The night I went to see a one-man performance of Macbeth was a long one. For two-and-a-half hours I watched a man, dressed all in black, sit in a pile of sand and talk to himself, sometimes in French. He didn’t even mime the sword fights. I was thoroughly unimpressed as a nine-year-old and looking back on it ten years later I remain thoroughly unimpressed.
In an age of modern values it is hard for your average student to relate to Shakespeare. Whether it’s the forced marriage and psychological torture of Katherina to make her obedient in The Taming of the Shrew, the racism of Othello or even the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet — a 13-year-old girl marrying the day after they met at a party. I can’t imagine that relationship was going to stand the test of time.
It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil and 16th century Elizabethan England was not the most progressive of societies. The transatlantic slave trade, described by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as “one of the greatest atrocities in history”, had been going on for a hundred years and was soon to take off on a huge scale, Protestants and Catholics were massacring each other across Europe and it is hard to forget Henry VIII’s line in the BBC drama Wolf Hall upon learning his wife had given birth to a daughter, instead of a hoped-for son: “Call her Elizabeth. Cancel the joust.”
This raises the question of whether Shakespearean literature is what we should be exposing impressionable students to in an age of university safe spaces and ‘trigger warnings’ on outdated literature. Also, is it something that students can still find engaging?
Arguably, yes. One of Shakespeare’s great strengths that makes him so timeless is the adaptability of his works. These last 400 years, performers have been performing Shakespeare in different ways, whether it’s portraying The Merchant of Venice in a casino setting or doing one-man performances of Macbeth (only for the diehard fan, really), the key is to keep it engaging to a modern audience.
A great failing that I experienced in the English GCSE schooling system was that 14-year-old students studying Shakespeare would often find themselves just sitting in a classroom taking turns reading aloud a book of inaccessible, dry, old English. Shakespeare wrote his works to be performed, not read out in a monotonous voice by unenthused teenagers. Instead of zealously imitating 400-year-old theatre practice and dismissing critics as unintellectual, teachers and theatre companies alike should constantly be looking to sell Shakespeare to their modern audience as Shakespeare tried to sell his work to Elizabethan audiences.
Take Hamlet: A prince of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father who tells him his uncle poisoned him and stole Hamlet’s throne. Hamlet then mopes about for another 4,000 lines, feigns insanity, accidentally murders his prime minister, somehow gets himself kidnapped by pirates, drives his girlfriend insane to the point of suicide and then manages to get just about everyone in the play, including himself, killed and his country occupied by Norway. Thoroughly uninspiring and completely divorced from any real-life situations. But the fundamentally brilliant essence of this story, of familial betrayal, when adapted, can recapture the drama that the progression of time and society has eroded in the original text. Just look at the bizarre 1987 Finnish film Hamlet Goes Business that sees Hamlet’s uncle take over his father’s company and begin investing in the rubber duck market or even Disney’s wildly popular The Lion King.
Values can also be updated. See the teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming of the Shrew, which portrays Katherina as an independent, opinionated woman that Patrick (Petruchio) comes to appreciate for who she is rather than, as Shakespeare wrote, who she was manipulated to become.
The AQA GCSE syllabus requires students to read modern, 19th century and Shakespearean literature so there isn’t a problem with a lack of diversity. Where school lessons are failing, however, is in getting Shakespeare across to students in a way that makes them actually want to read his work. He was an undeniably brilliant writer, but what is perhaps more brilliant is the adaptation and reinterpretation of his plays to make them engaging to our society and our students. The challenge is to reach a new generation that can’t see the merits of sitting in a dusty classroom, wishing they were anywhere else, reading about Hermione in A Winter’s Tale, who’s been pretending to be a statue for the last 16 years to get back at her husband.
Felix Vardag-Hunter will be studying History at University College London from September.