Monday, January 28, 2013

The Validity of Teaching Shakespeare

Here in New Zealand, for the first time since Adam named the apple, Shakespeare will NOT be a compulsory part of the curriculum for Year 13 (our final year for students). There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when the changes were first mooted and some press on the matter (falling standards yaddi yaddi yaddi).

True, the assessments on offer COULD squeeze out the bard if the teacher let them but all the English teachers I've had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with - whether literally or in the virtual world - are committed to bringing to the attention of their charges a taste of what the world of language and literature can offer them.

Because, honestly, that's all we can do really - whet their appetite. My personal passion for Shakespeare means that, each year for 23 years, a new group of about 130 secondary students have been exposed to him in many forms in my classroom and, God willing, so it will be for the next 23 years. And the classics, and New Zealand poets and short story writers, and the war poets, and Australian writers, and John Green, Neil Gaiman, Shaun Tan, my children lit writing buddies, as well as film and YouTube Clips and articles in The Guardian (and the cute cats memes sometimes too).

And, every year, some sophisticated bunny asks the same question: why do we have to DO Shakespeare?

Great question. Needs to be asked because kids are always seeking for relevance; always looking for where they stand at the centre of the world we are showing them.

This year, I'm going to let some others answer that question before I do.
Firstly, I'll get good old Jane Austen to have her say:

"But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct.—No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays, without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately."

"No doubt, one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree," said Edmund, "from one's earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps, is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly, is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud, is no every-day talent."
Mr Henry Crawford and Mr Edmund Bertram.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen Chapter 34

Then, I'm going to give them a print out of this article whereby Ray A. Harvey provides a collection of quotable praises and justifications of Shakespeare's skill. "It’s long been observed that one of the best measures of literature is when you can discuss the characters of a story or play as if those characters were real people: when you can talk about their personalities, when you can psychologize over them, their choice of careers, their deeds, when you can pick their brains and discuss their addictions and predispositions as if these characters were actual human beings. Many playwrights and novelists, and even many modern-day screenplay-writers, have created characters that meet this criteria. But no one — and I mean no one — has come close to creating the sheer number of these characters that Shakespeare did. Love his people or hate them, Shakespeare brought to life a gallery of women and men who are completely human — and he did it in a language whose prosody for practitioners still astounds."

I will not abide anyone (esp a teacher) declaring that Shakespeare is too hard for students. To that I say rubbish. It's all about how you sell it. Sure, the language can snag especially for the less read younger forms but we have such great resources available to us (and them) to unpack that language: No Fear Shakespeare website as a starter and then the illustrated/graphic novel type books of the plays; film adaptions; comic book adaptions like the stunning Kill Shakespeare. Even my own Fifteen and Twenty Minute Shakespeares or my edited plays for study if you will.

I have drawn an immense amount of inspiration from my reading of Shakespeare's plays and poetry. I see his characters in the modern day books and tv shows such as Walter White from Breaking Bad. To ask the question how Macbeth went from a loyal, fearless, noble soldier to a tyrannical murderer is to ask how a mild mannered chemistry teacher ends up being a murdering drug lord.

I have finished the final book in the trilogy and the whole experience has been a labour of love and tears which will eventually have taken five years from conception to the last book published. I will leave you with the words of my publisher after she read the re-written manuscript.

Congratulations! I finished Birthright last night and I loved it!
It’s compelling, it’s rich, it’s complex and the characters are glorious. I’m really very happy with it and I think it’s come miles and miles in a relatively short time. Be super, super proud! I’m going to come back next week with some thoughts for you. Nothing especially major this time. I might suggest the odd paragraph here and there ...{spoiler deleted}... but it feel very complete now and I honestly think you have done justice to the characters and will satisfy the readers. Huge respect and admiration for the work you’ve put in and the determination you’ve shown with this. I do believe it had paid off.

William Shakespeare is the master and I the pupil but I'm happy enough to continue to follow in his shadow.