Is there any point reading Shakespeare?

My book group decided a couple of months ago to have a go at reading a Shakespeare play. We decided on Much Ado About Nothing (the one with Beatrice and Benedick), possibly not the best choice we could have made, on reflection, but we fancied something light. We spent less time discussing it than any other book we have read in the three years or so we have been meeting. True, it was the same night we had scheduled in a viewing of The Children Act by Ian McEwan, a book we had all loved, so there was less discussion time than usual, but even if we had had the whole evening, I doubt we would have found much more to say. We were just rather underwhelmed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a lover of Shakespeare, and have studied most of the plays, thanks to having done a degree in English literature. Many of the comedies don’t do much for me, but, even reading Much Ado About Nothing again, I could appreciate the cleverness and the writing. And it’s not even that it’s out of date – some of the shenanigans, yes, they stretch credibility to a modern audience, but, really, are they that different to what’s going on in Love Island or Friends, or any one of the countless melodramas teens watch?

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I’ve given this a lot of thought recently as my children go through their GCSE Shakespeare texts. Generally, they’re a bit more exciting than Much Ado; my son studied The Merchant of Venice, which he found interesting, but not much more, and currently, my elder daughter is studying Macbeth, my personal favourite because it was my first encounter with the Bard, at the same age as she is now, but which she is finding rather laborious. Perhaps I was just lucky I had a wonderful English teacher (Mrs P. I hope you are reading this!), but kids just seem to find the whole process a bit dull, just as my book group seemed to reading Much Ado! And it’s not ‘kids of today’ – relatively speaking, Shakespeare is just as old as it was when I was studying over thirty years ago. And can it really all be down to the teaching?

Part of me concludes that Shakespeare is just not meant to be read. It can be like wading through treacle when the language is complex or you have to look up words no longer in use. Teaching Shakespeare does still seem to involve reading it through line by line in the classroom, which can be deathly dull, especially when you are not the one reading. Shakespeare  was written to be performed and many of the nuances of direction and staging, (ie who might be hiding behind which arras) are simply lost in a straight reading. Actors are also paid to add something – they study their characters in depth so that they can interpret for the audience. They can also add tone of voice, facial expression, and body language which tells us much more about what is happening and has the potential to make the action and the themes much more relevant. Shakespeare’s themes are still relevant and we see his legacy in so much of what we read or watch – not least The Children Act. What about politicians’ behaviour around Brexit? The talk of Cabinet coups, challenges to leadership – it’s all so Shakespearean! And that is because Shakespeare’s themes come from his profound observations of the human condition – the scenery, the clothing, the words might change, but the events are essentially the same. And we lap it all up.

So, how to deal with Shakespeare going forward, for a younger readership. Yes, it’s a conundrum because you do need to sort of understand the language a bit before you can fully appreciate the play in performance. Bring back the travelling players, I say, to go around schools and perform that year’s GCSE text for the students, hold workshops with the kids, going through the more complex aspects. Not all children can afford to go to the theatre, but it’s essential they see it live in order to fully understand and appreciate it. And you never know, it might actually inspire a lifetime love of the man and his work, as it did for me, and a different perspective on what’s going on in the world today.

Would love to hear your thoughts – what has been your experience of either teaching or being taught Shakespeare?

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#Top Ten tips for helping your teen with English Lit

read-515531_640Many households up and down the UK will be like mine this summer – tiptoeing around a teenager revising for their exams. In my household, my eldest is doing his GCSEs so this is our first experience of exams that really matter. It’s so hard for them and as a parent there is not a great deal you can do to help – which makes it hard for us too! At 16 they need to be working out their own best revision and study methods (definitely not the same as mine!) so although my heart is desperate to ‘help’ my head tells me that I need to step back and avoid interfering. Also, many of my son’s chosen subjects are areas I know very little about – Spanish, Russian – or have limited interest in – physics, electronics – or remember very little about – mathematics! So, beyond providing encouragement, food and drink, and making sure they’re getting enough sleep, what more can you do as a parent?

One area I can help with is English literature. It also happens to be the subject in which my son has least confidence (how? why?).  It’s difficult isn’t it – I have a degree of knowledge and expertise and can geneuinely help my child, but at the same time I don’t want to undermine my son’s confidence, or indeed alienate him, by coming across as some sort of expert, or for him to feel self-conscious with me. You know how sensitive teens can be!

So, I have given a great deal of thought in recent weeks as to how I can best help my son with his English Lit revision. Here are my top ten tips:

  1. Get to know their set texts yourself – feel it with them! I have re-read Michael Frayn’s Spies and re-acquainted myself with The Merchant of Venice this year. It has been very pleasurable for me and I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm will rub off.
  2. Get hold of an audio or video version of the books – they need to know the texts well so there is nothing to lose by watching or listening to the texts being performed or read. I got a free audiobook of Spies with an Audible trial and borrowed  a DVD of The Merchant of Venice from the library. They may well have watched DVDs at school but it will do no harm to re-watch.
  3. Discuss the texts with them – have conversations with them about the books and talk enthusiastically. They don’t have to be big set-piece conversations, you could have a 10 minute chat over dinner or in the car, which will be more memorable to your teen than a sit-down ‘session’.
  4. Read through their English notes – identify the key themes their teacher has directed them to learn about and understand these yourselves. You could also buy study notes booklets or there are various websites which give you textual study guides, such as the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize.
  5. Test them on examples from the text – it’s absolutely key that they can provide evidence for points they make – they have to illustrate with examples from the text. So, from Spies, I might ask for three examples of Keith’s controlling and bullying behaviour towards Stephen. It comes back to knowing the text really well, so if they can’t remember, re-read/listen/watch extracts to make sure they can recall the examples.
  6. Make a plan for yourself – I find that my conversations with my son are best done in shortish informal bites rather than scheduled sessions. He is more relaxed and therefore more responsive. It’s all a cunning ruse, however, because I have my own plan about what to discuss with him and when.
  7. Set questions for them – if you’re busy, work and have other children, helping your teen to revise can seem like an additional chore. So, if you find that on some days you simply don’t see them much, or there isn’t time for your revision chat, set them a question to answer. This will also give them practice in writing about their texts.
  8. Teach them how to mindmap – as a grown-up you will know how mind-mapping can be a great tool for committing things to memory or exploring an idea, even for the least visual among us. If they haven’t done mindmapping yet at school, get them a big piece of paper (flipchart or some old wallpaper) and a marker pen and do it with them. It can be done for themes as well as for plot and character (they MUST get the basics right so make sure they know all the key characters and how to spell their names correctly). Stick these on their bedroom wall, be creative, print out pictures or draw the characters, use different coloured pens.
  9. Help them to memorise quotes – it’s always useful to have a few key quotes up your sleeve so help them identify some (eg the “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech from Merchant of Venice) and test them.
  10. Finally, praise. Your job now is building confidence.

 

If you have any other tips for helping your teen with English Lit revision I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, best of luck!

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