Do you dread Shakespeare lessons?

Written by: Danielle Bumford | Published:
High impact: The Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production for 2018 was Much Ado About Nothing (Image: Shakespeare’s Globe/Ellie Kurttz)

Danielle Bumford describes education’s love-hate relationship with teaching Shakespeare and how she has overcome this using the Playing Shakespeare project

Shakespeare. One word that causes many teachers and students alike to dread the extra reading that they have to do to understand who is who and what is happening in each scene. Increasing anxiety from both parties emerges when the student asked to read Fluellen stumbles over the word “avouchment” and the teacher has to flawlessly read the word and the next line before someone may question what exactly the definition is.

For generations the education system has been in a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare; exam boards love it, students and teachers seem to hate it. But, wily teachers are armed with that one shining lesson in their arsenal ready for the moment the students are all staring out of the window – the Shakespearean insults lesson.

“John, choose a word from each column and insult your class mates,” requests the teacher professionally.

“Thou weedy beetle-headed puttock!” responds John with glee and you’ve got the class back on track. And headteachers have no issue with the venom in the student’s voice as they casually enter the room on a learning walk, because Shakespeare is protected by the cloak of culture.

A few lessons on and teachers bring out the “Which of these words do you think Shakespeare invented?” presentation to keep the class on their side a bit longer until eventually (some) teachers may simply opt to summarise scenes with the help of a revision guide and pick out key quotes. It’s as if young people in this country share a dislike for Shakespeare almost by osmosis.

Although this does seem to be changing. As a secondary school teacher I naïvely assume I am introducing teenagers to Shakespeare for the first time due to the complex language and themes involved but this rarely the case. Most year 7 students now have some experience of studying, watching or even performing Shakespeare at primary school and seem to really love it. Whether it’s the memory of “the funny man in the long yellow socks” in Twelfth Night or “the wizard man who is a baddy and a goody” in The Tempest, students are engaged by thrilling narrative, complex characters and relatable themes.

So what’s changed? Supported by Shakespeare for Schools festivals, and programmes such as Playing Shakespeare or Our Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe, teachers are moving away from the revision guides and text translations (but probably not the insults) to bring these texts to life.

Most students in London schools have the opportunity of visiting The Globe through the Playing Shakespeare programme and it is in this incredible, richly cultural and historical venue that students are experiencing content that is 400-years-old, remembering it, having a great time and actually learning in the process.

Teachers can find support in CPD sessions to help them get to know plays before delivering texts which can be done in class with the help of a trained theatre practitioner.

The students that I teach all absolutely love the experience. Whatever their academic ability, reading age or prior knowledge of the text, all students leave the workshop having performed and usually memorised several lines of Shakespeare.

This is especially true of the boys that I teach. They want lessons to be a practical exploration of the text where meaning is communicated through so much more than language and uses vocal skills and non-verbal communication. This, of course, is exactly how the Bard wished for his work to be experienced as if he knew that his work would be revered by exam boards forevermore.

Experiencing Shakespeare in this way allows students to ask questions of themselves and each other.

Upon first reading Aaron’s light-hearted line “Villain I have done thy mother” in Titus Andronicus, students react naturally and accurately as Chiron and Demitrius with clenched fists and decreasing the space between them. That’s not written down. Shakespeare doesn’t tell them to do that but they react exactly as they would if someone said the same thing about their own mothers, because when the language is brought to life, spoken out loud and students given opportunities to move, they just get it.

This is particularly useful as exams now require detailed and contextual knowledge of the whole play that is being studied. The question from the boy playing Chiron – “Miss, can I just hit Aaron” – transfers beautifully into an emotional and detailed response in an exam paper because the text and the characters have become real and students are experiencing how it is to be them.

Although this works positively for me in my classroom, I am not naïvely assuming that this just happens in isolation or happens everywhere. It takes a lot of courage, enthusiasm and persistence from both staff and students to realise that there is no right or wrong when it comes to Shakespeare and that the meaning and themes of the plays transcend language barriers.

Emotions, attitudes and human responses have not in many ways changed over the past 400 years so they may just be the route into the students’ understanding of Shakespearean texts and exploring these in a practical way will likely make the text more memorable. Well, that and the trusty insults lesson that I don’t plan on dropping anytime soon. 

  • Danielle Bumford is the head of drama at St Thomas the Apostle School and College in Peckham, south London. Danielle is currently studying for a Master’s in Leading Innovation and Change at St Mary’s University where her research focus is on the emotional wellbeing of students in schools.

Further information

The 2019 Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production will run from March 1 to 27 next year. A total of 20,000 free tickets are available for state secondary schools in London and Birmingham, as well as workshops for students, CPD sessions for teachers and extensive free online resources. For more information and to apply, contact playingshakespeare@shakespearesglobe.com or visit http://playingshakespeare.org/


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