Shakespeare and Education
For a long time, Shakespeare’s plays have taken a starring role in our education system, perhaps rightly so, but for many their tussle with the bard is remembered as one of the most boring or terrifying of their school career. There is a movement in education today that aims to change this sorry state of affairs and to make children’s schoolroom experiences of Shakespeare exciting, fun, and memorable for all the right reasons. Dr Paul Prescott is an academic associate on the Teaching Shakespeare project, which is a joint enterprise between the RSC and Warwick University that provides teachers with the tools to make their own teaching of Shakespeare interactive and dynamic. I recently interviewed Dr Prescott for Figure/Ground (the article is co-authored by Alexandra Campbell) and during the session, he cited his school experiences as one of the chief inspirations for his career. Hearing him speak like this really struck a chord with me, as I too had a brilliant experience of Shakespeare at school, in the classroom, in school plays, and on the theatre trips organised by my teachers. I hope that the Teaching Shakespeare, and similar qualifications will mean that future students have an equally rich experience.
When Shakespeare writes of school, he certainly does not make it sound exciting or fun. In the seven ages of man Jaques describes “the whining schoolboy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like a snail / Unwilling to school” (As You Like It, Act II Scene VII). Despite this, it looks as if the education Shakespeare received at the Stratford-Upon-Avon grammar school was impressive in its extent. In his book, The Soul of the Age, Jonathan Bate outlines the education a boy like Shakespeare would have received at his grammar school. The sheer scale of this Classical education is impressive for the short space of time in which it took place. Undoubtedly the curriculum was less varied for the boys of the early modern grammar school than it is today, but importantly they were also taught Latin in the target language.
The University of Warwick is also conducting a project to produce an edition of the complete works of James Shirley (1596-1666) including the Latin Grammar text books. As part of this project I have been transcribing one of these grammar books, which is entirely in Latin. I’m sure, that in the time it has taken to transcribe, I have learnt more Latin than I managed to in the whole of my time at school and university. Why? Because I am totally immersed in the language. In the same way, the schoolboys of Shakespeare’s age would have been saturated with the language, and I am sure that this was how they were able to learn so much.
So, in the great debate about to what extent Modern Foreign Languages ought to be taught in the target language, I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare would have been on the side of the total immersion argument. Although, considering the “creeping like a snail” comment, I think we can also surmise that he would have greatly appreciated a touch of the interactive approach to which Dr Prescott and company subscribe.
Bate, Jonathan. The Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare. pp. 79-160. London: Penguin Books, 2009.