“Should Shakespeare be studied in secondary schools?” Sydney-based student Tazmin Harper wrote to Shakespeare Magazine with some questions about Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern day, both inside and outside the classroom – needless to say, Editor Pat Reid had a few comments to make on this subject…

TAZMIN HARPER: How did you become interested/involved with Shakespeare and his works?
PAT REID: “It’s a long story, but the short version is this: At the start of 2013 I decided to read Richard III, and I enjoyed it so much that I carried on until I’d read Shakespeare’s Complete Works, which I think took me about seven or eight months. I had the idea for Shakespeare Magazine almost immediately. I was a media professional experienced in making specialist magazines, so I knew it was something I could do. I thought about it for a year, but couldn’t raise any finance, and I was giving up hope that it would ever happen, when suddenly there was an opportunity. I took a leap of faith, and the first issue of Shakespeare Magazine was published on 23 April 2014.”

Did your secondary education shape your interest in Shakespeare? Positively or negatively? 
“I was at secondary school in Merseyside during the 1980s. We did quite a bit of Shakespeare, and I enjoyed it. The teachers were good. It wasn’t an amazingly innovative approach or anything, but I was into it, so I got a lot out of it. Looking around me, I was aware that some of my classmates weren’t getting it at all, and I knew how they felt because in most of my other subjects at school it was me who wasn’t getting it at all.
“I should also mention that I had a head start because my Dad had made me read and learn some Shakespeare when I was younger – Julius Caesar and Macbeth, a bit of The Merchant of Venice. I’d even written a short Shakespearean parody when I was about ten. And in my final term at secondary school I wrote and staged a Hamlet spoof called Omlet – it was basically Hamlet meets The Rocky Horror Show. So I was a Young Shakespearean. Then I went to university and it basically put me off English Literature for the next 25 years.”

Image by Amogha Sridhar
What is your demographic/readership for the Shakespeare Magazine?
“It’s a free online magazine, and we have found readers in well over 100 countries. The majority of the readers are female and they are often (but by no means exclusively) connected to education, the arts and/or the theatre world. Plenty of teachers, students and librarians. The age range is wide, ranging from students in their late teens to retirees in their sixties and older. Our youngest and oldest readers that I know of were 15 and 85.

“The two biggest readerships are the USA and the UK, followed by Germany, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Spain, France and Brazil. If you name a country, I can tell you how many readers we have there, and what I know about how Shakespeare is perceived there. We have readers in the most surprising places, but I’ve realised that any country with a capital city, a university, a theatre and a British Embassy will usually have at least a pocket of Shakespeare fans.”

Shakespeare Day in a London school

What themes and issues from Shakespeare’s works are most prominent in the modern day? 

“Politics. Love. Men and women. Treachery. Murder. Death and bereavement. War – especially civil war. Leadership, and the lack thereof. Magic and manipulation. Don’t trust witches, but fairies are brilliant. Sometimes goddesses are attracted to mortals. I’ll leave you to work out which of Shakespeare’s plays and poems these refer to.”
Do you feel that his plays are still relatable to a modern audience?
“I do, but so what? Just because something is relatable doesn’t mean it’s any good. You’d have to be an extremely sick individual to relate to Lady Macbeth, but she’s a compelling, unforgettable character. (Actually, I know that loads of people do relate to Lady Macbeth. That’s because this strange thing happens with Shakespeare where people often simply ignore the things in the text that don’t match their preconceptions. So therefore it’s possible to believe that Lady Macbeth is, for example, a feminist warrior, when she’s actually a mentally ill accessory to murder.)

Lady Macbeth
“The way Shakespeare’s plays unfold can seem weird at first. But that’s because most plays, films, TV and novels today use all the same tricks and formulae, and so we find it strange when those things don’t happen. Interestingly, I sometimes find that films from other cultures like India, South Korea and maybe Turkey seem closer to the Shakespearean style of storytelling than modern day English-language stuff. Oddly enough, some elements of the Mamma Mia! films seem quite heavily indebted to Shakespeare.”
Why do you believe Shakespeare is such an important figure in English education?
“Since the Enlightenment, I think that Shakespeare has increasingly occupied the space in the minds of the intelligentsia that would previously have been devoted to the Bible. So Shakespeare’s works have become a sort of secular Bible, and thus have attained great importance in our culture. Someone recently said that even in a post-Christian World, the dreams we dream are Christian dreams. I think there’s something in that, but I also think that now those dreams are co-authored by Shakespeare.”
Do you believe Shakespeare should be studied in English or Drama in secondary school? Or any other subjects?
“That’s an interesting question, as I hadn’t really thought about Shakespeare being taught in schools outside of English Language and Literature classes. But before I answer the question, let me address this word ‘should’, because whenever I’m told I ‘should’ do something, or read something, or think something or be something, I tend to resist it. And I particularly hate it when people on social media post statements like ‘This should be taught in every school’, as if the whole of humanity has to exactly conform to their own personal likes.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“But having said that, I am a Shakespearean, I’m evangelical about Shakespeare, and I know that Shakespeare can be introduced and taught brilliantly in schools – even in primary schools.
“So English Language is an obvious subject to bring in Shakespeare. It helps to show where our language has come from and how it has evolved. Same goes for English Literature, obvs.
“I suspect most schoolkids don’t study Drama, but I do think it would be bizarre to have a Drama department that didn’t do Shakespeare. If it wasn’t for Shakespeare there wouldn’t BE any Drama department. Doing Shakespeare in Drama is also valuable from a practical point of view. Actors with Shakespeare training tend to be more confident and more versatile. If you look at the British (and some Australian) actors who have broken through internationally in recent years, they usually have done and continue to do major Shakespeare roles. Hollywood takes Shakespeare credentials very seriously, in part because native US actors don’t often have the same experience.
“And Shakespeare can also be useful and highly relevant in school History lessons. I’m friendly with the team on BBC History Magazine, and they have Shakespeare references in practically every article. The many excellent historians we see on British TV constantly refer to Shakespeare. I’ve said before that you can’t be a Shakespearean and not be at least part historian, but maybe it’s the other way round too – you can’t be a historian and not be at least part Shakespearean.

Katy Ransome at Shakespeare Lives in Botswana, 2016
“Shakespeare and his associates are obviously interesting historical figures in their own right, and it’s refreshing to study the popular culture of their era, as a contrast to the more big picture stuff on monarchs, wars, politics, plagues, the importance of pumpernickel in Westphalia, and so on. There was an amazing explosion of creativity in the Elizabethan era, and we’re still feeling it in our popular culture today. Shakespeare also provides a helpful entry point for certain subjects, or can be an alternative way to approach things – even if it’s just the obvious route of ‘This is how Shakespeare depicted Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Henry V, Richard III – how does it compare to what we now understand to be the historical facts?’”
Do you feel that Shakespeare and his works should be a required topic to study in secondary school? Why?
“Allowing again for my unease with the word ‘should’, I do believe that Shakespeare belongs in secondary schools, certainly in England, and probably everywhere else English is spoken as well. Look, it’s important to know about your culture, and if you speak English then you’re one of Shakespeare’s children, so a bit of respect, as they say, is due.
“Shakespeare is the most important writer – and arguably one of the most significant human beings – of the last 500 years, so any education system in the English-speaking world would be severely lacking if it didn’t reflect that.
“There are at least two countries I know of where they’ve tried to kick Shakespeare out of the classroom in recent years. One is Zimbabwe and the other is Canada. Now, clearly Zimbabwe needs to cultivate its own literature and writers, but to me it seems that Mugabe’s henchmen wanted to ban Shakespeare because they didn’t want a population capable of independent thought.
“In Canada, the idea is to replace Shakespeare with Canadian authors, so it’s a kind of nationalist but also virtue signalling move, and it’s nakedly political because they apparently want to erase the historic links between the UK and Canada. And also I believe cash gets funnelled to favoured authors, so this also has the whiff of cronyism.
“Incidentally, Canada’s greatest living writer, Margaret Atwood, is herself an avid Shakespearean, and interestingly I believe she was largely homeschooled. Elsewhere I saw one quote from a young woman saying ‘As a Chinese Canadian, I don’t want to learn about English writers’. Which is ironic, because in England there was a serious proposal in Birmingham, the second biggest city, to change the name of the airport to William Shakespeare International Airport, as it’s receiving such huge volumes of tourists from China who are coming to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

“This leads me to another observation: outside of the English-speaking world, the interest in and love for Shakespeare is phenomenal. So even if native English speakers cease to value Shakespeare, his works will find a home in emerging superpowers like China, India and Brazil.”

Which works of his do you believe are the most important to be studied?
“I suppose there’s five or ten big plays that everybody’s heard of, but for the numerous reasons I’ve discussed above, all Shakespeare’s works have value – let’s not forget the Sonnets, and long poems like Venus and Adonis – and if teachers are able to give a flavour of it all, then so much the better.
“It would be nice if teachers were able to choose which ones to do based on how much a particular class would enjoy them and respond to them. It occurs to me that while I advocate Shakespeare for all, it would be a shame if everyone was taught the same texts in the same way, and expected to arrive at the same conclusions.
“It’s often said that performing Shakespeare is the best way to get to grips with the texts. This certainly works for me, but some children are mortified at the thought of reading something out loud to their peers. I can also understand that tackling entire plays can be tough, as youngsters tend to lose interest before the end. Perhaps an alternative approach could be a kind of ‘tasting menu’ of Shakespeare, where classes would sample extracts from several plays, as well as dipping into the long poems and the Sonnets.
“In 2014 FutureLearn did an excellent Shakespeare MOOC (online course) which was presented by Jonathan Bate. Something like that could easily be adapted for secondary schools. In which case every kid in Britain would end up knowing Shakespeare better than I did before I started Shakespeare Magazine. That would be fantastic.”