Each and every one of us will have, at some point in Key Stage Two, sat in class with a third-hand copy of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ reading around the circle, half observed by some reluctant teacher. The monotonous toing and froing of uninterested adolescent voices is a sound we’ve all heard. The unfortunate fact is that Shakespearian language is being ruined for a whole new generation; and if it carries on, these modules will be cut short, dimming the flame of one of the greatest playwrights in British history.
My years up to GCSEs were the same. I remember reading around the class a script of ‘Twelfth Night’, absolutely bored out of my brains. Whilst my inner thespian was calling out to try and make the classes interesting or even just the slightest bit less dull, I was forced into compliance, not wanting to be “that weird drama kid” with the crappy feigned Northern accent. So when my turn came up to read Viola’s next line I simply blurted out the words, not pausing to analyse the language or appreciate the poetry of the phrases – just ‘reading Shakespeare’. But this is where something had to be changed.
One cannot just ‘read Shakespeare’; it’s a play! It’s meant to be performed; more than that, it’s meant to be lived, enjoyed, and played with. Not rushed through like an uninteresting meal or awkward conversation. The power of performance is so unique. An actor has the ability to take printed letters and characters and turn them into raw emotion.
It was only in the final year of studying for my GCSEs that I finally discovered Shakespeare in its entirety through the school production, and what play could be better in getting a young person passionate about the Bard than ‘Hamlet’.
In her true creative style the directive lightening strike of Madeline Summers modified the setting and characters to fit a construct that us modern day teenagers would find accessible. The royal Danish bloodline of the 1600s was transformed into an East London seedy drug gang. Sure enough the play was the thing. I became enwrapped in the beautiful language of the tragedy, the rhyming couplets and emotional soliloquys finally jumped out from the page because I could interpret them how I wanted to, not how some dusty textbook told me I should.
My favourite verse in the play has to be Hamlet’s soliloquy plotting his revenge against his Uncle, whilst struggling with his own mortality. I remember feeling such a sense of satisfaction when I delivered the line “The spirit that I have seen may be a devil”, from Act Two, because in that moment I embodied Hamlet. I was no longer just reciting words from a script, but living the art form that those words made up. I felt completely free to indulge the beauty of the language and I could act it in the way that I thought best and how, in my mind, perfectly captured Hamlet’s madness. After all, isn’t that what English should be about? It’s your own analysis of works and how the language of writers of the past speaks to you. As John Elsom writes in ‘Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?’ “Shakespeare is an elastic writer. He can be stretched in many directions before he snaps.” It shouldn’t matter whether your interpretation of “To Be or Not To Be” is a little unconventional – it’s called your interpretation for a reason.
From that production onwards my passion for Shakespeare escalated. I finally enjoyed reading him in class, I could, for the first time, appreciate the language that conveys so much beauty in its pages. I could see the perfect balance of comedy, ‘satyr’, love triangles, music, magic, loss and complicated plots lines unfolding before my eyes. But whilst I am now perfectly happy to sink my teeth into a giant book of sonnets, many of the wider demographic are not. Which leads to me to think why? Why can I find something beautiful and engaging, when my friend sitting next to me can only picture a load of skinny men in tights reciting gooey love messages to one another? The difference is that I was given the opportunity to fully immerse myself in his language. Through acting the plays I had a whole new angle to experience the language from. It is this opportunity that too many people nowadays are going without.
Now, I’m not under any impression all kids love acting and will be happy to perform an excerpt from Henry V, because at the end of the day people have individual likes and dislikes. But it would be so beneficial for more schools and parents to take younger people to experience local Shakespeare productions in order to see the language in the way Will intended it, not read around the classroom for 35 minutes with half an eye on the clock.
It’s staggering how in only 24 months or so I have gone from finding Shakespeare demoralisingly boring, to someone picking university choices under heavy influence of how much they have in their courses. Not every child in school needs to enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, because at the end of the day there’s always underlining preferences, but schools need to figure out a way to make it a hell of a lot more digestible and interesting for their students, even if that does just mean standing up in class to act out the most important scenes, or taking students to go and see the Royal Shakespeare Company once in a while. If I can learn to love it, anyone can. I will not be part of the generation who know more excerpts from ‘50 shades of Gray’ than ‘Romeo and Juliet’.