I have spent my ENTIRE teaching career trying to convince young people that Shakespeare is relevant.
Macbeth teaches you about ambition, greed and the consequences of power.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream teaches you to dare to imagine. To love.
Romeo & Juliet teaches you about gang culture. Family conflict. Sacrifice.
I’ve spent countless lessons convincing students his language really isn’t that tricky, his principles apply to modern day life and they NEED Shakespeare in their lives.
Like EVERY English teacher out there, I have spent hours dedicated to researching, analysing and preparing lessons on Shakespeare to make them deep and meaningful, fun even.
And now, in 2021 I’m ready to admit that there are a variety of ways we can teach students about literature...other than Shakespeare.
Now, there may be English teachers who are in the process of trying to report or delete this article. But I hope there are more breathing a secret sigh of relief. I’m not denying that Shakespeare or other writers of the time are literary geniuses. I’m not even denying the brilliance of their works. What I am saying, however, is that Shakespeare in the classroom is not the only way to teach students about literature.
English teachers across the country spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking up activities to try and get 11-18 year olds to understand the language of Shakespeare. From modern-day adaptations to what would Romeo tweet? We’ve done it all. But, here are a few things we need to ask of the necessity for Shakespeare on the curriculum:
Romeo & Juliet: why are we teaching a play that glamourises suicide and gang culture? Othello and The Merchant of Venice: why are we teaching plays that perpetuate racism? King Lear: why are we teaching a play that incites elements of terror?
I can FEEL the English teacher eye rolls. We can shrug off these questions or see me as yet another ‘Shakespeare basher’ (which I am not) talking nonsense. But, teachers can spend hours upon hours to make the plays accessible to students - hours which could be spent teaching students a variety of critical skills, perhaps more relevant, engaging and interesting to the future of a 21st century student. Plus, anyone who says they read Shakespeare like a magazine is lying.
I barely understand the language half the time and my students think I am some kind of King Lear loving, Shakespeare genius. Equally, if you read the latter and go on to judge my ability to teach literature, that in itself shines a light on the prejudice, judgement and snobbery that our compulsion to 'learn Shakespeare' has created.
On a more serious note, what saddens me is the pretentious attitudes that come with ‘understanding Shakespeare’.
Apparently, if you struggle to understand Macbeth’s ambition or King Lear’s immaturity, you can’t be ‘that clever’. Even as a teacher, the pressure that comes with understanding a man who is hundreds of years old is overwhelming.
It saddens me that a man who, yes, is a fantastic playwright, but whose plays showcase a racist, homophobic and an anti-feminist agenda is STILL core on our curriculum. It’s as if the break down of Empire, Windrush and BLM just didn’t happen in the English classroom.
Now, teachers may get their defence on and claim it’s a way of creating awareness, teaching perspective, encouraging unlearning. NO IT IS NOT.
You want to encourage unlearning? Teach The Great Unlearn, curated by Rachel Cargle. You want to encourage just and necessary perspectives and awareness? Make Windrush and the postcolonial genre compulsory on the curriculum. A couple of poems and an ‘optional’ module just doesn’t cut it.
Learn about Adiche, Said, Angelou, Zephaniah, Tayari Jones. Parents, students and teachers, you can find so much more relevant literature here.
As a teacher of South Asian origin, I’ve finally realised (better late than never), that a defining factor of intelligence is not the necessity of Shakespeare in my multicultural, diverse classroom.
And, before any teacher or curriculum advisor says this is all a bit ‘far fetched’, understand this: that’s how many students in the classroom feel. This is what’s going through their heads when they walk into yet another English lesson and stare at random words in an overused playbook.
Imagine the anxiety of knowing Shakespeare is a compulsory part of your qualification when you struggle to read. You’re dyslexic. English is your second language. You struggle to focus on words in general, let alone ones that are no longer in a dictionary. It makes little sense now.
Students: I know my blog isn’t going to change the world, but I will continue to raise awareness and we will always respect Shakespeare as a great playwright. We will appreciate that he told some cool stories, was even funny from time to time. But, you won’t need to analyse him to death. You won’t need to dread the term in your school year where you HAVE to study one of his entire plays. You won’t need to fret over his presence in a ridiculously lengthy exam.
Teachers, you will one day be able to teach books and literature on your terms – literature that actually makes a necessary difference to the lives of your students. Literature that come close to setting their souls on fire…yes, it exists. Like Marcus Rashford’s story. Like George Floyd’s story. And they will be as present and as compulsory as Macbeth is now.
And Shakespeare will become the novelty extra curricular day. A nice inspiration for a rainy day activity. He will not be a defining factor of English literature that continues to deter students from the wonderful world of books.
Disclosure: I don’t hate Shakespeare and I’m also not advocating students should hate him or stop learning about him. My argument and frustration is attached to the systemic need to measure our students’ abilities, intelligence and
success against his works – therein lies the problem.