There was a provocative headline in the Telegraph on Saturday: “Children ‘force fed’ Shakespeare says head.” It seems that Tim Hands, the Master of Magdalen College School, Oxford, disagrees with reforms to state secondary education which will mean that from September next year, pupils will be expected to read two Shakespeare plays in the first three years of secondary school, between the ages of 11-14.
According to Dr Hands, this would mean schools “force feeding” the same narrow range of plays that are thought suitable for younger pupils, such as The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. He comments, “To me, it’s a backward step to say we are going to have two Shakespeare plays up to GCSE because this will turn loads of kids off Shakespeare. If you are going to play a violin concerto then you are going to first of all go through a great deal of preparation to make sure you can do scales and arpeggios and that kind of thing. At the end, you will be able to perform well. Likewise, in understanding Shakespeare, getting a better sense of the language, how stories get retold and the techniques by which he operates… these are the scales and arpeggios on the way. I would have a Shakespeare play at GCSE, but I would accept that it’s going to be hard work for pupils.”
I disagree with Dr Hands, who is, incidentally, the head of one of the most academically privileged schools in the country and where pupils are selected for their intellectual capacity. These clever students come from homes where learning and books are taken for granted; they are not the mass of pupils in this country, who go to “bog standard” comprehensives. Thus it is easy for Hands to patronise less privileged students from homes where there is not a book in sight and for whom academic subjects and exams are often seen as a boring and incomprehensible chore.
He approaches Shakespeare as an academic himself, seeing the language as presenting an insuperable barrier unless it is properly dissected and analysed well before encountering the dramas themselves as a whole. But this is not the way to expose uncultured youth to our great national genius. His plays have universal themes and, properly taught, should appeal to students from council estates as much as from the leafy suburbs of North Oxford. I learnt the piano for several years according to Dr Hands’ methods; it was all scales, arpeggios and exams and I could not see the point of it all. If I had been exposed to the work of a great musician at the start, I would (possibly) have been inspired to work at the hated scales. This is not to excuse my laziness but merely to suggest that capturing the imagination is the key.
Similarly, if young secondary school pupils were to be shown the film of Richard III with Olivier in the title role, along with a short summary of the plot and character sketches, and then act out a scene or two in class (perhaps the scene where Richard plans the murder of the princes in the Tower), it would help them to experience the excitement of the drama as a brilliant study in historical psychopathy before starting to examine it in more detail. (I know Shakespeare was writing Tudor propaganda in his portrayal of Richard but again, this could be discussed later in class.)
Incidentally, this was the method used by CS Lewis’s imaginative tutor, William Kirkpatrick, when he was coaching him in Latin and Greek in preparation for Oxford. Lewis hardly knew any Greek; but instead of making him sit down with lists of grammatical rules and vocabulary and endless exercises, Kirkpatrick knew the secret to Greek was via its literature; exposing his highly receptive pupil to Homer direct. He made Lewis plunge straight into The Iliad, reading it aloud so that he caught the flavour, rhythm and music of the language before he understood what it all meant.
If comprehensive pupils were to watch a film of Macbeth, or the modern version of Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo di Caprio and Clare Danes, they would not find the plays as hard work as Hands predicts. For youth today, the screen is more familiar than the page and it is not to dumb down Shakespeare to introduce him like this. It is not that the Bard is too complicated or highbrow for eleven-year-olds in state schools; it is that, generally coming from different home environments than Dr Hands’ young scholars, they require a more flexible and imaginative approach to their studies.