During the first week of September the British Shakespeare Association hosted a conference in Yorkshire, England, to engage with the legacy of Shakespeare as a playwright on the 400th anniversary of his death. The conference gathered academics and educators from around the world to discuss new ideas in literary and historical research around Shakespeare, as well as new strategies for teaching and learning of Shakespeare with a focus on his relevance as a playwright in secondary schooling.
Among the teachers who attended the conference, there was a wide consensus that the current shift in many developed countries towards a National Curriculum and standardised testing is shifting the focus of classroom experience. The renewed focus in these curricula in English on comprehension and essay writing is putting new constraints on classroom teaching and learning, with teachers being forced more and more to to ‘teach to the test’, despite their good instincts that this limits what their students can gain from their learning.
Though we need not accept these constraints to remain indefinitely into the future, they are a reality that we as educators must deal with in this present day. The question then remains, how might we foster freedom and independence in students’ creative expression and literary interpretation in a scope and sequence running to a strict timeline with exams the most likely measure for student outcomes?
When studying Shakespeare’s plays, we know students often have to overcome their perceived unfamiliarity with both the context and language of these texts if they are to compose a sophisticated response in any assessment format. For this reason, Shakespeare studies – especially at senior student level – can become a subject area where teachers are left feeling even more constrained, as they must work against this perceived cultural distance to create a safe environment for creative exploration and interpretation of the text.
These struggles for students reflect a process of learning that we all must face in adult life: understanding unfamiliar languages, cultures and social contexts when working with groups of people in every sphere, from business to education and health. Our National Curriculum in Australia stresses the universal values of Shakespearean drama, but this should go beyond the pure thematics of his playtexts. What if we were to focus on developing a level of comfortability with unfamiliar cultures and language-learning in our teaching of Shakespeare?
On the ABC’s recent Shakespeare-themed ‘Q&A’ programme, Germaine Greer engaged with this learning opportunity that comes from the process of getting comfortable with Shakespeare. Summing up the feelings that we all experience whether we’re practitioners, teachers or students, Greer stated that “What actually happens in a Shakespeare play is you’re prevented from arriving at easy certainties”. This reality can be terrifying for both teachers and students when the National Curriculum might seemingly push Shakespearean drama into thematic boxes for classroom analysis. However, the process of having to continually rethink your ideas when dealing with one of Shakespeare’s playtexts is what Greer aptly identifies as “what makes the plays work – because everything keeps shifting”.
This process of grappling with new forms of communication and unfamiliar societies is something that Shakespeare and his company also had to deal with at the turn of the seventeenth century. Shakespeare moved away from the countryside into the growing city of London, and with a group of collaborators was daring enough to begin staging theatre works in the first permanent playhouses, to crowds of thousands from all social spheres in Early Modern England. With the invention of the printing press less than 100 years earlier, his work also fell right into a point in history of great transition, as society moved from a culture of oral storytelling to a more visual, literary culture.
Today, Shakespeare continues to be influential on a global scale. In the Imperial age, Shakespeare became one of Britain’s most important exports. As the English language has spread around the world, his work remains our first known record in print for many of our most commonly used words in modern English.
In the case of Shakespeare as a playwright, I firmly believe allowance in the classroom for creative exploration of him as an artist, theatre-maker and writer is essential as a foundation for thematic and interpretation. As put by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “The giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter”. In other words, no text is composed in isolation from its surroundings in time and place. But how can we connect students more effectively with knowledge of Shakespeare’s time and place?
I believe the answer is in allowing them to discover these details in a research environment and reading lab. With the current trend in academic research toward historical research rather than close reading, there is so much potential for students to tap into an ever-growing knowledge base about the conditions that lead to Shakespeare’s works as we see them today. In my workshops, I call this the ‘discovery space’ (much like the space where actors entered Shakespeare’s stage from the back doors at the Globe was called the Discovery Space’), and allow time for structured discovery of Shakespeare’s world, before we explore the thematic references and use of genre in the particular play being studied. We need not feed this information to students, but allow them to enter Shakespeare’s world via their own process of learning.
If we are truly to foster higher order thinking and enquiry into our students, this process of independent discovery managed through a structured and safe research space is essential to their independence as readers and interpreters of texts, as they are required to be in English literary studies. This level of creativity and exploration is desperately need in the jobs of the future; no longer are passive work and systematic learning the skills that employers require. Instead they require people willing to take initiative, to explore and think laterally, to imagine possibilities and be willing to travel across cultural distances in a globalised world in order to achieve any kind of significance. Shakespeare studies has something to offer in this direction: encourage your students to explore, to discover and to interpret his texts confidently using historical knowledge that they find in their own excavations.
Kathryn Parker has recently begun her PhD in Shakespeare studies in the Department of English at The University of Sydney. She is supervised by Professor Liam Semler, head of the ‘Shakespeare Reloaded’ educational research project, which aims to find new modes of pedagogy for independent thinking and creative interpretation of Shakespeare’s works. Kathryn recently completed an MA in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, funded by the John Monash Cultural Scholarship in recognition of her leadership in arts and education. Kathryn runs incursions in secondary schools within the Sydney region. For more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.