Will the English
Australian, 3 April 1993.

“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 what purpose?

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.

Stratford-upon-Avon is 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 national estate.

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 written test.

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 language..

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 that difference.

Today’s debauched 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 extra.

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.

Spelling   his own name  and cunt and no consistency .