Jasmine explores how important reading Shakespeare’s work is, as well as looking at the opportunities in schools to enjoy his plays in new and refreshing ways.

By Jasmine Edge: Literature Columnist

Understanding Shakespeare’s work can be a cumbersome task, and leaves many questioning why we read his plays; after all he’s infamous for being a master playwright not author. It begs the question, is the stage a better way to learn and enjoy drama?

It is at school where we are introduced to dramatists such as Shakespeare and Webster. We are asked to read texts written in Early Modern English which, many will agree, can be a frustrating task, and one that has left the word ‘Shakespeare’ feared by many.

Derek Dunne, lecturer at Cardiff University’s school of English, revealed how working at the Globe theatre helped him see a side to drama he hadn’t fully recognised studying literature at higher level, “Working at the Globe made me realise that Shakespeare had to think of so much more – rehearsal times, boy actors, weather conditions, popular subjects, even whether it would please the sovereign. All of these elements come together in Shakespeare’s writing to make something so much richer than the ‘imagination only’ version of drama.”

He tells me that, “Coming straight from a PhD in revenge tragedy, I had made the mistake of thinking of characters in plays as people.” Working at the Globe allowed him to, quite literally, step into the world of theatre and see the various elements that go into a putting on a production. He reveals, this experience really helped him see the impact the stage has.

This being said, Dunne still feels that reading a play is invaluable, “There is something inexhaustible about Shakespeare’s language that a single stage production can never hope to encapsulate. Reading allows for multiple layers and perspectives to emerge.” It’s clear that reading and watching a play are both valuable and insightful experiences, both complement each other and allow for multiple interpretations of one piece of work.

Whilst Dunne explained the benefits of watching a stage performance, it’s also important to have a teacher who is passionate about drama. One who exposes students to all the subject has to offer them, and offers them the chance to find what parts interest them most.

Eleanor Shaw, a Secondary school English teacher at a school in Worcestershire, told me that, “With the teaching of plays, the way you approach it is so important, as obviously they are written to be performed. It’s crucial that you, as a professional, are excited about the drama you are teaching, and you express this through your teaching”.

Shaw gives an example of how she helps her students visualise the play they’re studying, and draw focus to the significance of dramatic techniques, “when I teach the opening of Macbeth, I often ask for volunteers to demonstrate the circle that the witches stand in around their cauldron.

By doing this, students immediately understand the significance of the characters to the plot and also, they realise the importance of the supernatural in the play, just by seeing how the lines are spoken!” By either performing the play themselves or seeing their peers do so, her students get a wider understanding of the impact the play would have on stage.

It also adds something new and fun, which Dunne explains how such things, “can free up the playful part of a play because I think that’s maybe something that’s gets a little bit forgotten in the classroom, like there’s a reason why these are called plays.”

Dunne also shares his personal experience of studying Literature at school, and at university level; he feels his efforts to get the ‘right’ interpretation limited his enjoyment of literature.

“At school, when I was younger, I wanted to get the right interpretation of Shakespeare […] but now for me the real joy of literature is how many different interpretations its open too, and that I think is really important and something that I hope my students get as well.”

He also notes how the theatre industry has found new ways to adapt since the start of the pandemic, and the benefits this has had, particularly to students, “theatre is more accessible through digital formats, whether that’s the National Theatre [who] had a lot of free big productions available for limited windows last summer, or much more grass roots initiatives like […] The Show Must Go Online

Theatre moving online has seen the opportunities to watch a production grow significantly, and has meant theatre has become more reachable to people no matter their location or economic status.

Shaw also notes that the availability of productions online has been a great resource for her to use and share with her students, “This has been a fantastic tool as a teacher and has provoked some insightful discussions again into interpretations of plays on stage.”

After listening to Dunne and Shaw it’s fair to say that both the page and stage are important resources when it comes to exploring and (dare it be said) enjoying literature. Rather than considering which is ‘better’ Shaw says, “I think it’s about providing students with the opportunities to access both. I have seen students lead some thought-provoking discussions when they have been reading and watching dramas, and I definitely think this should continue to be encouraged.”

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