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News Ed: Bard language

Stuart Middleton


4 May 2010

Recent news is of a teacher sacked for teaching students King Lear. It transpires that the allegations of improper behaviour hinge on her using a “modern” version of the play. It is one of the schools that are established to pursue a particular set of values and behaviours as is their right. And it is unclear whether Shakespeare in the original can be taught,

That aside. Are we to conclude that the teaching of Shakespeare is acceptable when student don’t understand it? That shouldn’t be hard, students have for years struggled with The Bard and it is only the rather glib contact with his language that has obscured the adult content of these plays taught to young ones.

My Mum would have taken the view that if they understood it then no harm would be done and if they didn’t? Then no harm would be done. But offense in the eyes and ears of the beholder so there is little point in thinking that your own values will prevail. If a school doesn’t want translated Elizabethan smut then so be it.

I remember as a young teacher using the musical Hair to engage an English class and they were engaged – especially with a sung version of the Shakespearian soliloquy “What a piece of work is man….” which really showed wonderfully well the rhythms of a soliloquy seemingly written in prose. The principal became aware of it and asked what the lessons were aimed at. I think I satisfied him and he settled for giving me the advice “Be careful, we don’t want to encourage that sort of stuff.” I think he meant other parts of the show rather than the Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet could never have become the teen favourite it has if the grownups had understood the language but perhaps that is a good thing. The emotion, the general drifts of the plot and the power of the theme were always great to teach. And to support it with Tchaikovsky’s wonderful Romeo and Juliet – a stirring piece which he labelled an Overture – Fantasy.

Shakespeare is not the real world. Nor some of the responses to his language in whatever form.

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