Standing up for Shakespeare

I am doing a lot of teaching, these days. I started tutoring when I was still at school; over the years, I’ve clocked up more EFL and 11+ hours than anything else, with GCSE English just losing the Bronze medal to UCAS forms. Recently, my GCSE tutoring has involved a lot of face time with that bloody godforsaken poetry anthology – I hated that anthology. I hated the poems, I hated the poets, I hated being taken to Leicester for a GCSE Poetry Day that made me decide that Poets Were Smug, and that just writing something good didn’t automatically enable you to read it in a way that was worthwhile. It took me years to revise the first opinion (I have, thankfully – hello friends whom I love who are poets), and I never revised the second – plenty of poets perform brilliantly, but while I can imagine that a GCSE Poetry Day is probably either a nightmare or a ego-bath for the poets concerned, I don’t want to be reincarnated as a Year 10. 

So, it’s great to be out of the Poetry Anthology groove for a bit (although poetry’s actually one of the things I find easiest to teach and it’s incredibly easy to boost kids’ performance and oh god now they’ll change the sodding selection from endless Armitage and Alvi and  surprise attacks of Elizabeth I), and back to tutoring something else. Shakespeare.

Now, I have done a lot of Shakespeare essay tutoring recently. Proofing, prepping, explaining the difference between prose and verse, encouraging my lovely girl to express the ideas she already had, and emphasizing that ‘topping herself’ is not an appropriately academic description for suicide. Focussing specifically on your students’ essays is v good for the year-out-tutor’s brain, forcing you to explain the critical mechanisms that become fuzzily automatic at a later level of study. GCSE is a particularly fun stage to tutor – again, it’s really not hard to dramatically boost a student’s performance at this level, particularly when (boom boom tish) you’re tutoring one-on-one. GCSE is the first time students write real essays, and the precepts I was given (for ‘given’ read ‘battered almost to death with’) before my BA Finals apply just as much here: answer the question you’ve actually been asked (not last week’s Banquo essay you did so well on); support every single point you make with evidence; don’t info-dump out of blind panic or laziness, and turn on spellcheck. But it’s been a while since I taught Shakespeare, one-on-one.

I have taught Shakespeare to groups. I have directed Shakespeare. I have some KS3 workshop experiences under my belt that drench me in cold sweat when I remember them; equally, an East Oxford audience of 11-year-olds were the best thing that ever happened to my production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have clattered buckets, waved my arms and toed, with enthusiasm, the company line that Shakespeare must be taught young, must be taught well, and must be taught on your feet. The RSC told me to Stand Up For Shakespeare; the CAPITAL Centre at Warwick believe Shakespeare’s too important to be left to non-practitioners. My primary academic interests in Shakespeare are in the writings and experience of those who’ve performed his works. Performance, we believe, is to key to studying Shakespeare – whether or not we encounter performance as witnesses or participants. In Shakespeare’s Birthplace, a new and exciting component of the tour is the team of actors who perform upstairs. This creates a nice effect, sure (climbing the narrow, creaking staircase and realising you can hear Shakespeare’s words floating down to you), but it works. Bringing schoolkids to Stratford and to Stratford’s theatres is difficult if you can’t make a matinee; evening performances can be a logistical nightmare if – for whatever reason – your school trip must be confined to the school day. This gives kids the chance to be part of a group audience in a private production: Shakespeare done fast, funnily and just for them. 

Not surprising, then, that I am far more comfortable bringing young people to Shakespeare through the medium of performance than I am through an approach that’s entirely academic. When you’re working one-to-one, incorporating performance is much more difficult – particularly if the pupil isn’t dramatically inclined, and hasn’t yet seen a production.

Of course, this gets easier. New students always give me slight stage fright, and it’s so much easier to start tutoring when you have something, anything that your pupil has written, resting on the table between you. My box of teaching tricks suddenly feels like a bit of a chimera; I envisage all the things I know have worked before, and then remember I used them on actors. I have other techniques, sure, from way back, but I’m uncertain how far a director’s approach can also be that of a tutor’s (and I’d welcome anybody’s views). Essay-writing and question-answering; fine, I can and do teach those across the board. But because Shakespeare is ubiquitously taught, because Shakespeare is often badly-taught, and because Shakespeare is often kids’ only exposure to drama within the core of the National Curriculum, there’s greater pressure to teach it well. And, inevitably, because of growing up in Shakespearetown in Shakespeare’s county in Shakespeare’s country, with parents at the RSC and having been there myself, I’ve ended up with ideological imperatives to teach it better. After all, if I’m good/lucky, my academic life will be centred around the dichotomy of teaching and performing Shakespeare. Probably good if I start resolving that dichotomy soon…

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