A TINY poem I like using when working as a writer in schools is titled Stratford Visit and is only two words long: ‘Bard stiff!’
It’s a bit cheeky, ‘a poor thing but mine own’ as the Bard himself once wrote, but while the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is fanfared up and down the land it is perhaps time for a brief counterblast to the adulation gushing forth.
Not that I am stinting in my praise of Shakespeare’s brilliance. As a playwright and theatre critic myself, my complexion is usually a violent shade of green when faced with the man’s sheer word power both on the stage and in his poetry.
Shakespeare as a writer is without equal in any country or any century.
But I still have painful memories of being forced to study Julius Caesar, Henry V and others when I was a testosterone-popping 14/15-year-old, and of having a small part in the school production of A Winter’s Tale at an even younger age.
It’s fair to say I had little clue what any of these plays were about. They could have been written in Hottentot for all the comprehension I could muster. I swore once I left school I would never ever look at Shakespeare again.
And perhaps, if I hadn’t become a playwright, I never would have. I was lucky enough to be the theatre critic for the Newcastle Journal during the first ten years of the Royal Skhakespeare Company’s annual Tyneside season, which more or less took me through the whole Shakespeare canon, even viewing such obscurantist plays as King John or Henry V111. I slowly nurtured appreciation.
Yet the phobia and mistrust which were by-products of being force-fed Shakespeare while a youth hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the man’s complexities still took some shaking off. I suspect there are thousands, maybe millions, who never DO shake it off.
Which is why our nation is ambivalent about the world’s greatest playwright.
A lot of people are secretly afraid of Shakespeare but reluctant to confess their phobia. At performances of his plays I sit clutching my critic’s notebook, aware in the opening fifteen minutes or so a sense of quiet unease, an unspoken dread among some of the audience that they may be about to experience the whole play without ever quite understanding it. This unease is caused partly by the damage done at school.
Which is why I believe that it’s not only unnecessary to have Shakespeare taught at school, it is also sometimes counter-productive in the long-term: rather than stimulating our interest, studying the Bard it too often it kills it stone dead.
There is an entire Shakespeare industry in this country but there’s also a large section of our society that ‘doesn’t get it’. And after a school career being force-fed the stuff, these people are ignored. Read a review of a Shakespeare play in any cultural organ and you will discover the notice rarely mentions what the play is actually about. We are assumed to know.
Points are made about lighting, directorial or acting skills, chosen location, set design. Everything except the plot. Anyone coming to that play for the first time thanks to that review would be left in the dark. Loads of people have never seen loads of Shakespeare plays, at least not as adults.
I’m sure the new digital age helps makes the Great Man more accessible to young minds, but I’m still convinced we need to grow and mature into Shakespeare as we grow and mature into adulthood and not be fed large indigestible lumps as part of the sausage machine that is our educational system.
Shakespeare is NOT child’s play; when it comes to schools, the Bard should be barred!