What is the relevance of Shakespeare in schools today? It’s mandatory for all students in Wales and England to study his works as part of their English literature curriculum, but many regard them as irrelevant, old-fashioned, incomprehensible or elitist. Writing essays and studying for exams on Shakespeare is fundamentally important, but here at the English-Speaking Union we believe that understanding of Shakespeare can only truly be unlocked through performance and the magic of live theatre. Even Shakespeare himself was initially an actor before turning his hand to playwriting!
Shakespeare in schools
It’s no surprise that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be watched and performed rather than read in a classroom, but many students aren’t given the chance to do exactly that. Shakespeare’s writing engages with a variety of issues that remain important and relevant today, considering sex, race, class, gender, religion and sexuality. The plays provide students with a stepping-stone to begin thinking about these important topics, as well as a space to explore their own ideas. This is particularly useful for other subjects across the school curriculum, as similar themes will be raised in history, politics, PSHE and English lessons.
Our 2022 Performing Shakespeare winner was Connie, from Caterham School, who captivated the audience with a powerful rendition of a speech by Lady Macbeth. Alexandra, her English and drama teacher flagged the importance of this social understanding: ‘for someone like Connie, who is very interested in context and the portrayal of women in Shakespeare, the oracy part allowed her to voice that side and to structure her own speech to [display] that’. Meanwhile Felix, from Beechwood Park School, thoughtfully connected his piece from The Tempest with the plight of refugees in today’s world.
Our Performing Shakespeare Competition encourages students to collaborate meaningfully with one another. Over the years, competition alumni have often used their experiences to coach younger students on their own performances, developing their leadership skills and lightening the workload of teachers, as well as nurturing peer relationships throughout the school. Ibrahim, from Tiffin School, helped to coach Sam to the Grand Final and reflects that ‘[it’s] nice that we have had three members of the upper sixth [form] involved in order to help Sam out, so it was [great] to have that school community, especially after the pandemic’.
That said, the Performing Shakespeare Competition is about more than acting. Uniquely cultivated, it combines performance with public speaking, as students are invited to introduce their scene before performing it. In the space of a few minutes, participants must explain to their audience why they have chosen that particular text and character. What does it mean to them? How have they decided to interpret Shakespeare’s words? What would be valuable for us, as the audience, to know about this performance before they begin? This public speaking element builds on the ESU’s four key skill sets, all of which are fundamental to students’ oracy development. The oracy component provides room for performers to showcase their analysis and understanding of the plays, and, by sharing them with others, students learn to appreciate the expanse of each other’s ideas and creative flair. Indeed, teachers have often described this process as ‘enriching’ because young people take so much away from it. After performing live on stage to an audience made up of other students, teachers and experienced volunteer judges, students feel more equipped to engage with key curriculum texts because they feel more in touch with them. As Eve Dillon – coach of Louis from the City of London Academy, Shoreditch Park, the runner-up of Performing Shakespeare 2022 – comments, ‘[Shakespeare] is taught so much through English [that] at times kids can feel a bit detached from it – but I think that something that was really amazing for us was the fact that this is about the students’ interpretation of Shakespeare – they make it their own and make it relevant to them’. University of Exeter lecturer and Grand Final Judge 2022, Dr. Victoria Sparey, acknowledged ‘the young performers could observe tensions, choices and questions around moments in Shakespeare’s plays that can be oversimplified, and even skipped over, in a quiet read through of a scene. Performers have to engage with how each line carries meaning, which, in turn, enlivens and adds complexity to how we understand Shakespeare’.
Performing Shakespeare bestows a level of accessibility to texts that is not always offered in a classroom environment. Students with different experiences collaborate and share their understanding during the workshop sessions delivered by professional actors at regional finals and the grand final. In this way, the competition promotes inclusivity and diversity. Jenny, Head of Drama at Lincoln Minster School, is one of our returning practitioners and saw a duologue to the grand final this year. She reflects, ‘[the students] enjoy it because it’s fun but it’s also a challenge, it stretches them. And it appeals to all abilities, including SEN [Special Educational Needs] students […] I think it just takes away that idea that there’s anything scary or elitist about Shakespeare – he was writing for the people’.
Meanwhile, our community-focused initial rounds are carefully balanced alongside the prestige of the grand final, giving students a tangible goal to strive for and presenting them with the rare, unforgettable opportunity to perform at the world-famous Shakespeare’s Globe. Charlotte, English teacher from Altrincham Grammar School, tells us ‘our school is in Manchester and, from a cultural capital perspective, to get to come all the way […] to be in the heart of London in such an impressive space – it’s incredible for them. Having the opportunity to perform in such a historic building – it’s a great confidence builder’. Bringing everybody together creates a shared experience for the students to enjoy, enabling them to soak up the atmosphere and channel it into their performances – mere metres from where Shakespeare himself would have performed onstage.
Without a doubt, then, the ESU’s Performing Shakespeare Competition brings a fresh angle to these Early Modern plays, offering original perspectives and ideas that breathe new life into the curriculum. This aspect was best summarised by our chair of judges at the grand final 2022, Jacqui O’Hanlon MBE, Director of Learning and National Partnerships at the Royal Shakespeare Company: ‘as actors […], we want to come to these plays as if the ink is still wet on the page. We don’t come to them as plays that have been performed time and time again. We want to treat them as new words, newly minted. And we really saw and heard that today’.