With barely eight months to go until the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, Shakespeare remains firmly – if not uncontroversially – on the educational radar on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK the new National Curriculum requires all pupils between eleven and fourteen to study two Shakespeare plays in full. In the US, in ninth and tenth grades the Common Core English Language Arts standards suggest that students learn ‘how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare’; while in eleventh and twelfth grades students are to use Shakespeare when learning about ‘multiple interpretations’ of a story, as well as the meaning and impact of words and phrases.
In the UK, Dr Tim Hands, Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, has argued that too much Shakespeare, too early, will put pupils off Shakespeare for life. It will, Hands claims, ‘hold back pupils, not liberate them’. Meanwhile, in the US, Dana Dusbiber’s call to ‘let Shakespeare rest in peace, and start a new discussion about middle and high school right-of-passage reading’ has prompted a healthy and passionate discussion about how appropriate it is to include Shakespeare as a required author in the Common Core England Language Arts standards.
So long as Shakespeare is included on English curricula as one author – a great author – among many from diverse perspective and backgrounds, there are effective ways to ensure that he can remain in classrooms around the world, without students being put off because his writing is ‘too difficult’ or ‘irrelevant’. What the debates on both sides of the Atlantic have rarely countenanced, oddly, is the value of performing Shakespeare in schools. We hear a lot about students going to plays, or theatrical troupes going into schools, but – with some honourable exceptions like Mel Ryane’s ‘Teaching Will’ project – not so much about students themselves being the actors. Shakespeare is being done to them, rather than with them or by them. I suspect that most of us imagine unwilling students sitting at their desks, each being given a role – ‘Freddy, you be third servingman!’ – and killing Shakespeare’s language with a deadening adolescent inflection.
Before armchair educational commentators start sneering that eleven-, twelve- or thirteen-year-old pupils are too young to perform Shakespeare plays, I will beg to differ. Indeed, as with many of my colleagues around the world, each fall I direct a Shakespeare play that remains true to the original language. As far as I have noticed, these plays have not yet put anyone off Shakespeare for life, nor held them back. Quite the opposite: abridged and produced in the correct way, Shakespeare plays can be ‘differentiated’ to allow pupils to access them at many different levels.
I should clarify that we do not perform complete plays. The logistics of trying to get a cast of eleven- to thirteen-year-olds to learn three hours’ worth of lines are overwhelming, especially when they are also trying to do their classwork and homework, play soccer, practise the French horn, and surf YouTube. Our performances tend to be about an hour in length, with the original text abridged to preserve the overall plot and principal characters. This ‘reduced Shakespeare’ has little in common with the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s excellent stage show, aside from an appreciation that Shakespeare plays can be distilled without corrupting their essence.
It appears that such an approach has some high-profile supporters. Simon Russell Beale, who has just become Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at the University of Oxford, argues that Shakespeare is ‘big enough’ to survive some editing. ‘You can do what you like with it,’ he says, ‘as long as you make coherent, emotional sense’. Deborah Warner, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and twice-recipient of a Laurence Oliver Award, has argued that ‘you must cut to create new work’.
A series of these performance texts is being published by the British educational publisher John Catt. Volume 1 of Hour-Long Shakespeare features performance texts of three of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays: Henry IV, Part 1, Henry V, and Richard III. Volume 2, to be published later in 2015, includes three great tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. These are not books for purists, nor for those seeking study texts. They are, instead, for those who wish to perform (or read) a Shakespeare play, but do not have the time or resources to stage (or read) a full-length version. Naturally, cutting out almost two-thirds of each original play means that many speeches are shorter than in the original, some sections of plot have been removed, and whole characters sometimes have been excised altogether. But the integrity of Shakespeare’s original language has been preserved. The lines are, in general, as printed in the First Folio of 1623, with, where appropriate, some modernized spellings. The words of the original plays have not been changed; there are just fewer of them.
The casting of the plays has been engineered for the greatest flexibility. There are usually approximately twenty named parts, each with different levels of difficulty. If someone wishes to be involved in a Shakespeare production, but is not confident about learning lots of lines or being on the stage for too long, there is a part for them. Equally, if someone wishes to take on a much larger role like Henry V, Richard III or Macbeth there is a part for them too. And, of course, there are plenty of medium-engagement roles for those in the middle.
The Chorus device is used throughout the plays. While Shakespeare wrote a Chorus part for Henry V, this same narrator-style method has also been adopted in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. This enables the Chorus to provide excerpts from otherwise-excised sections of the plays, or to provide a commentary on the unfolding drama. The Chorus device also aids flexibility in casting. It is possible to have just one individual narrating the Chorus part, or several actors can take the Chorus lines in turn. When these hour-long versions were originally staged, between fifteen and twenty Chorus members were used, sitting behind the audience ‘in the round’, taking each line in turn around a giant circle. In addition to enhancing the atmosphere of the performance, this also enables the Chorus to have the script in front of them, catering for those who wish to engage with Shakespeare’s language and the production as a whole, but who do not yet feel confident enough to learn lines or perform on the main stage.
There is also great flexibility in the age range of those who can be involved in the hour-long productions. The original cast members were between eleven and thirteen years old. They demonstrated that this age group really can engage with, act in, and enjoy, Shakespeare’s plays. While it would probably be rare for younger children to attempt these edited versions, there is of course no upper age limit.
The Hour-Long Shakespeare series is, of course, just another contribution to a long and healthy tradition of abridging Shakespeare plays. As Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, notes in his foreword to the series: ‘Shakespeare’s plays have always expanded and contracted to suit available performance times and available casts’. These scripts belong, he says, ‘100% to the highest traditions of both teaching and performing Shakespeare’s plays’. Indeed, one of the best ways to learn about Shakespeare is to perform one of his plays. Even if you only have a couple of lines, you become immersed in the language and begin to encounter and understand core themes and plots. These scripts will hopefully help in that learning process, genuinely liberating them through manageable exposure to Shakespeare’s language.
Matthew Jenkinson is Deputy Head Academic at New College School, Oxford, in the UK. He received his doctorate from Merton College, Oxford. He is the author of Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660-1685, as well as some forty articles and reviews on history, literature and education.