying taxes to the British government. Culture is a key tool in integration; if you can share a cultural identity, you can share other values and bring the wider community together. Teaching Shakespeare, a bastion of British culture, in schools to this end is far better than forcing citizenship ceremonies and oaths of allegiance on children. It is not forceful, but creates a sense that they are part of a country with a long and proud history, willing to integrate new communities into its growth.

Shakespeare was way ahead of his time. Many of his characters and situations are modern day and relate to us. Also, his plays and poetry show us things about ourselves that other pieces of literature often can’t. The mastermind himself has invented a whole new phase of the English language. To this date, we all use words which directly or indirectly have their origins in Shakespeare’s works. Also, many movies are being made on his works which has further generated an interest in the Bard. They are even applicable to today’s 21st century. There are still Macbeths, Othello, Julius Caesars and others in the society. It’s just that their lifestyle has become more advanced, more tech-savvy and dressed differently. It’s just that their lifestyle has become more advanced, more tech-savvy and dressed differently. Shakespeare is a pro at deciphering the human emotions and the working of the mind. One can also see his works from a psychological point of view and identify with some of the characters. It might also give an insight to the students who are learning about it and give a better view of the real world as opposed to seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses.

II. Recent Shakespeare teaching in schools

Generally, teaching and learning in schools have been transformed radically during the last twenty-five years. Learning process is now emphasized within different contexts, oral, as well as valuable written outcomes, active modes of learning, such as: role-play, group discussion, and independent learning). The development of media studies encourages extending the range of linguistic and visual experiences. Literature, in this stream, is no longer perceived as the central study in English, but one of a range of possibilities. Not only competing for time with other literature, Shakespeare also fights with the role of English as a support subject across the curriculum.

Shakespeare studies in schools have got many fruitful developments, in which there are two significant ones: the growth of practical drama work through workshop and Theatre-in-Education, and ‘plain text’ examinations. The pioneers of the first fruit are Henry Caldwell Cook (1917) and Beacock (1943) who established the ‘mummery’ in Perse School, Cambridge, and were seminal influences on teaching through drama. It was not until in the late 1960s when the growth of educational drama introduced Shakespeare into the teaching in state schools with possible way of grouping students into 4 or 5 member resident companies who are responsible a certain part given by teacher to discuss and perform before evaluation of the whole class. ‘Plain text’ examinations are given particularly to O level by providing the text in the examination room shifting students to respond by using their own words.

III. Teaching Shakespeare in England

With many young people, Shakespeare play is just a story with fixed values to be learned, rather than the dramatically dynamic, emotionally shifting and unstable play text which it really is. There are still many classes where students sit at their desks experience by reading through a Shakespeare play. Nothing startling, but a few right ingredients were there with enthusiastic teaching, playing the text, and seeing a performance. Many people leaving school along with the thinking of the most unbelievable and unutterable rubbish to ever hear about Shakespeare’s plays. Ted Wragg, one of the most well-respected and well-loved educationalists of Britain agreed that there was nothing but ‘doing’ Shakespeare, rather than reading if someone wants to let children access the power of Shakespeare’s words.

1. Pre-national Curriculum

Beginning of the twentieth century sees the secondary education becoming compulsory and English taking its prestige value from the Classics. Along this, attitudes to Shakespeare were very much influenced by nationalist pride. William Shakespeare, whose timeless characters and portrayed universal values in his plays define our humanity, was reversed as the greatest poet of all time. Shakespeare, in the post enlightenment age when art was considered as the human surrogate for religion (Peter Widdowson, 1981), was like the apex of high culture which was the target for Victorian belief of a better person if exposing to it. Richard Adams (1985), despite decrying the static of Shakespeare, comments that most students still respect Shakespeare although they get bored to tears by reading incomprehensive words if his plays. In the first half of twentieth century, Shakespeare’s plays were read around class only, which was the main topic for the influential critics such as: AC Bradley’s character-based criticism, LC Knight’s journal Scrunity, and critics like Tillyard, Wilson Knight and Leavis whose concepts of an ordered Elizabethan world helped transmit clear cultural values in Shakespeare’s plays to us. This tradition of criticism – the liberal humanist – took the plays in the view of literature rather than drama and influenced a long life in secondary schools. However, on the other side, different views on seeing the plays as the performance texts also existed. Founded in 1906, The English Association suggested in its first pamphlet publications The Teaching of Shakespeare in Schools how to study Shakespeare’s plays:

It is desirable that all the Shakespeare chosen for study should be read aloud in class. The living voice will often give a clue to the meaning, and reading aloud is the only way of ensuring knowledge of the metre. In a class of beginners the teacher must take a liberal share of the reading, but the pupils should be brought into play. They can be cast for some of the parts; the forum scene in Julius Caesar comes one step nearer the dramatic if the teacher is Anthony and the other parts are distributed and the class transformed into a Roman mob shouting for the will.

Many writers on Shakespeare education agreed that it was so dangerous for opening textbooks before students in classrooms but forgetting what drama really meant. This pamphlet also recommended good practice by acting out scenes and seeing performance of the play occasionally.

Henry Caldwell Cook (1917) strongly encouraged the case for a theatrical approach to the study of Shakespeare. Under the influence of the liberal humanist tradition in teaching, the trend for drama-based teaching of texts was still calling. A.K Hudson (1954) confirmed the important role of active approaches to teaching Shakespeare in his book Shakespeare and the Classroom for The Society for Teachers of English. He wrote in the introduction of this book:

The unsuccessful methods [of teaching Shakespeare] normally display two features: they are non-dramatic and they reflect a tendency to regard school children as textual scholars in embryo.

The present book recognises frankly the difficulties which the modern pupil finds in dealing with Shakespeare. It has been written in the belief that the plays can be made intelligible and interesting only if the teaching remains stage-centred.

The writer suggests practical advice and ideas on how to work with the plays with 11-18 years old. He believes in the benefits from his ways to students when learning Shakespeare. Government, in this time, also had innovative opinions on teaching Shakespeare, which is illustrated by its document named The Newbolt Report (entitled The Teaching English in England) published in 1921. The report, besides remaining the traditional view of regarding Shakespeare as the greatest English writer, focused on the need for English to be enjoyable and encouraged the use of drama for improving the imagination and empathy. School curriculum in this time is the ‘secret garden’ where schools decide themselves on how much and what about Shakespeare to teach. Frank Whitehead (1966) and J.W. Patrick Creber (1965) introduced a more pragmatic view on Shakespeare in their two books influential in the teaching of English in the mid 1960s. Despite keeping the point of view of Shakespeare as greatest English writer, they see that Shakespeare was really difficult for the majority of students, and wonder the suitability of the study of Shakespeare for young teenagers. Jan Kott (1965) concludes that the attitudes to Shakespeare academic and theatrical world were undergone the revolution. Moreover, universities and theatres ignored the traditional, reverential view of Shakespeare’s plays.

2. The 1980s

In the mid 1980s, independent schools and higher ability streams were the province of Shakespeare studies which, despite of having lost favor with general rank and files of teachers in England, became very much the norm with its ‘performance consciousness’. Neil King (1985) suggested that Shakespeare should not be taught below Year 9 because the language is too high and difficult to attempt. He chose Macbeth and Henry V instead of the full of violence and hatred in Romeo and Juliet to deal with thirteen-year-old students. John F Andrews writes in the Teaching Shakespeare – a special edition produced by American Shakespeare Quarterly in 1984:

A decade ago performance-oriented pedagogy was relatively unfamiliar among Shakespeareans and was anything but universally accepted as the wave of the future. Now it is difficult to find a dissenting voice: virtually everybody acknowledges the need to approach Shakespeare’s plays as dramatic rather than literary works. The only real question seems to be just how to put the new consensus into practice.

Also in this edition, Kenneth Muir, in his essay Teaching Shakespeare: the wrong way or the right, affirms that the most effective and only legitimate way to study Shakespeare’s plays in schools is to turn the lessons into a rehearsal. Late 1980s and early 1990s sees the clash of view over the position of Shakespeare in education between the left wing cultural materialist academics and the right wing guardians of cultural heritage. 1980s was the period of critical theories which opened up academic Shakespeare study. The Feminist and Cultural Materialist got the most influential on Shakespeare teaching. ‘Bardolatry’, which had built up around Shakespeare at seemed to be out of time and a repository of ‘universal truth’, was strongly attacked by Cultural Materialism. In 1980s, context to the plays in textbooks dealing with Shakespeare were increasingly adapted. Besides, educationalists who were already working with such ideas were provided a theoretical underpinning by the academics.

Opposite the awareness of ‘cultural, historical and other contextual influences’ which is embedded as part of examination requirements along with the awareness of literary heritage of these days, summer 1993 came what the Observer called The Battle of the Bard which saw John Major, at his Party Conference, railed against 500 academics who had written a letter protesting against the Government’s policies on literature teaching in which the introduction of Shakespeare was compulsory at Key Stage 3. While the academics’ view of the policies was like an ill-thought-through elitist imposition of a death white man, it was, with the party members, the chance for moral fibre of all right-minded inhabitants of this sceptred isle to be strengthened. Meanwhile, teachers shrugged and tried to get on with their daily teaching tasks.

Luckily, in the stream of this chaos, Dr Rex Gibson, the English greatest Shakespearean educationalist, was building an oasis of sense for some teachers with quiet achieving great success of his invaluable research in project ‘Shakespeare in schools’ started in 1986. Gibson’s team, working from the Cambridge Institute of Education, produced a termly the newsletter named Shakespeare and Schools which is as a support for the teaching of Shakespeare, containing quotes, articles, information, and writings by teachers on their direct experiences with Shakespeare in Primary and Secondary schools. Gibson introduced his fruitful result by using active and flexible approaches to the plays to involve every student of any age to appreciate Shakespeare:

In total, our research reveals an encouraging picture. Teachers increasingly report success as they employ a variety of methods, at the heart of which is social collaborative, imaginative, re-creative activities. Such methods deepen and enhance students’ informed personal responses.

First appeared in 1991, Gibson’s school editions of plays provides a wealth of practical ideas facing with each page of text. They soon became popular in every English stock-cupboard and the compulsory study of Shakespeare in Key Stage 3. Moreover, his book, Teaching Shakespeare (1998) became the favorite of many new and experienced teachers alike. In the early 1990s, Royal Society of Arts (RSA) project also conveyed the same spirit of how to make Shakespeare accessible in the origin to all age groups from 5 upwards by using well prepared, exciting, and enjoyable teaching and learning approaches. The project, in the echo of Gibson’s work, tried to counter the idea of Shakespeare as ‘a bogeyman’ whose works are so difficult, irrelevant, and inaccessible. RSA introduced a more practical, fun approach to replace the scholarly one, which allows teachers and students to develop skills, knowledge and sharing ideas. In the same purpose, Shakespeare and Schools project, the work of Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), National Theatre, and Globe education departments, involved enormously the development of teaching and learning Shakespeare with new approaches.

3. The National Curriculum

From 1976, the quality of state education and a great deal of discussion about the curriculum were questioned but most ideas were still theoretical and generalized. Despite broadly mentioned in Curriculum Matter 1, a document of Department of Education and Science, published in 1984, there was still unclear way of how much, which work(s) of Shakespeare, which age of students to teach Shakespeare. Having initiated plans for National Curriculum (NC) of predecessor, Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker, as Secretary of State for Education in May 1986, was determined to change and create specific requirements for all school children. He got his goal and opened the door of opportunity in 1987 by tying up all the details for NC. He clearly believed that Shakespeare should be a compulsory author to study for having cultural and intellectual cachet. Nigel Lawson, in an interview with The Guardian, in September 1983, summed that Shakespeare was a Tory without any doubt. Shakespeare, in the view of Tories, is as the bastion of British culture and values, a stable enduring symbol of Englishness in a shifting world. In September 1992, the Conservative view was stated clearly by John Patten, then Education Secretary:

It is essential that pupils are encouraged to develop an understanding and appreciation of our country’s literary heritage. Studying the works of Shakespeare is central to that development. That is why the study of Shakespeare is an explicit requirement of the National Curriculum.

This point of view alienated many teachers and academics who did not support the compulsory Shakespeare study. They still questioned the values about class and women in the writings of this white man, and denied students access to a man who is generally regarded as the world’s greatest playwright but simply reverse snobbery.

From autumn 1989, the National Curriculum was introduced progressively. It begins with unspecific state that pupils should learn some of Shakespeare’s works. Besides, a new battle of the Bard began in September 1990 when SATs, a kind of Scholastic Assessment Test, were first embarked to Year 7 students on the English NC program.

The Cox Report, English for Ages 5-16, in 1989, mentioned the implication of drama-based methods for teaching Shakespeare:

In particular, every pupil should be given at least some experience of the plays or poetry of Shakespeare. Whether this is through the study, viewing or performance of whole plays or of selected poems or scenes should be entirely at the discretion of the teacher.

The report continued on the comment of Gibson’s ‘Shakespeare and Schools’ project that secondary students received wide range of abilities to find Shakespeare meaningful, accessible and enjoyable from the project which also replaced traditional methods of reading desk-bound students by exciting, enjoyable approaches. The place of Shakespeare in NC is also validated in this report:

Many teachers believe that Shakespeare’s work conveys universal values, and that his language expresses rich and subtle meanings beyond that of any other English writer. Other teachers point out that evaluations of Shakespeare have varied from one historical period to the next and they argue that pupils should be encouraged to think critically about his status in the canon. But almost everyone agrees that his work should be represented in a National Curriculum. Shakespeare’s plays are so rich that in every age they can produce fresh meanings and even those who deny his universality agree on his cultural importance.

In 1995, as the information in the Dearing Report, a new slimmed-down version of NC was given to schools, which stated that at least two Shakespeare plays should be taught during the Key Stage 3 and 4.

4. The SATs

Early 1990s, Shakespeare was added on Paper 2 of the Key Stage 3 SATs examinations, which went along with the fact that all Year 9 students had to study 3 plays of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The questions in exam were traditionally literary, based on the set scenes of the plays. Students were required to answers the questions as well as writing their response in 1 hour 15 minutes. Both reading and writing skills were required. However, the questions were still in the form that regards an audience member as a reader rather than a witness at a place. For example, the question relating to Act 1 Scene 3 of Julius Caesar:

– At this point in the play do you support the conspirators?

Or the question relating to Act 1 Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet:

– How are moods of excitement, romance and danger created during the scene? How do they affect the audience’s feelings about Romeo and Juliet at this point in the play?

A better question that allows students to give more interpretive response is the one relating to Act 3 Scene 1 of A Midsummer’s Night Dream:

– If you were directing the scene, what would you tell the actors to help them bring out the comedy?

However, this paper was boycotted by the majority of schools in the trend of boycott the English Key Stage 3 SATs because teachers and students felt that the paper was so quick to be adequately prepared. In 1995, the first year of national tests for all Year 9 students, SATs were deigned to be as inoffensive although the format was the same. The questions tried to put students into character’s behavior in the set scene or character’s place, and then asked students to writes a letter or diary as that character. In the next years, most questions were largely character-based.

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2003 sees another battle when the ideas of Estelle Morris vetoing a QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) recommendation of reducing the test to 45 minutes and checking reading skill only. The set plays were Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Henry V, each of which was put in a separate paper within two questions to be answered in 1 hour and 15 minutes. This new version also got so many complaints the QCA had to do a survey of teachers on how to change the paper into the best way. Because of having not enough time to change, 2004 version got the same format of paper and the problems were compounded further. The negative stress factor caused by SATs was highlighted in the Report on KS3 English Review of Service Delivery failure 2003-2004 to QCA Board. 30/09/04 that the test results of school-level key stage 3 had significant impact on school with the potential affect on teachers’ careers. 2005’s Paper 2 was also considered as a disaster. Shakespeare in 2005, 2006 was assessed by students who would answer one question which possessed 18% of the total English papers. The question based on the set play and required 45 minutes to respond. Since 2009, following the public consultation, only two plays Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest have been chosen as the set texts for SATs. For Key Stage 3, the NAA suggests four plays Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and Julius Caesar should be on a rolling program of plays.

5. Key Stage 4 Exams

In 1960s and 1970s, Shakespeare was the unique compulsory author in the old O-Level English Literature syllabus which required the study of three texts: A Shakespeare play, a novel and some poetry. It was free for the boards to choose texts from any period, although in practice, the texts were in the trend of drawing from ‘Great Tradition’.

Differently, 1980s came the boards’ withdrawing away from the ‘Great Tradition’ and compulsory Shakespeare. O-Level texts no longer insert plays or poetry. Therefore, students could escape from plays or poetry all together, and left school without having studied Shakespeare at all.

The three genres: poetry, prose and drama were recovered by the introduction of GCSE supplanting the O-Level and CSE syllabuses for first examination in 1988, but the study of Shakespeare was placed in the discretion of the teacher. Some schools chose coursework with 100% mark or took chance to do some interesting assignments on Shakespeare. However, when adding both Shakespeare and a modern text, for example Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl, while most teachers were trying to convey the lessons in mixed-ability groups, many opted not to bother Shakespeare.

In 1994, Shakespeare returned the only compulsory author on the Literature syllabuses when the Key Stage 4 program of study which was set out in the 1991 National Curriculum, came into force.

In 1995, the exam boards required the texts be compared and contrasted, and be shown social and historical contexts, which became the hints for teachers to set discussions the relevance between texts’ social and historical contexts and today ones.

Since 1999, GCSE English Language has required the study of a Shakespeare play to meet the requirement of NC that a play should be studied at Key Stage 4. Regardless the ability, for the first time, all students had to study a Shakespeare play for their important 16+ exam in English.

Shakespeare’s works are still the ‘industry standard’ of literature, teaching Shakespeare in England has been innovative to update and create new approaches for a wider and deeper view on his social, historical contexts and humanity. Teachers and students play important keys to make Shakespeare lifelong.


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