Shakespeare Smiles When I Turn Him in the Light: My Part in his Fall and Rise

Shakespeare smiles when I turn him in the light. Briefly we look at one another, and I turn him back, his face returning to its familiar, sombre mask. Then I pass him, a hologram in the corner of my debit card, to the cashier.

I’ve always had a problem with Shakespeare. At school, we trundled through Macbeth, which I enjoyed enough despite being a little freaked out by the Instagram-filtered, BBC/RSC adaptation. At college, we studied The Tempest, and again I was more than a little disconcerted by the green-hued Ariel, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Roman Polanski in Dance of the Vampires (and Terry Jones’ reluctant heir in Monty Python & the Holy Grail).

I even studied a Shakespeare module at university, but was distracted by the professor, who clearly modelled himself on the bard – a little pointy beard, slight mullet. The only thing missing was the ruff.

Of course, all this says more about my philistinism and attention-deficiency than it does about either my teachers or Shakespeare himself. I read some of his plays, went to see some of them, stroked my chin (sans beard), and left it at that.

Then I became a teacher. Starting in primary, I came across Shakespeare in schemes of work only fleetingly and rarely chose to include him explicitly in any planning of my own. However, when I moved to teach abroad (in Prague), I began to teach years 7, then 8, and further up the school. As I got closer to GCSE, it became clearer that I would need to properly get to grips with the Bard.

I taught Merchant of Venice, from extracts included in an International English textbook (for second language learners, studying in English as a first language). I taught Macbeth in its entirety; an experience that I actually enjoyed, but not to the extent that I felt authentic.

And that really was the heart of my problem: I came to Shakespeare the phenomenon, the biggest ball in the canon; a genius whom I felt I first had to accept as such before being ‘let in’. Whenever, I looked through the GCSE syllabus for the next cohort, I would instinctively look for ways to avoid Shakespeare.

Very conscious of having a gaping hole in my subject knowledge in not fully appreciating Shakespeare, I read Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare on Toast, from which I began to properly appreciate that the playwright was not only meticulous in crafting poetic lines, but also able to dramatically break conventions of form in order to generate dramatic effects. In a nutshell, he is amazing because his work is finely crafted for effect. He worked hard and knew what he was about.

Do I now love Shakespeare? Can I now quote line after eloquent line, my hand cupping an imaginary skull? The answer to the latter question is sadly no. But the former question?

When presenting Shakespeare to a class for the first time, the very worst thing you can do (in my opinion) is to proclaim his genius; laying the ground with some grandiose speech about how your charges are about to meet ‘the originator’. I did this once, and my students looked at me as I must have looked at my old, Shakespearean professor, faces caught between disbelief and a ripening smirk.

I think we choose Shakespeare, as an essential example of our literary heritage, because he wrote a lot, very well, and has been successful in generating audience responses for a very long time. Now that’s a very plebeian summary of the man, but what can I do? But he needs to earn his keep; his status does not remain a given.

As such, it is essential that teachers fully appreciate why he has such a central place in our culture. It is not because he is who he is, or because he’s on the syllabus, or because someone posh and powerful likes him, and thinks we should too; it is because he plays with words, rhyme, rhythm, characters, plotlines, a host of devices with such astonishing results that it bears repeating.

I think that my troubles with Shakespeare are bound up with my inattentiveness and a justifiable inferiority complex. But I’m also convinced that, at some point, I met him first on a pedestal, statuesque with blank eyes staring over my shoulder. His presupposed genius, as presented in media and via well-intentioned but over-reverential teachers, set him too far from me.

It is not for us to ‘love’ Shakespeare as Winston Smith comes to love Big Brother: not an acceptance of his superiority that is degrading to us and alienates our students. For him to remain central to our transmission of cultural values, he needs to be presented as more peripheral. He should be incidental in our classrooms, and thereby become essential. Ultimately, the student should determine the value of Shakespeare. If we believe he’s as good as they say, and present him judiciously, then the kids’ll come round to him.

Maybe we ought to go quiet on Shakespeare for a time; stop abstracting him as a poster boy for ‘Brand: Literary Genius’. Then, slowly, let the stories return.

Set the stories before me, show me a character or two, taking things nice and easy; perhaps lay a couple of scenes on me, no strings. Sprinkle him amongst some other writers so as I don’t notice.

Perhaps then, catching him in a certain light, he’ll smile at me again.

And I’ll smile back.

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