I don’t doubt that the way Shakespeare is taught in schools has changed somewhat since I was a teenager – and I think this is probably just as well, because my memory of it was enough to stop me reading the Bard for the best part of twenty five years. Let me explain.
Back in the day, my A Level set text for the Shakespeare paper was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play and one which I’d not heard of previously. I was familiar with “the greats” such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Richard III, but this was a new one. Unfortunately, I remember next to nothing about either the play or the teaching – although I must have read something, because I passed that paper. I do recall swearing never to read Shakespeare again, which went the way of the fairies when I caught a version of Henry V at the Old Vic. I was really only there to make up the numbers (free tickets are never refused) but suddenly, it all made sense. After that, I read and watched as much Shakespeare as I could get my hands on. But I still shied away from The Tempest until now – over thirty years since my A levels.
Now this is all but criminal, because the Tempest is a very clever, multi-layered and relevant play for these days. There are issues of colonisation, the use and abuse of power and the treatment of cultures unlike our own. I honestly don’t remember any of this being brought up in my studies, because I’m pretty darned sure if it had been I would have paid better attention. When Shakespeare was writing this, the Americas were just being colonised, there were issues between the colonists and the Native Americans and all of this would have made just as much sense then as now – and that’s before we get onto the subject of the old enemy, Spain, and it’s conquest of the Southern half of the continent.
I know teachers have plenty on their plate without the likes of me harping on; but this is really important. Shakespeare is our greatest playwright and poet and his works bring as much joy today as they ever did. If you don’t want to put a new generation of readers off for life, be careful how you teach him. Nobody cares about his use of arcane grammatical techniques – enjoy the plays and study what they are saying.