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 And it’s not even that it’s out of date – some of the shenanigans, yes, they stretch credibility to a modern audience, but, really, are they that different to what’s going on in Love Island or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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