By Anna Marshall
I was introduced to Shakespeare in the traditional manner: Romeo and Juliet being read aloud to my class. My English teacher’s preferred method was to take it line by line, or even better, punctuation by punctuation.
You read it aloud until you reach the next punctuation mark. Reactions to this varied: some students would sit bouncing on their seats, relishing the opportunity to proclaim their half-sentence with full diction. More commonly, my peers would sit sweating, and furiously counting under their breath the number of full stops compared to the number of people left to read, before practising their six-word phrase. Through this fun tactic, we thoroughly butchered the soul out of Romeo’s soliloquies: if one in three schoolchildren are saved from this, it’s a kindness, and I’m glad people can read David Walliams instead.
But I can’t assume your introduction to Shakespeare was the same as mine. If the stereotype is true, and most Durham students really are from London, maybe your school accessed the numerous theatre outreach programmes the big city theatres might offer. More likely, perhaps, your experience is different because your school hired more than one drama teacher, and there was sufficient extra-curricular provision to let even the slow readers have a stab at being Malvolio.
In 2015, the Department for Education’s report on reading proudly proclaimed that “Nothing is more important in education than ensuring that every child can read well.” This comes alongside research suggesting our average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013 – with goldfish continually maintaining a 9 second attention span. But if we want to avoid debating the quality of schooling, we could take a closer look at the detrimental effects of technology on young people’s brains.
In Britain, Ofcom estimates children aged 5 to 7 spend 4 hours a day on screens, and the government has recently backtracked on the 2008 guidance that promoted exposing children to technology as young as possible. So maybe in that direction, it would be nice to replace movie nights with family Shakespeare recitals.
But let’s take it back a second. If we’re talking about literacy and a well-rounded education, maybe there’s less cause for panic. Shakespeare maybe doesn’t have to be for all. If Harry Potter has an age rating of 12, then maybe we shouldn’t be too astounded if pre-pubescent children aren’t being asked to re-enact the existential crisis of Hamlet, the double suicide of Romeo and Juliet or the murderous rampage of Macbeth. And if we’re thinking the comedies would be more appropriate, it’s a question of simplifying the wording of plays which inherently rely on genius wordplay.
it would be nice to replace movie nights with family Shakespeare recitals
I don’t dispute that Shakespeare grapples with the essence of humanity: but I also reckon that existential crisis is better suited to those in their teenage years. For infants, what’s wrong with addictive reading based on fantasy worlds?
The final point should be one of scepticism. There is a lot of literature out there, and maybe we don’t all have to love Shakespeare. How can the situation have changed so drastically since 2016, when the BBC’s arts editor proclaimed Shakespeare to be more popular than ever before? If five percent of pupils aged eleven cannot read better than would be expected for a seven-year-old, maybe Shakespeare isn’t the problem here.
Much like the rest of austerity, this could be a case where we’re confronting the problem with solutions that got us here in the first place. If children aren’t loving that whole scenes of The Taming of the Shrew are transcribed completely wrong, probably by an iambically deaf scribe, maybe we don’t have to waste hours reconsidering what might have happened in the final, missing scene…
there is a lot of literature out there, and maybe we don’t all have to love Shakespeare
Judging from most productions, the joy of Shakespeare seems to be in its diversity of interpretation. In a world endlessly filled with videos leaving little to be experimented with, primary schoolchildren should be allowed to take some of these words – some of these old, confusing, stumbling-block words – and run with them. Because if these stories have survived this long, surely that’s something.
What a crime, what an injustice it would be if more children lose out due to oversized classrooms meaning they never get the chance to roll the word swoltery around on their tongue.
Photography: Wikimedia Creative Commons.