LITERATURE - WILL THE ENGLISH
“I want William
Shakespeare in our classroom, not Ronald McDonald.” So spake
Britain’s Secretary of State for Education to the Conservative Party
conference in 1992. And so say we all. But whose Shakespeare? And to
In recent years,
Shakespeare has come in for a lot of abuse as a reactionary, racist,
sexist pig. In addition, the academic Shakespeare industry has done its
worst to make him into an emblem of all that is costive in what passes
for life in England.
a religious shrine which mixes cobblestones with carparks. The local
paper has just printed a cartoon showing the town’s Disneyfication
with the “Romeo-and-Juliet Tunnel of Love” and “Hamlet’s House
of Horrors”. That is the price of the “privatisation” of the
Kenneth Branagh once
derided the Royal Shakespeare Company7 as the Shakespeare Preservation
Society. Now he is starring in the RSC’s Hamlet at Stratford and being
hailed as the Hamlet of our age. If so, then the condition of England is
worse than anyone supposes. The Branagh production is devoid of
interpretation of character or plot. Branagh speaks clearly and
expresses emotion by raising his voice. Here is the Bard for today’s
Tories – mindless and raucous.
Whenever I have
mentioned that I was off to see a Shakespeare play, at least
one-middle-class Briton has responded: “I was taught to hate
Shakespeare at school.” Given the vandalism wrecked by Thatcherites
upon British society, we might be forgiven for assuming that a universal
detestation of poetic drama is the Tory objective.
Let us give them the
benefit of the doubt and suppose that the minister does want English
students to study Shakespeare. How is that end to be achieved? The
answer cannot be detached from the widespread reaction against his works
found among otherwise educated and cultured adults.
Like most Australians,
I studied Shakespeare during the last four years of high school. We were
taught to translate Julius Caesar
as if the play were another French of Latin text, or an exercise in
algebra. Never once were we permitted to perform a single line.
That regime did not
kill my curiosity because I had had the antidote of seeing Robert
Helpmann and Katharine Hepburn in The
Merchant of Venice and The
Taming of the Shrew. To this day – 35 years later – I can still
see Helpmann’s mocking bow as Shylock and hear Hepburn’s off-stage
screams. The result was that, despite a woeful schooling, I have always
associated Shakespeare with the prospect of excitement and enjoyment.
The key to approaching
Shakespeare’s works, in or out of the classroom is to remember that
they were written for the stage. They were not conceived as raw
materials for examinations of learned articles. The play’s the thing
in which we find the genius of the Bard. That premise informs Germaine
Greer’s short book on Shakespeare, a volume which not only feminists
should read to appreciate how much wisdom and pleasure can be gained
from the plays.
It follows as night day
that Shakespeare’s place in the curriculum must be as a theatrical
experience for students and teachers. Coping with difficulties in the
text will become exciting for students once they try to present the
puzzling line on stage. They will memorise passages many times more
readily if they have to perform them than by transcribing them for
Such staging needs no
costumes or lighting, though an audience of at least one is to be
preferred. All that is essential is a text and a psace. Yet that minimum
is often more than is available. Either classrooms are too small, they
furnishings are set in palce, or the partitions to the next class are
too thin to allow for impromptu performances.
These bare essentials
are being forgotten by professional productions. On the ngiht two weeks
back when I went to the Birmingham rep to hear Othello, the performance
was cancelled because the stage lighting system had failed. The
audience, being English, appaulded this disappointment and queued to get
their money back. When I reached the box office I wanted to know why the
cast had not formed a line across the \front of the stage and spoken the
words. The words and ideas are what we had come for – not for
chiaroscuro or fake flashes of lightning, but for the power of the
The revival of Tory
demands for Will the English is one more part of the campaign to put
more al fibre back into a national heritage which they have despoiled.
The teaching of Shakespeare is supposed to expound right and wrong. The
problem is that Shakespeare’s surviving texts are not very strict on
Tories know so little about morality and literature that they assume
that the Shakespeare canon is a sure guide on how to behave as a
fox-hunting philosopher. Some 60 years back, a High Tory, T. S. Eliot,
compared Shakespeare unfavorably with Dante, whose writings expressed a
firm and fixed moral universe. By contrast you never know where you are
with Shakespeare. Whose side is he on? From play to play, he presents
equally powerful arguments for opposed points of view.
Within each play, the
conviction of each case shifts back and forth. Shylock gives as good as
he gets in words. His condemnation of Christian slavery is as
devastating as any attack on his usury. Yes, Shakespeare shared the
anti-Semitic prejudices of his times but as a playwright he would not
rest content with reproducing the commonsense of his contemporaries.
Drama demanded more, and on his good days, Shakespeare provided that
Nor is Shakespeare the
kind of writer that the hypocritical minority would want their children
to know about. Last century, the texts had to be expurgated to make them
wholesome. Indeed, the leading practitioner of this surgery, Dr T.
Bowdler, bequeathed his name to the language as a synonym for censorship
– to bowdlerize. Schools editions of Macbeth delete the porter’s
discussion of brewer’s droop.
From a Tory standpoint,
Shakespeare is ideologically unsound. Taken all in all, his works are
those of a philosophical anarchist. Every position is advanced with
equal logical and fervour. In short, he was a master of dialectics, and
it was that ability to present all sides of every case which makes his
plays so engrossing to perform and to attend.
If the Tories learned
to read Shakespeare as avidly as balance sheets, they might do him the
greatest service possible and ban his plays for the subversive outlook
embodied in their ethical ambiguity.
his own name and cunt and no consistency