So, it’s 2016, 400 years after the death of William Shakespeare. It is a requirement in the Australian High School curriculum that one or more of his plays are studied. His plays have been translated and performed in almost every single language on Earth. There will be at least FIVE Shakespeare plays produced in Sydney alone in 2016.
So hang on a second-
This is an English guy who never even knew Australia existed, he wrote in words that are completely foreign to the majority of Australians, why are we still insisting that school students sit down and decipher his work?
Whilst in Brisbane, in the midst of our north coast NSW and QLD tour, I decided to ask myself this question. I searched through several documents and articles writen by literary scholars and professors, and the resounding reason was this:
“He is the greatest dramatist, the greatest poet and the greatest prose writer in the history of the language.”
Now, for me, if I place myself is the shoes of a year 9 student trying to read Macbeth for the first time, this statement isn’t going to mean a whole lot to me. If anything, it would probably turn me away even more, making his literature something reserved for only the scholars and intellectuals of our society. So I dug a little deeper. I came across a website debate of which the topic was ‘Should Shakespeare still be taught in schools?’ The votes were 51% no, 49% yes. I am aware that this is only one online poll with an unknown number of votes, but some of the written answers were quite profound.
“Shakespeare’s language is so old that it is almost the same as making them read Italian or Greek.”
“As a high school student, I personally find works of Shakespeare irrelevant to life today.”
“When in the world would we use his material any where else than a high school exam?”
The overarching response from the students on this poll were that, sure, he is the greatest writer the Western world has ever known- but what if I have little interest in literature? When will I use his work if I am pursuing a trade or one of the many career paths that have nothing to do with drama or art?
These questions arise time and time again in our Q&A sessions after our shows. I know for a fact that I experienced the same problems in high school looking at his work. I think the issue is that it was only after school finished, out in the world that I became aware of how what I had experienced of Shakespeare was relevant to me. When I was in school, obliged to study his work, in a time where the human experiences of the plays were unknown to me, how was it going to be possible for me to engage and enjoy reading his work?
I would encourage students feeling this way to think outside the box. Outside the confines of your English classroom and think deeper about the people Shakespeare is writing about.
He writes Juliet, the 13 year old girl, (A year 8 or 9 student today) obsessed with myths and fables about love, (not dissimilar to learning about love from Twilight) and we get to witness her experience of her first love. We learn the foolishness of Romeo’s haste, and the potential consequences of rashness. The characters in Hamlet explore grief to us, with Hamlet’s inability to grieve, Ophelia’s destruction by grief, and Laertes’ outward rage in dealing with his grief. The Friar and Nurse in Romeo And Juliet demonstrate that age and experience do not equal guaranteed success! Macbeth explores the dangers of ambition, Iago of Othello ironically teaches us to be aware of jealousy, for it ‘It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’ I could go on all day, believe me.
Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written to be read. They weren’t written for the classroom. They are words writ to be spoken aloud, performed and observed. So try and engage with the characters as people, not just fiction, and trust that even if you don’t see value to these plays today, one day later in life you will experience circumstances or emotions not dissimilar to those Shakespeare explored. Just turn on the news and you will see the things he wrote about. The US presidential campaign could be compared with Richard the Third. Warring nations and religions are no different to ‘two households, both alike in dignity’. Everyone will experience grief. Perhaps Shakespeare is a reference- a comfort in dark times, an explanation for why people act the way they do, or simply an escape from the ‘slings and arrows’ of everyday life. Once you sift pass the confusing words, (which I assure you isn’t difficult or something to be embarrassed about, actors/ directors are constantly referring to dictionaries or footnotes to understand a scene or a phrase.) you are able to enjoy his plays as stories. He was a storyteller, and a masterful one at that. He wants to ignite our imaginations and present the follies and intricacies of humankind.
I think what I have spoken about here is presented well in this version of the Seven Ages of Man speech. Click the image for this version, by the late Billie Brown. It is a beautiful and emotional performance of a speech simply about human life.