You may be able to recall one or more quotes from Shakespeare somewhere in your deepest memories. Everyone in the UK learns Shakespeare at school, regardless of whether they love or hate him. Leading scholars in Shakespeare scholarship meet to discuss the finer points of Shakespeare’s work. It is clear that Shakespeare’s plays, and poetry, still play an important role in English education, even though it has been 450 years since his birth. New ways to teach Shakespeare encourage children to explore his meaning and language, and help them learn.
The new English curriculum insists that every student should learn Shakespeare between the ages 11 and 14. There have been many debates about Shakespeare’s teaching methods since the inception of public education.
Victorians introduced Shakespearean literature as a way to “improve” young minds. This led to a desk-based, reductive approach in the 20th century. Students were required to analyze individual scenes and often have little or no knowledge of the entire play.
Rex Gibson, a Cambridge academic’s 1998 book on Teaching Shakespeare, has made it clear that the focus should be on making the plays come to life as theatre performances. Gibson suggested that students can actively interpret Shakespeare’s plays if they are treated as scripts that must be performed.
Students can use creative approaches to Shakespeare’s work because of the complexity of Shakespeare’s language. Children must think differently because of the difficult language, complicated plots and remote settings in Shakespeare’s plays. Children can also learn the plays through performing them. This gives them the opportunity to take risks and feel confident in their ability to control the text.
Gibson’s philosophy, along with practical exercises, has created a more cohesive approach to Shakespeare learning for children.
While companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe have their own approaches to teaching children Shakespeare, all share a commitment towards ensemble and rehearsal-room exercises. Teachers and children are increasingly being invited to participate in Shakespeare’s plays.
Joe Winston, a drama education scholar, has been studying this playful approach to Shakespeare’s work at the RSC with some of its youngest students. He used games and exercises with children aged four to five years old to explore The Tempest’s story.
In my ongoing research with Shakespeare Schools’ Festival, I have been interested in how teachers are encouraged and supported to explore the vocal potential of the language with students. To enjoy the strange words. A teacher introduced her class of nine- and ten-year olds to Richard III’s language. She encouraged them to “enjoy strange words, taste them as sweets.” This is what the children love and they begin rehearsals believing this language is theirs.
This playful approach, which does not require lengthy explanations of Shakespeare’s language, has many benefits. Linguistic research is now supporting these benefits. Guy Cook, a Linguist, suggests that young children can learn language by playing with “form” and “content”.
Ensemble is another key element in this approach to Shakespeare teaching. It is a theatre model of collaborative creativity. Working together creates a safe environment that is not a comfortable zone. This eliminates pressure (there’s no right or wrong answer), but it also lowers the stakes. Members of the group still have to be accountable to one another, the demands of text, and, if performing for the audience. Star turns by one child are discouraged, and the teacher is now an informed facilitator rather than an unchallengeable authority.
In practice, parts may be shared among the entire cast using the ensemble approach. For example, imagine a primary school class filling up the Globe stage during a performance in The Tempest. One student is Prospero and 25 children are Ariel.
Students can explore a scene in small groups during a lesson or rehearsal using freeze frames and modernimprovisations. Teachers can encourage discussion by inviting students to refer to their scripts, think about other versions, or make connections with their interests. For example, I witnessed a group of GCSE students rehearsing Titus Andronicus. They were thrilled by its dark content and themes of loyalty, betrayal, and other topics. Although only two actors will perform the final scene, the entire class helped to shape it.
Taking creative risks
This approach is based on exercises, games, and improvisations that the teacher has created. However, students are required to take a creative leap. This approach to Shakespeare requires patience, risk and mutual trust.
It is difficult to predict the artistic and educational outcomes in terms of education levels and grade limits. However, Shakespeare’s Schools Festival has conducted a national evaluation and RSC-commissioned research have shown that students who are able play with Shakespeare and create meanings according to their lived experiences grow in confidence as well as academic engagement.
For Shakespeare Workshops for primary visit Sky Blue Theatre…