Investigating the RSC’s newly-launched Shakespeare Learning Zone, and I’m transported back to the days of using absolutely any website I can find in order to avoid actually having to read Romeo and Juliet. It’s the classic formula of our beloved SparkNotes and GradeSaver: a couple of clicks in and I’ve blitzed through an analysis of ‘celestial imagery’ and ‘the theme of fate’ without having to read a page of the play – my hypothetical year nine homework is complete within minutes. I’m sure that the RSC’s intentions for this site were only good, but this type of make-Shakespeare-accessible rhetoric is getting a little tired. Perhaps this is testimony to the fact that Shakespeare is not an appropriate author to be teaching below A-Level?
Obviously, I am not about to deny the relevancy of our country’s most famous playwright. As the Shakespeare Learning Zone rightly points out, his capability to write about about complex, societally-ingrained issues that are still relevant now is truly astonishing, and no matter how many times I have to learn about gender-bending in Twelfth Night I’ll never get over the fact the play was written over 400 years ago.
But in spite of the striking relevance of Shakespeare’s themes, I fail to remember a year seven to nine English lesson where I successfully unpicked what the play was saying without the help of the Internet. No matter how interesting the plotlines and themes are, Shakespeare’s infamously complex writing style leaves these ideas buried beneath a challenging barrier of Early Modern English, which is enough to put children off the writer instantly. I even remember using one website that translated every line of the play into understandable language. If we have to do so much manipulating and condensing to make Shakespeare’s plays conceivable, is this literature really age-appropriate?
It’s also pretty ironic that our country’s supposed best writer is the man responsible for making a lot of children dislike English lessons. The current Key Stage Three curriculum requires that children read at least two Shakespeare plays, yet they should also be taught to ‘develop an appreciation and love for reading’. I can think of very few eleven year olds who genuinely love to sit and read raw, unmodified literature from the 1600s. The requirement to read Shakespeare ‘fluently’ only comes at GCSE level, which is incredibly telling. It seems that the current school curriculum is okay with children only having a semi-understanding of a text if that text is by the especial Mr Shakespeare; it is more important to read our English hero than it is to read fluently.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Crucible are the texts children actually remember from school; these works can be enjoyed without the need for decoding and summarising by platforms like the Shakespeare Learning Zone. Below A-Level, children have no say in whether or not they study English, and disciplining them with an ancient playwright that many English Literature undergraduates continue to despise is no way to encourage young people that reading can genuinely be pleasurable. I have learnt to love Shakespeare, but this is a process that takes time and really isn’t for everyone. Let’s look forward to welcoming new writers to the school curriculum, and saving this challenging author for students old enough to make their own say on what they study.