The role of Shakespeare in Education

I can remember my first foray into Shakespeare as if it happened yesterday. I was eleven and our end-of-school production was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I wasn’t stupid, there was no way I would be cast as one of the romantic leads but I thought I had a good shot at Hippolyta. She was, after all, Queen of the Amazons and being the tallest girl in the whole school by this point I thought I was a shoe-in. Of course it had nothing to do with the fact that the boy I had a crush on wanted to play Theseus. Nothing at all. In my total eleven years I had never shown any interest in acting, but this was different, I was going to make my mark, I was going to be brave. When audition day came round my body had other plans. I was sick, sent home with the promise they’d consider me for Hippolyta. When Monday came round it was revealed I would play the part of one of the fairies. I can’t even remember which. Nevertheless I had caught Shakespeare fever and would tell the story to anyone who listened, spending hours creating ‘programmes’ for the show and drawing pictures of men with the head of a donkey. None of which had any fingers.
I firmly believe that this introduction at such a young age spawned a love of the bard. When Macbeth came round in Year 9, we made a short film of Banquo’s ghost scene, with Michael Jackson theme music, naturally. Two years later when Romeo and Juliet landed on my school desk I couldn’t wait to delve into the love story to end all love stories. Unlike my peers I had bought my own copy and already began to annotate it, having watched Baz Luhrman’s film on repeat and lapped up the music, the colour and the revelry. Where my classmates moaned and complained I hung on to my teacher’s every word, doing my best to figure out the language.
When I had my own opportunity to mould minds I had two amateur productions under my belt: Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a backstage capacity, while working towards Merry Wives of Windsor. The Oswestry Drama Project brought Shakespeare to life with a bang. I felt able enough to share my love of his plays whilst also educating.
I began an after-school in my local primary school where we focused on all three aspect of the performing arts. I made an attempt to teach A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was met with ‘boring’ and ‘do we have to?’. Reluctantly I shelved my project, this was not the right time and these weren’t the right kids. My next attempt came approximately a year later. Throughout my degree in Education we were expected to complete a placement per year. In my second year I ended up in a fantastic village school, in a mixed class of Year ¾, with a mentor who loved my Drama background. When I suggested a performance at the end of the school year she jumped at the chance and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was resurrected. I had already shortened the play and generally brought it up-to-date while keeping in a few key words and phrases. Enough to give the pupils a flavour but not be overwhelmed. I don’t know whether it was because being part of the play was compulsory, compared to the after-school club, but the pupils dived in head first. They loved the magic of the fairies, the majesty of Theseus and Hippolyta and giggled every time anyone said ‘Bottom’. Several of the children had Special Educational Needs but thrived in the performance situation, in particular a reluctant Demetrius who struggled on a daily basis with dyslexia. Many of the children surprised me, especially an angelic-looking eight year old, cast as Hermia, who transformed when she thought Helena had taken her man, and a naturally-comedic Bottom who made the most of every funny moment. When the performance was over I was met with ‘what Shakespeare play are we going to do next year?’ and was overjoyed that the bard had struck such a chord with these youngsters.
The time came for me to reintroduce Shakespeare to my after-school club with an age range of 6 to 11. The new school term had brought about a new group of children with an entirely different attitude to previous years. Anything I suggested was met with a resounding cheer and when prompted to rehearse again they didn’t complain. Rather than go back over A Midsummer Night’s Dream I thought we would try something a bit more challenging, and my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays (clichéd I know), Romeo and Juliet. I’ve always enjoyed different interpretations of his works and I wanted to inject West Side Story into our production. I’d learnt in the past that having to watch while others rehearsed often meant we went around in circles for hours, pupils became bored and restless. I designed a play that meant all the scenes could be rehearsed at the same time in small groups, resulting in a number of Romeo’s, Juliet’s and Mercutio’s, but actually using our hour productively. They couldn’t wait to find out what parts they had and again, immersed themselves in Shakespeare, often coming to me with facts they had discovered. Almost all of them had watched Gnomeo and Juliet too, another good way of introducing Shakespeare to young people without it being scary or daunting, so they were familiar with the two waring families and the use of red and blue to signify their ‘gang’. During the masked ball, we performed Steps’ infamous 5, 6, 7, 8, after which one of the parents remarked to me that they didn’t think they’d ever see Shakespeare and Steps in one production. Over the weeks of rehearsals children eagerly learnt their lines and worked on bringing body language and facial expression into their performance. I discovered from a colleague that line learning seemed to be an issue with her students and none of them seemed to have any energy. I must admit I was rather proud (and a little smug) that my kids were the opposite, in fact, if anything, they had a little too much energy. The day we managed to get through the whole play, they said was the ‘best one ever’ and that they’d really enjoyed it. On the day of the performance they acted their socks off and I’ve never been prouder or more amazed of what can be achieved an hour a week on a Friday afternoon.
As I start teacher training this September, my after-school club has unfortunately finished, but I look forward to sharing my love of Shakespeare with all the new pupils coming my way. I hope that they have shared the same experience I had all those years ago and when they see his name on the front of a book they can’t wait to meet new characters and the adventures that unfold on the pages within.