“Today children, we’ll continue our reading of Macbeth…” cue a universal groan from a classroom full of young teenagers. The assumption may be that children see Shakespeare as irrelevant and dare I say ‘uncool’, especially in comparison to the cinematic young-adult fictions of the last decade or so. But, up on their feet acting out Hamlet’s soliloquies or moving desks to divide a classroom into Montagues and Capulets – swapping imaginary Harry Potter wands for Italian swords – it’s hard not to notice their enthusiasm.
I think we have to attribute Shakespeare’s longevity to the study of literature as being something to do with thinking about who we are. After all, the notions of history, politics, society and kinship cannot be discussed without looking to some of the texts that shape our notions of what those things mean.
Amongst the wealth of plays, sonnets and poems he wrote across his lifetime, it’s Shakespeare’s unique engagement with the enduring topics of democracy, leadership, family, loyalty, love and power that for years has provided an unrivalled means for students to explore complex real-life dilemmas. When coupled with his ingenious wordplay, creative use of language and biting wit, it may come as no surprise that the works of England’s most famous bard maintain a deservedly immortal presence within the syllabus.
However, as arguments against the English literary canon gain more and more traction, the dominant presence of Shakespeare within the curriculum has come under scrutiny. The question goes beyond ‘to teach or not to teach’ as educators must now ask whose stories are being valued and what voices are elevated or silenced.
To nourish young minds we must offer them an understanding of their cultural history. Undeniably, Shakespeare has a valuable presence in this regard with modernity owing its shape and form in large part to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. So, perhaps the questions should instead consider where value is placed within Shakespeare’s works and whether or not Shakespeare can be taught in collaboration with other, more diverse texts.
Value is a question hard to quantify, but among suggestions from academics are a renewed focus on how violence is presented, and questions over the presentation of race in Shakespeare. Regardless of where new value could be placed, the pinnacle Shakespearean tropes of igniting questions over morality and society is what will see his work and relevance endure. After all, what our children learn in school shapes who they become. Who wants to deal with a doctor who doesn’t have the sense of ethics? Or a judge who is not placing what they’re doing in a wider context?
He may not dominate the school curriculum in quite the same manner as he has done for the last 200 years, but I would gladly hedge a bet that Shakespeare isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.