Using Shakespeare to support your pupils

Written by: Georghia Ellinas | Published:
Relevant today: Dickon Tyrrell as Sir Toby Belch & Natasha Magigi as Maria in Twelth Night, which was seen by 20,000 students as part of the Playing Shakespeare project; (below) students take part in the Globe youth theatre (Images: Cesare De Giglio)

Shakespeare is not just the domain of English lessons and can be used to tackle a wealth of issues across school life. Drawing on the work, resources and expertise of Shakespeare’s Globe, Georghia Ellinas explains more

Shakespeare’s death was hardly marked 400 years ago. Would the audiences who watched his plays appreciate that his works would be watched by so many today, be studied around the world and used in schools to address a range of academic and social issues? The answer would most probably be no.

We are often asked why students in England are forced to study the works of a writer who has been dead for 400 years and who was writing for an Elizabethan audience, many of whom who were barely literate and most of whom had never travelled beyond London or had been to school.

What a contrast to the audiences of today. The audiences may have changed, but the characters Shakespeare created and the themes he explored in his plays are as relevant to 21st century audiences as they were to the Elizabethans.

Pastoral issues and bullying

More than 20,000 London and Birmingham students came to see The Globe’s production of Twelfth Night this spring as part of our Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank project (see image above).

Many had not seen a play by Shakespeare or even been to the theatre before, but they instantly recognised and engaged with the story of Viola and her struggle to make a life for herself in a strange and foreign land.

Some of them may have had that experience themselves and many, most certainly, will have heard it from news reports about the plight of migrants over the last few years.

This annual project includes training for teachers and in-school workshops for students, which this year encouraged them to engage with Malvolio, one of Shakespeare’s more unlikeable characters, and to explore how he is treated by others in the play. It is hard to warm to Malvolio with his pompous behaviour and dismissive treatment of Cesario, but it is also hard not to feel disturbed by what happens to him at the hands of the drunken Sir Toby Belch and his partners in crime.

What is dressed up as a harmless prank is in fact cruel and systematic bullying. Again, a theme that our audience understood and possibly may have suffered from or even taken part in themselves. Seeing this theme brought to life on the stage is a powerful way to remind ourselves of our own behaviour and the impact it has on others.

Even more powerful was the exploration of the theme of bullying we offered in our training for the 200 London teachers who were bringing their students to see the show. We explored this theme using a technique used by our actors in the rehearsal room.

One teacher volunteered to be Malvolio and was placed in a circle. The other teachers were given strips of paper with one of the many insults Malvolio has to endure. While Malvolio stood silently in the centre, the others walk towards and around him, throwing their insults at him, repeating their lines and pushing ever closer to him, invading his body space and even at times, jostling him. Some of the insults are very cutting:

  • Art any more than a steward?
  • Out, scab.
  • Shall this fellow live?
  • O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio.

At first they were quite shy, but as they began to say their lines, they became more confident and began to move as one. Their delivery became more aggressive, sneering and hostile, which made listening to them, frightening. When Malvolio could stand the taunts no longer, he breaks out of the circle and speaks his line: “My masters are you mad?”

The first discussion focused on what it felt like to be Malvolio receiving these insults. The volunteers said at first they tried to pretend they had not heard them, then when they could not do that they felt intimidated, anxious, frightened when the insults almost became a chant and then finally angry and wanting to make it stop. The discussion that followed, was very revealing. Teachers commented afterwards that they became more prepared to join in once others had started, that as the frenzy of insults built up, they became more excited by what they were doing.

In other words, they enjoyed becoming part of the bullying because they were absolved of the responsibility by the cover of the mob. That behaviour is not unknown to teachers when dealing with bullying in a school context. Using literature and this sort of activity is a useful way of engaging with the complex issues around bullying and carefully selecting who should play Malvolio could serve a purpose that a long lecture would not achieve.

Transition

Student attainment can fall back during the first term of secondary school as 11-year-olds try to find their place in a new and sometimes daunting environment.

At Globe Education we have used the themes of change and friendship in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to create a transition project for junior and secondary schools in Hackney called Dare to Play.

What started as a small-scale project with one secondary school and four year 6 classes has now trebled in size as other schools have been keen to take part because it has provided a strong academic and social bridge between these two key stages.

The workshops with students begin in the second half of the summer term in the junior schools and are followed up in the first half-term of secondary schools – working towards a promenade performance for their parents in October.

Just as the young lovers leave the known, safe world of Athens to make new lives, the year 6 pupils are heading out to a new school where they need to forge new relationships with teachers and peers. The play also explores, through comedy, the fragility of long established friendships and how quickly they can be undermined by misunderstanding and lack of self-control.

Interviews with students who took part in the project confirm that they enjoyed their first experience of Shakespeare and felt that the performance gave them status with other year groups. Parents also enjoyed the show and felt reassured that their children were settling in and were not daunted by their new school.

One parent commented: “It was an inspired idea, it helps the new year 7s to bond and feel proud and confident, and it surely helps them to really get to grips with their topic. It’s also great for new parents to be able to come into school and feel part of the school.”

For secondary school English teachers, the project provided them with an exciting way to deliver a key requirement of the new programmes of study for key stage 3. What better introduction to the work of Shakespeare than by performing it? Teachers also welcome the project in giving their students a good start to specialist teaching of English literature in year 7.

Higher education

As students prepare to leave school there are programmes which use Shakespeare to help select and choose university courses. Southampton University, through its widening participation programme, has participated in our Shakespeare on Trial project for the last two years.

They offer sixth formers who are considering either Law or English as their course of study at university, the opportunity to test out their skills by working on a play by Shakespeare.

Last year Othello was put on trial and this year it is the turn of Sir Toby Belch and his partners in crime from Twelfth Night. For Othello, the students had to consider which of the two charges, murder or manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, was appropriate.

Students explore the play through a lively lecture and extended workshop which introduces them to key themes of the play. Then they watch the play in the Globe Theatre. The sifting of the evidence, the discussion around motive, Othello’s state of mind, and the influence of Iago form the basis of the work at the Globe.

The following day at the Royal Courts of Justice they work on a trial script with the legal team there, assign roles, gather evidence from the script, construct a written and oral argument to present in court and then go into the court room to deliver to a Jury. The Trial is played out and the two-days end with an evaluation.

Skills

For a play to be successful, the company of players have to learn to work together, to trust one another, help, encourage and support one another to bring the play to the stage. These team-building skills are developed when we collaborate and share the challenges of performing to others. We have to rely on our fellow players to feed us the correct cue, to remember where to stand when delivering lines, to respond to what we say so that the audience can understand what is going on and to help us out when something goes awry on stage.

Our two Youth Theatres learn these skills in weekly sessions at the Globe and they have the opportunity to test these out with a performance on the Globe stage at the end of the Christmas term, a promenade performance at the end of the Spring term in our rehearsal studios, and an hour-long play in June on the stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, our indoor Jacobean theatre.

The skills learned in rehearsing and performing plays are the ones needed for beyond school – for future employment, for being a good neighbour, member of the community and for sustaining personal relationships. Shakespeare writes about a world that we recognise because the themes and the characters he created are still here today.

  • Georghia Ellinas is head of learning at Globe Education, an education charity based at the Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank.

Further information

For more details on some of the above programmes and the other resources and CPD on offer from Globe Education, visit www.shakespearesglobe.com/education


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