Ideas and resources for Shakespeare's 400th anniversary

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
400 years on: Shylock (left) and Tubal in the RSC’s 2015 production of The Merchant of Venice. The play forms the focus of the next RSC schools’ broadcast (Image: Hugo Glendinning/RSC)

A range of events and initiatives are being run to help schools mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Emma Lee-Potter takes a look

From live broadcasts beamed directly into the classroom to discussions about Shakespeare’s crime scenes, teachers are finding exciting new ways of bringing Shakespeare alive for their pupils.

Shakespeare’s 39 plays are regarded as a vital part of our cultural inheritance – which is why pupils at key stage 3 are expected to study two Shakespeare plays while key stage 4 students are required to read at least one.

This year, which marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, schools up and down the country are focusing on his work even more than usual.

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has organised a range of events to celebrate the 400th anniversary – in the Bard’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, across the UK and around the world – and has devised resources, workshops, talks and broadcasts to make Shakespeare “vivid, accessible and enjoyable” for young people and their teachers.

The RSC has worked with more than one million young people over the last 10 years and is convinced that children, regardless of their age, background or perceived ability, relish the challenge of Shakespeare’s work.

“We have consistently found that giving children access to some of the greatest words ever written has a significant impact on their own reading and writing,” said Jacqui O’Hanlon, the RSC’s director of education.

“We know from primary and secondary school teachers that introducing Shakespeare’s work in their classrooms raises the aspirations and achievements of children of all ages and abilities.

“In the year in which we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this is a timely reminder of the legacy he left behind – an extraordinary inheritance that really does belong to everyone. Shakespeare understood perhaps better than any the power to persuade, influence and ultimately shape the world in which we live. That power is available to everyone and the earlier we are introduced to it the more it becomes an integral part of our lives.”

Events during the year include RSC Dream Team 2016, a project inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Thought to be the biggest celebration to date of Shakespeare’s most popular play, the initiative will see schools getting involved in a variety of ways – from producing full-scale productions of the play to creating an Athenian wood in the playground or making donkey ears and fairy wings like those worn by Shakespeare’s characters.

This will be followed by the RSC Dream Team Playmaking Festival from June 27 to July 8, when young people will be invited to Stratford-upon-Avon to take part in a festival of student performance, street theatre and workshops.

The RSC has also teamed up with the BBC to host its first live Shakespeare lessons. The Text Detectives, for secondary pupils, will be broadcast on April 25. The interactive lesson, which will examine the techniques Shakespeare used to convey his vision and look at how actors and directors interpret his plays, is aimed at key stage 3 pupils.

With RSC actors and a live studio audience of children, The Text Detectives will explore how Shakespeare wrote stage directions into the language, how clues in his texts relate to the relationships between characters and his use of verse and prose. The programme will study scenes and speeches from three different plays and will feature activities that students watching remotely can take part in.

Keen to inspire students to watch Shakespeare on the stage, the RSC is continuing to stream its live broadcasts of Shakespeare’s plays into classrooms this year.

“When people see a work in performance and participate in the live broadcast, Shakespeare is brought to life in a way that it just can’t be when we read it just as words on the page,” Ms O’Hanlon continued.

The RSC’s next schools’ broadcast – of The Merchant of Venice – takes place next Thursday (April 21) and will include a live Q&A afterwards. The broadcast is free and schools should register via the RSC website (see further information).

Alongside these events the RSC has produced teaching resources free for schools. These include interactive whiteboard resources for key stage 3 and 4 pupils, teacher packs (with lesson activities and ideas to explore Shakespeare’s plays), and video clips from RSC productions.

For the last 10 years the RSC has also been running a partnership programme with schools, communities and theatres across the country. Established in 2006, the Learning and Performance Network (LPN) works with schools over a three-year period to help young people experience and engage with Shakespeare’s work.

The programme is targeted at schools whose pupils have the least access to Shakespeare and gives teachers in-depth training in active approaches to teaching Shakespeare. It ends this year but the RSC is planning a new partnership programme called RSC Associate Schools.

King Ethelbert School in Kent is in the second year of its LPN programme. Teachers attend regular training days at the RSC, working on active approaches to teaching specific plays. On their return they disseminate what they have learned to colleagues and to teachers from a cluster of eight local secondary and primary schools.

“The idea is that the teachers go back and develop schemes of work in readiness for the live broadcasts – so the children can benefit from one of the main guiding principles of the LPN, which is ‘see it live’,” explained Carol O’Shea, head of reading development at King Ethelbert and one of three lead LPN teachers.

She continued: “What kicked the ball off in the most effective way was that the RSC came and performed The Taming of the Shrew in our school hall for the whole community. It was really special and amazingly powerful.”

Pupils from years 7 to 13 have watched several of the RSC’s live broadcasts to schools. During the screening of Two Gentlemen of Verona a huge cheer went up in the classroom when a question they had submitted was chosen for the Q&A following the performance.
A second cheer erupted when one of the RSC actors praised the pupils for asking “such an interesting question”.

Other high points include the school’s annual reading week festival. This was Shakespeare-themed in 2015 and required every department to include something about Shakespeare in their classes – from forensic science lessons about Shakespeare’s crime scenes to investigations into money in Shakespeare’s time.

Next week (April 19-23), a group of 30 year 7 pupils will play Titania’s fairy train in a co-production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the RSC and the Canterbury Players at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. This is part of the RSC’s Play for the Nation project, where 18 professional actors will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream with local amateur groups around the UK.

King Ethelbert pupils and staff will also be taking part in RSC Dream Team 2016. They are planning a production entitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream Reimagined, part of which will be performed at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate and part at Dreamland, Margate’s restored theme park.

Ms O’Shea continued: “There isn’t any fear about Shakespeare in this school. By using active approaches the students can see the relevance of his writing and appreciate that the motivations and dilemmas of his characters aren’t so different from the things that drive people now.”

This year will also see pupils from schools all over the country take part in the annual Shakespeare Schools Festival. The UK’s largest youth drama festival, it works with more than 1,000 schools and 150 professional theatres to enable students aged between eight and 18 to perform Shakespeare productions in a professional theatre.

The British Council is marking the 400th anniversary by producing a Shakespeare Lives schools’ pack in partnership with the RSC. As well as celebrating Shakespeare as a writer, the pack – aimed at children aged seven to 14 – encourages teachers and pupils to engage with some of the key issues, themes and ideas in his plays and to explore the ways they remain relevant and current in our lives today.

Windsor Castle, where Shakespeare performed and read to the royal court, is marking the 400th anniversary of his death with an exhibition entitled Shakespeare in the Royal Library. The exhibition features books, maps, prints and works of art and runs for the rest of this year.

Other major exhibitions include By Me, William Shakespeare: A Life in Writing (at London’s Somerset House until May 29) and Shakespeare in Ten Acts (at the British Library in London from April 15 to September 6).

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

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