The trouble with Shakespeare, or Should everything be made simple?


I’m regularly inundated by unsolicited emails from folk hoping I’ll endorse their products. Recently, I received one asking me if I’d be interested in writing about a collaboration between the software firm Adobe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Apparently this is the result:

Adobe and the RSC have worked with five UK artists and photographers to reimagine iconic Shakespeare scenes to provide inspiration for young people and their teachers. Using illustration, comic book artistry and photography, the artists have recreated pivotal scenes from Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet.

I don’t have any particular interest in this and normally I’d quietly pop this sort of email in the bin without a further thought. But the teaser to interest me these iconic reimaginings informed me that according to some ‘research’ conducted by Adobe, the decline in numbers of students studying A level English literature is due to the fact that the “77% of 11-18-year olds who struggle to understand Shakespeare’s plays say it is because of the challenging language.” Frankly, this amazes me. When I was at school I too struggled to understand the language of Shakespeare and I’d have thought the percentage of those struggling to understand Shakespeare citing the language of plays would have been closer to 100%!

So, I’m not at all disturbed to discover that students struggle with reading something written over 400 years ago. Why would we expect this to be otherwise? Part of the art of English teaching has always been to make the unfamiliar accessible; to draw links between students’ lives and those of people in distant times and places and breathe life into what would otherwise we cold and dead.

But Adobe have discovered that “just under a third (29%) of school and college age people stated a modern day interpretation of the plays would help them understand Shakespeare better”.  Well, OK, I can see why they might think this but really, can reading or watching a version of Shakespeare’s plays that strips out all the unfamiliarity and complexity actually help anyone understand it better? At best, all it might lead to is a very superficial acquaintance with character and plot. Maybe this is all they need to pass an exam, but, if so, there’s something rotten with the state of education.

I’ve been reading, studying and teaching Shakespeare for decades and I’m still coming to understand his plays. The more I learn, the more I realise there is to learn. For instance, as a result of reading Christopher Booker’s, The Seven Basic Plots, I was able to see that the key to understanding Romeo and Juliet (a play I first read in 1984!) was to accept that it’s a comedy, not a tragedy. When the play is read (or taught) as a tragedy it’s deeply unsatisfying; the actions of the characters do not justify their fates, and there’s this weird, seemingly tacked on, resolution at the end. But to see that, at least structurally, it’s a comedy is for the inconsistencies to become consistent. Admittedly, it’s not often very funny – especially at the end – but this is to misunderstand comedy.

The defining feature of comedy is not that it’s amusing, but that it neatly resolves an imbalance between chaos and disorder. For a comedy to work there must be some factor that is causing social disorder and forcing the characters into conflict. In Romeo and Juliet this is the “ancient grudge” between Montagues and Capulets. The role of the “star-crossed lovers” is not to fall in love and live happily ever after as would be the case in a piece of modern fluff but to “bury their parents’ strife”. In this they are successful. Capulet and Montague take each other’s hands and praise the virtues of each other’s children, acknowledging them as “Poor sacrifices of our enmity.” Prince Escalus wraps up the play in sombre mood saying simply, “go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.” Sure the play’s a sad one (as Escalus himself says, “never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”) but it ends with hope for a better future where, despite the spilling of civil blood, civil hands might, one day, be clean. This is not a modern story of ‘rugged individualism’ where the young lovers cast off their parents’ outdated social mores to ride off happily into the sunset, but is instead a tale of its time in which few must be sacrificed for the needs of the many, where society trumps family and family trumps individual. From a modern perspective, we tend to see the play as tragic because of our myopic focus on the wasted lives of the young instead of stepping back to see what really matters.

Or, take Hamlet. I’ve struggled to get my head around the indecisive Dane. Sure he’s Shakespeare’s most complete, psychologically complex character; yes, he has some killer lines and a stunningly fleshed out interior life, but why the hell does he spend so long dithering about whether to kill Claudius? If it’s so great a play, why does so much of it seem messy and poorly formed? When studying Shakespeare our rule of thumb should be that anything we don’t understand or appreciate should be seem as a fault in us, not the Bard. It wasn’t until I read John Dover Wilson’s masterful (and woefully overlooked) treatise, What Happens in Hamlet? that all these frustrations resolved themselves. Published in 1936, this little book goes back to the original texts, pours over every word in fanatical detail and brings to bear a vast erudition to illuminate the play, making it better than we knew it to be. He explains Elizabethan concerns about religion and superstition and suddenly Hamlet’s doubt of the ghost’s provenance makes more sense; he shows how the play within the play is perfectly, exquisitely, structured; he shows Ophelia’s collusion in Polonius’s plans to entrap Hamlet and how this backfires and suddenly Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia and her father slot into place. And all this is before we try to appreciate the majesty of Shakespeare poetry. The point is, Hamlet is very complex. It takes work to understand it. Yes, you can watch Mel Gibson hamming it up and get a basic overlay of what it’s all about but it will never be fulfilling and you will never really know what the play has to offer. If a thing’s worth while it’ll take work. And, perhaps, “All things are ready, if our minds be so.”

Depressingly, Adobe’s research apparently found “42% of 11-18-year-olds don’t understand how studying Shakespeare will help them get a job in the future.” What a forlorn world we live in if truth and beauty be reduced to employability. Why should students study Shakespeare? Because it makes them better human beings. Why should we struggle with the unfamiliar and the difficult? Our minds become larger, richer places in which to spend the rest of our lives.

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