How relevant is the teaching of Shakespeare in inner-city secondary schools in 2021?

Whilst finishing the tremendously exciting unit of work on creative writing, I announced to my bright year 9 group that when we return from home learning we will be starting the next unit of work…on… Shakespeare! Even through the normally blank, silent screens, I was met with a groan and sad emojis in the class chat. (Of course, we had to teach Shakespeare straight after students have been given free reign to write and express themselves at will!) Instinctively, I knew that even my wonderful students in this particular class would grumble at the sheer mention of the elusive Mr. S, with all the Old English and apparently difficult plots, characters and conventions to understand, I was prepared with my defence. “It’ll be fun, don’t worry!”, “I have loads of ideas about how we can make it interesting…”, “you will be fine! It isn’t that hard to understand”… 

The carping class got me thinking, why are we teaching Shakespeare? How relevant is the teaching of a text that is over 400 years old? How do the themes and nuances of Romeo and Juliet impact a 13 year old’s life? 

At my particular school, we teach soon to be seven of the Bard’s plays, including the following: an introduction to Shakespeare in year 7, where we look at basic language, context, sonnets, the Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Richard III; The Tempest in year 8; Romeo and Juliet in year 9; and in year 11, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, and (the one text that is still up for debate as per OFSTED’s requirement that we do not teach any GCSE texts at Key Stage 3) either Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream and finally the A-Level text is of course Othello. Phew. Sitting here as merely an NQT, this does seem rather a lot, although my current school is exceptionally Literature heavy. To some, as I have been told by other English teachers at other schools in the local area, the teaching of Shakespeare is irrelevant to students in the 21st century, commonly those who attend boy-heavy, multicultural, inner-city secondary schools. Is teaching Shakespeare an elitist tripe that we continue to endorse at the hands of a private school Tory Government? (Along with all of the other seemingly Eurocentric white males currently making up the GCSE canon). 

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Surely teaching Shakespeare, and in my case teaching so much Shakespeare, has its benefits? Of course there is the learning of the roots of language, and creating an awareness of just how much language we use today which we must thank Shakespeare for. I usually take this moment to champion descriptivism and go on a David Crystal tirade, reminding students of the importance of creativity and how their individualism should hold no bounds. This also provides a nice segway into discovering languages that are alive and well in the classroom, which calls for a celebration of the diversity and richness of languages, with an emphasis on the value of language informing the self and therefore identity. There is a bounty of opportunity to build upon cultural capital if targeted in the correct way for your particular class. There is the added argument that the study of Shakespeare addresses many ethical dilemmas. We can look, for instance, at the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and can begin to discuss and shape ideas around the treatment of Shylock by the Venetian Christians, including that of his clown and servant Launcelot and even his own Jewish daughter, Jessica. We can begin to unpick the roots of anti-semitism and how these issues have translated and transgressed through Shakespeare’s reality into our own modern day understanding of prejudices.

We can still learn real-life lessons about tolerance and intolerance, cause and effect and gain an understanding of the contextual factors that have moulded our everyday lives in modern society in Britain and beyond. There are lessons to take about power and the corruption of power (Macbeth), the frivolity, ignorance and impatience of the young (Romeo and Juliet) and the dysfunctional attitudes of those in power who imperialised and colonised whole bodies of people as well as the lands they take (The Tempest) – which is of utmost relevance today, particularly for the demographic of my current school. 

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The issue, then, is not that Shakespeare is not relevant to the children of today, but perhaps that Shakespeare is incredibly inaccessible to the majority. As aforementioned, the very murmur of the name “Shakespeare” turns even the most studious of students into sour grapes. Realistically, how are we supposed to engage a bottom set group with Shakespeare? How are we going to engage a top set group with Shakespeare? For some schools and for some classes, perhaps the answer would be to teach some sections of a play, or elements of Shakespeare’s work, so they have a sound understanding of the importance of his life’s work. But then, most UK exam boards ask students to have an understanding of the whole play, in addition to characters and themes, with the ability to analyse the language, form and structure of a usually artbitarty scene from their play of study (the Act 2 Scene 3, the Porter scene, from Macbeth, for instance, which threw even the most clued-up teachers and Heads of Departments off their tracks). It could be argued that Literature is History, and so should be taught with the same regard as History, as its own subject, is – but the issue here is we know that not all of Shakespeare’s work is historically correct. Take, again, The Merchant of Venice (1596). Research has shown that during the time the play was written, barely any Jewish people resided in the UK, as they were ostracised from society, and the fact that Shakespeare’s play is loosely based on Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, written in in 1594.

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Although the themes, characters and plots hold some relevance to today’s issues, the storylines are often very confusing for students, especially when you add in the Old English language barrier. Do we study Shakespeare merely for the abundance of literary devices used, so that students can (or in some cases, cannot) show off their analytical skills? The study of Shakespeare is a long, arduous way around teaching analytical skills – how can a love of literature truly be built teaching Shakespeare? How can we expect 15/16 year olds to refine such a specialism within literature?

The answer comes down to individual teacher passion and approaches. The Shakespeare most often taught in schools, particularly for GCSEs, is plays. Surely the goal of the teaching of Shakespeare should be to focus on theatrics as opposed to analysis. Afterall, Shakespeare’s own audiences would not have understood every word uttered on stage, but they would have been captivated by the drama before them. Would students engage with and (I might be stretching it a bit here) be entertained and excited about a play that transports them to a different time and place altogether? 

Fortunately for me, my year 9 class thoroughly enjoyed learning about Romeo and Juliet and the conventions of tragedy. I think I was very lucky to have a class that was open-minded and eager to please and succeed. I have no doubt that next year, I will be having the same thoughts about the appropriateness of Shakespeare on a whole school, or even whole country syllabus, level. Will next year turn into a comedy or a tragedy?

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Published by itspimmsoclock

Secondary school English teacher based in the UK. Writing about the stresses and strains, but also of course joys and highlights of teaching English and TEFL.

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