From September 2014, the new National Curriculum will require a greater depth of study of Shakespearean texts. The Telegraph reports:

All pupils will be required to learn at least two of the Bard’s plays in full between the age of 11 and 14 – up from one at the moment – as part of a wide-ranging plan to drive up education standards. The move follows criticism of the existing curriculum amid claims pupils can leave school without studying anything more than bite-sized extracts of Shakespeare’s most famous plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Romeo and Juliet.

I believe that an introduction to Shakespeare should start early in education, provided it is done in the right way. It is evident that most people have their first encounter at secondary school, when they may already have developed some misconceptions about the work. I am not suggesting that primary school pupils should all be turning their books to Act III, Scene I of Hamlet and analyse the meaning of the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. However, there are numerous books which can introduce the stories in an age-appropriate way, so that when it comes to reading the texts at secondary school, they know the plot, ultimately making the language easier to decipher.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is introducing an initiative this year to encourage active involvement with Shakespeare. ‘Shakespeare Week’ will take place 17th– 23rd March and is aimed at 7-11 year olds and their families. I believe this will be a great way to promote an active interest in the life and work of Shakespeare.

 William Shakespeare is the world’s most famous playwright, a household name whose works have been translated into over 80 languages. Shakespeare is a named author on the curriculum in 65% of countries, studied by around half of the world’s schoolchildren (at least 64 million) every year. He has recently been hailed as Britain’s greatest cultural export, and the foremost reason why people are proud to be British. Yet most British children encounter Shakespeare in their teens as a dry subject studied only for exams; many grow up to regard Shakespeare as difficult, and not for them, and in turn are very unlikely to introduce their own youngsters to Shakespeare’s creative influence.

Many young people and adults alike consider Shakespeare to be boring, out-dated and too difficult.  On the flipside of this, Tracy Irish, of the RSC Education Department, identifies that “Many adults with a professed love of Shakespeare can recall a teacher or an experience that brought the plays to life for them in an active way.

Our introduction to Shakespeare is a fundamental factor in our experience and enjoyment of his works and the way it is taught is the key element in this. The plays were made to be watched, not read; seeing a version in performance is an absolute must to gain a solid understanding of the text. If there are no theatre productions of the text you are teaching, then a film version is the next best thing. A firm favourite of course is the Baz Luhrman version of Romeo & Juliet:

Baz Luhrmann was hugely successful in targeting today’s youth and he is passionate about reaching out to contemporary teenage cultures and all abilities. He went into schools himself to promote Shakespeare and 12,000 study guides were sent out to UK schools to support the film.

RSC, 2008

Reading Acts and Scenes multiple times is necessary for the pupils to gain a greater understanding of the play. An effective method for this would be to set homework such as reading a specific Act and or Scene and making detailed notes to discuss with the rest of the group, who could then work in small groups to write a summary of each scene, before rereading the scene aloud in the lesson.

The ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ feature on Sparknotes provides a line by line ‘translation’ into modern English, which is a fantastic resource provided it is used as an aid to study and not seen as a substitute for reading the plays. Make suggestions to your pupils about films and books that they can look at in their own time that would assist their understanding of the issues and themes of your chosen text. Films that are based on Shakespeare plays such as 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s The Man or graphic novel editions of the plays such as the Manga editions may present the stories in a way some pupils may benefit from.

We would love to know what methods you currently use to teach Shakespearean texts, so please share your experiences below!

Featured image courtesy of Lincolnian.