Shakespeare and British values at the NATE conference this weekend

Francis Gilbert's picture
I'm holding a workshop on "Making Shakespeare Fun and Accessible" at the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) conference on Friday this week in Bristol. The conference looks great with Matthew Burton from the Educating Yorkshire, the author and Guardian columnist Michael Rosen, and a host of eminent teachers and academics speaking. NATE has always been interested in the teaching of Shakespeare and has helped fund a number of innovative projects designed to improve the teaching of the Bard.

I've been thinking Shakespeare a great deal because I've just published the second edition of Star-crossed: Romeo and Juliet for Teenagers and I'm currently working on a study guide edition of the play as well as assisting with the workshop, which is also run by two other teachers. Star-crossed is a modernised version of the play which has drawn controversy because I've used some "bad" language and slang phrases in it, with some people feeling that it's not Shakespeare at all, while others, particularly young people, enjoying it because it is entertaining. It's gone down well with my pupils and helped produce some good work. It's a good starting point for the play. The translation I've done is quite "loose" at times but now that I've published the second edition, people will be able to see Shakespeare's verse above my own translation, and make more of a judgement for themselves as to whether I've been accurate.

The academic Robert Eaglestone in Doing English highlights two major approaches to Shakespeare: the traditionalist approach and the "New Historicist" approach. For Eaglestone, the traditionalists see Shakespeare as a distant star, shining brightly upon us; lofty and unattainable. These critics have three reasons why we might want to study Shakespeare: the beauty of his poetry, the values he teaches us, and the universal appeal of his works. These critics would hate my approach to Shakespeare in Star-crossed because I've tried to make his work more approachable for twenty-first century students: in their eyes, I've "debased" and corrupted his poetry. For them, he shouldn't be translated but needs to be read and observed like a brilliant star. For them, he teaches us "British values": of true love, fair play, of the need for order etc. You could read many of his plays in this way. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, you could argue that Friar Lawrence is the moral compass of the play; Lawrence consistently argues for a calm approach to life which avoids extreme emotions and passions. And yet, the brilliance of Shakespeare is that you could argue exactly the opposite. New Historicist and post-structuralist critics consistently show that many of Shakespeare's texts expose the contradictions and fractures in well-worn concepts such love, family and rationality. Indeed you could argue that because Friar Lawrence plays a large part in the lovers' downfall, he is actually presented as a warning against what we might call "British values": his values are presented as woefully inadequate while the lovers' attachment to extreme, violent emotions are presented as much more attractive, if suicidal. Furthermore, the very fact that he is a Friar, which were banned in Elizabethan England, adds an extra irony to this point. So yes, in some ways, Shakespeare can be used to promote British values, but he can also be used to seriously question them. I'm looking forward to discussing these points and more at the NATE conference.
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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 24/06/2014 - 12:49

The key point about Shakespeare is he wrote his plays to be performed and enjoyed. As well as the poetry, he used the vernacular of the day. Sometimes his characters slip between the two. This is particularly noticeable in the character of Caliban in the Tempest. His "Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises" speech (highlight of the Olympics opening ceremony) contrasts with his curses.

If moving between different modes of expression was acceptable for Shakespeare, then there’s no reason why his work shouldn’t be played with. There’s a respectable tradition in updating Shakespeare – setting the plays in a modern setting (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus) or using the plays in a different way (West Side Story, Kiss me, Kate).

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 24/06/2014 - 13:20

Shakespeare does, of course, raise questions. Romeo and Juliet isn’t just about young love across a divide but how parents often pay for their hate with the lives of their children; how hatred begets more hatred.

And it’s about reconciliation or… is the ending feasible? Would the families continue their animosity fuelled by accusations that the Capulet slut seduced Romeo, or that Romeo abused naïve, impressionable Juliet? And if Juliet had lived, would she have been forgiven? Of would she be killed for bringing shame on the family?

The Tempest, for example, raises questions about colonisation; about the limits (or excesses) of paternal love; about choosing unsuitable leaders (when Caliban gives Stephano and Trinculo his loyalty); about forgiveness; about transience ("Our revels now are ended...).

And Henry V shows how a battle-hungry leader, eager for a fight, changes into a more sober, reflective man when he's seen the suffering and loss that combat brings. But it's a price worth paying, he says, when the cause is just - it's no coincidence that Olivier's Henry V was made and released in 1944 (although I much prefer Kenneth Branagh's version of the St Crispin's day speech). It's here - enjoy!

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