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RSC launches new manifesto for Shakespeare in schools

3rd March 2008



You can’t force kids to love Shakespeare

Michael Pennington, Guardian blog, 4th March 2008


In announcing its manifesto Stand Up For Shakespeare, the RSC is claiming success at teaching Shakespeare to children as young as four.


Now, steady on! It very much depends what you mean by teaching and what you mean by Shakespeare. Reception class kids role-play all the time but I can’t think of a single one of Shakespeare’s works they would be expected really to grasp, or why they should be troubled with difficult words while they’re still trying to sort out their own.


Never mind. Every good idea needs a strapline, and this is it for this one. A catchy title is all the more necessary since the idea is far from new. Smaller, dedicated companies and teachers have been trying to help kids develop a love of Shakespeare for years. What is good about this latest initiative is that it is something that the RSC’s resources should obviously be applied to, and now they will.


No one could possibly disagree with the message. Certainly children come to appreciate Shakespeare more by doing it themselves, on their feet, tasting the language rather than studying it. They need to see it live rather than be told about it, and that before the hormones start to flow.


But most people’s stories of being captivated by Shakespeare are the result not of an organised policy but of some unexpected chance, a charismatic teacher or a lucky visit to the theatre. I was blown away by Macbeth when I was eleven but, stage struck as I was, the same play was nearly killed for me as a teenager by dull teaching. I once helped an eleven-year-old play Juliet’s father and watched him grasp for the first time what it was to be a disobeyed parent rather than a young rebel. I’ve heard young teenagers after a matinee arguing the pros and cons of Hotspur’s and Hal’s claims to the throne on Hull railway station.


Not long ago, my nine-year-old granddaughter delighted me after seeing Twelfth Night by saying that she thought  Malvolio was treated too cruelly. He only did all that stuff with the yellow stockings to impress Olivia, she said. She also rather disapproved of Olivia’s transferring her affections from the cross-dressed Viola to her male twin, because loving someone’s appearance is only the start. That is the kind of reaction we all want; it gives us hope for the future, and not just for the theatre.


So though the RSC blueprint is good, how is it to be achieved? Are practitioners going to go in for single sessions, move on to another school and leave teachers to carry on their work? For every teacher capable of doing this, another one will not be able to. The relationship that’s going to matter is the long term one between teachers and practitioners, and what they can generate between them.


And one more thing: it’s not compulsory to love Shakespeare. The kids should choose for themselves, having had a chance to suck it and see. The moment they feel they’re being coerced everything falls to the ground. It’s hard to make policy and pass marks out of something that should be loved for its own sake or not at all.



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