Two Shakespeares – to be all or not to be all

Quill feather

by Jill Carter

The new KS3 curriculum – why two Shakespeare plays? I love Shakespeare. My colleagues mostly love Shakespeare. My family can’t stand him. Most of the students I have ever taught couldn’t stand him – at first. A lot of people pretend to think he is the bees’ knees (probably a phrase he invented) but don’t actually understand a word of it. The difference is that my colleagues and I have studied him and have grown to love his work. However, even as a lover of Shakespeare, I question the amount of time given over to his work when there are so many other amazing writers out there too.

Why is it the English curriculum which groans under his weight? Why not drama? It stems in part from the misconception by policy makers that Shakespeare should be read. No, his plays should be seen and heard, not read. And how well-read are these policy makers? Do they prescribe Shakespeare because he’s one of the only writers they have heard of? Or because he is the only one to have written prolifically in the sixteenth century? Yes, supposedly he is the greatest English writer at that time but how many others were there? The population was a lot smaller and, if you had to use a quill, you probably stuck to a few sonnets.

How can we continue to say that two Shakespeare plays must be studied but not two Duffy poems or two David Almond novels? Why aren’t two Defoes insisted upon – let’s hope those authors of the NC aren’t following this – he more or less invented the novel. Why not one Shakespeare in KS3 and a Marlowe? I think Y9 would love Dr Faustus – all that selling your soul to the devil would be so appealing. Just imagine writing Doctor Faustus’ tweets as he realises his impending doom.

The other day, a relatively newly qualified teacher called round for a cuppa and informed me that she has been asked to write a scheme of work on Twelfth Night. Looking slightly embarrassed, she declared, “I don’t know Twelfth Night.” I felt so sorry for her – why would she know it? If the schools you have worked in study Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Much Ado About Nothing, you have already had quite a lot to learn as a teacher. Would you then have to time to dig out a copy of Twelfth Night, read it and organise a trip to The Globe to see a funky new production of it, returning home on fire to teach that play as well? It’s unlikely.

Some departments insist on reading the whole play. Why? When do we ever read plays? I am an avid reader but very rarely do I announce that I am settling down to read “this great play I’m halfway through”. I reiterate: plays are supposed to be watched. In the likely event that your local theatre is not staging “Twelfth Night” or you cannot face spending fourteen voluntary hours arranging a trip, the next best thing is a film version. Unlike novels, which should never be watched before they’ve been read, plays should be watched first – all the way through. I have often spoken to students who are struggling with one of the Bard’s plays only to find that they haven’t seen it before they started unpicking the language and reading chunks of it aloud. (There we go again with the reading.) I recently showed a friend’s son who was struggling with his homework the scene from Twelfth Night where Malvolio believes that Olivia has fallen in love with him. As we watched a production of it with all its movement and intonation, the meaning and the humour and the fabulous use of language fell into the place and the boy laughed out loud. He passed his test on Twelfth Night with flying colours. So, if we have to do two Shakespeare plays, let’s at least make them accessible and enjoyable. Let’s use all those rich resources out there and talk about the drama, the performance, the relevance of these plays. Let’s link Avatar and The Tempest (thanks to Ignite English 1 for that lesson), Feste and Russell Brand.

I’d still rather be told to do “some Shakespeare” at KS3 and give adequate time to other deserving authors. I still don’t think we should make Shakespeare the be all and end all.

Jill is a teacher, former leader of English and author, with over 20 years of teaching experience. She currently works in a secondary school in Kent. You can find more free support on our Shakespeare hub