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Reflecting on the Challenges of Teaching Shakespeare | O What Learning is!

By November 17, 2014 No Comments

This week I read an article in the UK newspaper, The Telegraph, written by the great Shakespearean actress Judi Dench about how she was put off Shakespeare at school by being made to recite lines of it with no clue as to its meaning; and how poor teaching made her frightened that she would not understand the language.

This led me to consider the teaching of Shakespeare in schools. There is no denying that it is a challenge, and as a result we have to find ways in which to engage young people with the stories, characters and themes without putting them off by talking about how difficult the language is.

I discovered a post on the American Shakespeare Center’s Education department website by E J Saul where he writes about the importance of trying different activities when teaching Shakespeare to engage different learning styles. For example, children could focus on sound, language or stage fighting depending on their particular strengths.

This links so well with the RSC Shakespeare campaign for teaching the bard which encourages the plays to be taught on their feet, not sat behind a desk.

Participants warm up at CPS, Chicago.

Participants warm up at CPS, Chicago.

In the UK, The Globe Theatre Education department do excellent work in this vein as they run many workshops for young people which are lively, action based, along with lectures and theatre tours. There really is something to suit every learning style.

I would also recommend their fantastic book, Creative Shakespeare, on teaching Shakespeare which I have used time and time again in the classroom and also with local youth theatre groups.

In Worcestershire, UK where I am based, a local youth theatre group, Perfect Circle, are currently rehearsing their own adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

This is their fourth Shakespeare play (and the young people have chosen the plays rather than them being selected by the organisers of Perfect Circle) They actively enjoy staging Shakespeare and clearly relate to the characters and story lines. In this particular version of Romeo and Juliet the play has been massively updated into the modern world, and some characters have changed sex due to the large number of girls in the cast. These are not young people who have been put off Shakespeare like Judi Dench was; so somewhere, teachers and theatre workers are doing it right.

Perfect Circle version of Macbeth.

Perfect Circle version of Macbeth.

On reflection, the very fact that teaching Shakespeare is hard gives us all the more reason to stick at it. There are many resources out there to give us ideas and support. The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre state that due to the complex nature of teaching Shakespeare; it is a privilege to support this component of the English curriculum. We should therefore, accept the challenge and arm ourselves with the wealth of wonderful resources out there to bring the Bard to our young people. They are, after all, our audiences of the future.

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