Why teaching Shakespeare is so important by @SusanSEnglish


Shakespeare: Book group is a monthly event in my life and on this monthly event, inevitably we discuss some aspect of our jobs, family life and what our children are up to in school.

This month: the spotlight was on Shakespeare! I gave my best account of why we still study Shakespeare, but for a couple of people in my book group I don’t think they were entirely convinced. So, I’m just going to have a little round up here for my own pleasure.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Susan Strachan and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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Here are my top seven reasons we should still study, enjoy and learn from Shakespeare.

  1. Themes – Shakespeare covers a large range of themes that are still ongoing issues in the world today. Take Romeo and Juliet and the main story: love and falling for the wrong person. How many times does this still happen? We know that if you are Christian/Muslim/Jewish/(insert religion here) and you fall in love with someone outside of your religion this is going to cause a problem. Honour killings are real https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/apr/30/honour-killings-spreading-alarming-rate and although this doesn’t happen in Shakespeare’s R&J the two lovers find themselves in an impossible situation as a result of their families’ inability to understand and overcome their problems. So, when teaching Romeo and Juliet and thinking about the consequences of their actions we can and should be discussing issues that are current, real and frightening. I could go on and discuss other plays (or themes in R&J that are just as important), but I think one example per reason is enough. I’ve also started R&J units with clips of current civil wars, such as Syria.
  2. Relevance – Linking to the above. Thematically, Shakespeare was talking about problems that we know are still relevant. Think about Othello and the way race is still in the news and people are still seeking equality as a result of racial inequality. We are still talking about this today and the campaign blacklivesmatter (https://twitter.com/Blklivesmatter ) shows that this isn’t an issue that has gone away. Othello’s skin colour marked him out as different and meant he was subjected to racism and societal and family problems. Again, when teaching Othello it gives us a really strong and intellectual springboard to discuss issues that are still relevant to today.
  3. The Language – ‘it’s too hard’ was one of the comments made. I disagree, yes, it is hard, but rich in imagery, rich in nuances and so helpful in understanding the way that language has evolved and changed. We know that language is constantly changing: if we take text talk and the use of emoji’s as an example, this is like a whole new language in itself, so if students can become literate in the use of text talk and emoji’s, what is to stop students becoming literate in the nuances of Shakespeare’s language?
  4. Pleasure – it is an absolute pleasure to tackle something which you feel is difficult and to feel like you have mastered it. Shakespeare is a fantastic example of this. My Y8 class have been working on Macbeth and their knowledge is astonishing. They know the storyline back to front, to my chagrin; they even corrected the order of events (MacDuff’s family being killed) as we discussed the events as a class. There is something to be said for enjoying, knowing and being able to express what happens in a play that is both complex and interesting that is missing in some of the more modern plays. Shakespeare is a challenge and I feel that my students enjoy rising to the challenge.
  5. Inter-textuality – In the plays there are so many references to other plays, other pieces of literature and other knowledge (particularly religion) that it seems a shame not to teach this to our students. My A Level class have absolutely loved learning Hamlet and one of the reasons is due to the intertextuality. Some of my students have actively enjoyed looking for the intertextuality and been delighted when they find it. For example references to Cain and Abel When Claudius says “my offence is rank it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t, A brother’s murder. (3.3.40-42)” the class were gasping, as they recognised that this biblical allusion was being used so cleverly by Shakespeare, perhaps as a warning to others (in the same way as the biblical story is a warning).
  6. Meta-theatricality – Shakespeare is a whizz at this. He embeds so many examples in his plays that it is brilliant. He explores his physical surroundings brilliantly, self-consciously drawing attention (often for comedy affect) to where the actors are. The line from The Tempest “the great globe itself” is a perfect example and shows that Shakespeare was conscious of the surroundings that theatre occurred in, audiences of the time would undoubtedly have understood that he was referencing his own Globe Theatre and drawing attention to the majesty of it through his references in the play.
  7. Political Awareness (Allusions) – Shakespeare was (in my opinion) incredibly astute. He understood which side his bread was buttered on and this can be seen beautifully in Macbeth. By writing a tale of the supernatural and referencing Treason in Macbeth, Shakespeare managed to capture the feeling at the time in the court. We can learn an incredible amount about the time period through analysis from the way Shakespeare presents characters, events and different scenes. So, this is another excellent reason to still study Shakespeare. It is rich in political allusions.

These are my current top reasons for still teaching Shakespeare. It is a rich experience in so many ways and one that I thoroughly enjoy delivering to any age group. When the students come with me and enjoy it as much as I do – then my job is done.

This lovely message from a parent of a Year 8 student, I think, reinforces the importance of teaching Shakespeare:

Just wanted to tell you that I never enjoyed Shakespeare at school, so I haven’t been of much help to _________ on this subject. I have however really loved seeing her enthusiasm for it. She has been engrossed in her madness of Macbeth homework and I am really impressed at what she has written and how she has happily spent hours researching about it! When I told her yesterday that I didn’t enjoy it at school she sat me down and explained it all to me. I was gripped and saw it in a completely different light. Her analysis of the characters really brought the play alive. All I can say is wow, thank you so much for the way you have taught her. To see a thirteen year old girl so inspired and enthused about English and Shakespeare teaching a forty five year old that used to struggle to keep her eyes open in her Shakespeare lessons is quite incredible. Thank you for not only inspiring ________ this year but also me! I now see Shakespeare in a whole different light. Best wishes_______

Shakespeare did this – I just delivered his messages. I’d love to know why other people think Shakespeare is still a relevant and interesting part of the curriculum too.

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