Studying Shakespeare in high school is a sore subject for many. You don’t quite understand the point of it all. Studying Shakespeare at the initial level is not about fear, despite that being the emotion Spark Notes banks on. It is incomprehension. Unless you’ve lived in an environment vested with an interest in theatre, especially theatre that is not afraid of doing the classics in the classical tradition, Shakespeare seems like an alien being. And that accounts for most of us. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single introduction to Shakespeare at a young age is important in making a future decent and socially aware human being. What is universally unacknowledged and un-understood is why.
My real introduction to Shakespeare was not as unappetizing as you would imagine. I bought a complete Charles and Mary Lamb edition of their excellent abridged Shakespeare at a book fair when I was 10 or 11. At about the same time, some of these “tales” were also included in the school syllabus. It is interesting that the education board is unafraid to teach stories about horny teenagers (you know which one I’m talking about) in prose form on this level. And yet, in high school, it treats us with such bland, cabbage soupy material (at least, at the time) like Julius Caesar or Richard the Second. These two page summaries of 3-4 hour long plays did not contain all the dazzling speeches or the sometimes bawdy humour (which, in all fairness, would have gone over our heads). At the most, it would be an all important line, like an “All that glitters is not gold.” type of thing. But, what these abridgements did for me is open a bridge to the exciting promise of the actual plays, the real deal. Even if they contained only the plot and a few, rather subjective, descriptions of the characters by the Lambs, my imagination was filled with these visions of an adult and yet magical world that did not insult my intelligence.
And that is the problem with high school Shakespeare. It is all very well to include a text or two for 14 to 17 year olds despite their backgrounds and education. It isn’t very well when the formidable baggage of Shakespeare scholarship is brought along with it by, generally incompetent, teachers. The second step in my introduction to Shakespeare happened at the age of 14. My excitement at finally getting that Lamb promise was about to be fulfilled. Until it was a new teacher who took the task of teaching us Julius Caesar for the next two years. Despite our on-going protestations, I think she managed her stay. It is quite fuzzy now because in those two years, literature ceased to be the only thing that could maintain stasis in my life. Instead, it became an alien world of togas, war and backstabbing that sparked no interest in me. I gave up on Shakespeare.
The reasons for including this text as an introduction to Shakespeare were just as absurd. It is the shortest play Shakespeare has written, and it contains no romance or obscenities. Hurray, way to get teenagers interested in the greatest and most humane writer that ever walked this earth. Most 14 year olds might know about politics, but are unlikely to understand how political intrigue is played out. It doesn’t matter if it is ancient Rome or an ex-British colony in the 21st century. To slightly modify John F. Kennedy, a teacher that is afraid to teach Shakespeare in a way that is relevant to her students is afraid of her students. She would benefit more from a copy of No Fear Shakespeare because, somehow, for her, that barrier to the imaginative world of the Bard was never opened. Therefore, the best she can do is spew some Shakespeare scholarship at students who have long stopped caring.
Of course, there was the business of passing exams, which made Caesar even more of a tyrant than a complicated human being to me. I decided to keep all alien, incomprehensible ideas of the past two years aside and spend 3 days with my text and a dictionary before the exams. It wasn’t a joy ride but, at last, the play spoke to me. The feeling was what is said by the wonderful English teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
It was Shakespeare himself, through his dialogues, characters, setting, that finally bridged the gap. My misery ended and I fared quite well in my exams. Things started looking up because we were prescribed the sparkling The Tempest for our school leaving exams. Even more thankfully, we were taught by an excellent, experienced teacher. I became one of the few young people in the world who did not, after all, let school spoil Shakespeare.
In my teaching career, I am unlikely to get the chance to teach Shakespeare. I intend to teach at the university level, where the colossal barrage of Shakespeare scholarship is unlikely to agree with my not earnest enough constitution. And that is fine by me. For the past one year, I’ve been helping my cousin with her school work, especially The Merchant of Venice. She was much worse hit than I, because she is uninterested in reading in general. Posed with such a challenge, I decided to test out a theory I’ve come up with. If you get a good, solid year to study your first Shakespeare play in a way that is relevant to you, you are set for life. Even if you never read any of his plays again (though this practice makes it a lot easier), you’ll never, ever, forget this one.
I started with showing her the movie. Many purists will disagree, but any 14 year old is unlikely to find his or her first Shakespeare a page-turner. This 2004 adaptation is brilliant in having both a realistic setting and actors giving naturalistic performances, rather than something stiff and classical. Studying in a secular school and being neither Christian or Jewish herself, she also had little or no idea at all of the central themes of the play. With her curiosity sufficiently aroused , we dove right into the play, taking each line piece by piece while going back and forth with the events we both knew about now. Instead of an impenetrable wall that is often created between the teacher and students when it comes to Shakespeare, ours became an on-going conversation. Of course, this was possible because there are only two of us and not me and a class of students. But, it wasn’t the cinematic presentation or the indulgence of detailed study – two luxuries that are often missing from monetary and temporal school budgets. It was connecting these themes of religion, prejudice, love, friendship, judicial intrigue to the world we live in now. What a story written hundreds of years ago and set in Venice could say about us in the present.
The purpose of reading is not to be clever. It is all very well to show off when you are young, but the only stories that are going to stay with you are the ones that mattered to you.
Of course, as the phenomenon of teachers spoiling Shakespeare in high schools continues, my cousin also has a teacher who has, most unoriginally, taught Shylock as a villain, her only justification being the redundant and politically incorrect view of him being a Jew. This is not only insulting the intelligence of students, but that of Shakespeare as well. Because, the universally acknowledged truth of why Shakespeare is important to us is this – this was a man who, through the entire length and breadth of his writing, had no other agenda except to show human beings as they are.