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‘They have been at a great feast of learning, and stolen the scraps’ | Teaching Shakespeare in the UK

As we continue to showcase contemporary perspectives on Shakespeare and his world, this week in part two of her series relating to Shakespeare appropriation and education, Calyx Clifford explores the ideological role of Shakespeare in the classroom.

shakespeare's classroom

Last week, I discussed the global appropriation of Shakespeare from England to Germany, Russia and Japan; countries across the world have claimed the playwright as their own and used his works to conform to or challenge the inherent ideologies both past and present.

Shakespeare infiltrates our daily lives on many levels, and while many of us actively seek him out by reading or seeing one of his plays, some unwittingly enjoy an allusion via an offhand phrase or expression. However, nowhere is his presence more keenly felt in the classroom. Around the world, pupils encounter the Bard on a daily basis, particularly in his homeland.

His presence is most keenly felt in the classroom.

While education systems have undergone an overhaul with each new government initiative, Shakespeare has steadfastly, and somewhat controversially, remained on the school syllabus. But is there more to his presence on the curriculum than cultural value?

Education is a powerful and influential tool used to instruct and uphold the dominant ideology of a nation’s culture and beliefs. Schools are the primary means of disseminating dogma, and in recent years the English education system has come under severe criticism for the way in which literature is used to reinforce desired social behaviours.

Philosopher Louis Althusser, in Mapping Ideology, argues that the teaching of literature in schools has become one of several ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ (ISA). Althusser states that the idea that ideology surrounds us constantly is crucial to the understanding that schools and their use of literature have come to reproduce and reinforce behaviours desired by those in power. Ideological State Apparatuses continuing this cycle include ‘the educational ISA’, ‘the family ISA’, ‘the political ISA’ and ‘the cultural ISA’.

Although ideological exposure via family life, social interaction and popular culture’s impact on the individual, by far the most influential ISA is the school itself. As ideology from literary criticism and politics flood the schools, pedagogical approaches to Shakespeare force students to respond in a specific way to the issues, ideas and values that appear in his plays. Shakespeare, as well as many other writers, have been used to reinforce social constructions of femininity, masculinity, family, mental health, sexuality and justice to name but a few.

When Kenneth Baker came into office as Secretary of State for Education in 1986, he implemented the biggest overhaul the English education system had seen since the 40s. The National Curriculum was introduced and assessment was seen as fundamental to its success. When national tests became compulsory, teachers were compelled to alter their teaching methods so that students had a better chance of passing the exams.

Shakespeare has been used to reinforce social constructions of femininity, masculinity, family, mental health, sexuality and justice.

Alan Sinfield in Political Shakespeare argues that the style of exam questions forced students into identifying one, and only one, ‘correct’ reading of the plays, abandoning alternative or more imaginative interpretations, as the majority of marks were awarded to those answers which most strongly echoed those of the curriculum, spoon-fed to pupils by the teachers.

Sinfield, in his advocacy of a cultural materialist reading and study of Shakespeare’s plays, observes that exam questions assume Shakespeare’s plays reveal ‘universal ‘human’ values, self-contained and coherent entities; and the activity of criticism in producing these assumptions is effaced’.

Pupils were, and are still, asked to answer leading questions such as: ‘For Shakespeare forgiveness is the supreme virtue, but a virtue that must be achieved through suffering.’; To what extent does this statement give you useful insight into The Tempest?; ‘Which human failings are satirized in Love’s Labour’s Lost?’; and ‘Discuss Shakespeare’s exploration of the limitation and potentialities of human nature in Macbeth’. Such leading questions leave little room for broader interpretation and also prompt specifically right-wing answers relating to sanctioned sociopolitical values and cultural norms in the student’s own contemporary society.

This reductive approach may have worked in previous decades, but the danger of a one-size-fits-all-interpretation to Shakespeare’s plays is that while students in the past had no alternative to believing the interpretation their teacher delivered, contemporary culture no longer sees Shakespeare confined to the classroom, and this method of teaching runs the risk of appearing outdated and irrelevant. Gone are the days when the words of Hamlet and Lear were stumbled through by the pupils themselves. The advent of modern technology means that even though students may not be able to go to the theatre and see a Shakespeare play live, the YouTube generation is able to experience an array of imaginative and original productions on their phones, tablets and laptops; students in Surrey, England can watch a production of Henry V in Sydney, Australia; a teenager in Paris, France can take part in a live Q&A session in New York, USA with acclaimed directors and producers. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have created online communities in which opinions and ideas can be discussed and debated the world over.

Shakespeare has also been made more accessible to the masses with the new batch of Shakespearean actors. In the past, the talents of Derek Jacobi, Simon Callow and Simon Russell Beale held little interest to the average student, but with cross-over actors such as Thor’s Tom Hiddleston, Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch and X-Men’s Michael Fassbender, Shakespeare is cooler and sexier than ever.

Whether the name ‘Shakespeare’ incites groans or cheers from a classroom full of students, he’s set to remain as a key component of the curriculum not just in his homeland, but in school syllabuses the worldwide. While classrooms and teaching methods are being modernized, it’s time for the curriculum to catch up. Shakespeare is no longer the emblem of the elite or a tool used to implement ideology. He is a symbol of inclusiveness, a site where every voice is not only heard but celebrated, regardless of gender, race or religion. Isn’t it time that awarding bodies recognized this too? Shouldn’t the youth of today be offered a ‘great feast of learning’ as opposed to some paltry ‘scraps’?

Next week: Calyx discusses the role of Shakespeare in America.

Calyx Clifford graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with an MA in English Literature. Her dissertation investigated the appropriation of Shakespeare in English and American Secondary Schools. She has recently returned to the US to complete her Masters in Education. 

Adele-Elizabeth Orchard

Author Adele-Elizabeth Orchard

Adele-Elizabeth Orchard recently completed her MA Shakespeare at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis demonstrated how Shakespeare employed the role of foreign women and their use of language to subvert and transcend the inherent phallocentric nature and limitations of the English language. Her interests include: Shakespeare’s heroines and their cultural appropriation; Shakespeare and gender; female language and the female body; and the role of foreign women.

More posts by Adele-Elizabeth Orchard

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