Category Archives: Shakespeare

Proper Acting for Proper Teachers

Here are the slides from my talk at the ResearchEd English and MFL conference on Saturday 1st April, at the University Examination Schools:

Proper Acting for Proper Teachers PDF

A jaunt through some essential drama teaching

I presented a session on the ‘rules’ needed to make a play work in the classroom or on the stage. These ‘rules’ are the rules that repertory theatre companies used to put on a new play, every week, without the need of a director. Answering questions such as: Where should Macbeth enter from? How about the three witches? Where on the stage should Hamlet do a soliloquy? How do you make iambic pentameter sound interesting even if you’ve no idea what the hell is being said? How does an actor tell the audience all they need to know about a character in the first ten seconds of their performance? Otherwise known as:

Proper acting for proper teachers.

Don’t Educate the Working Class

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Not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class.

says Garth Stahl, the author of Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration… emphasising that education is about changing people and not everyone wants to change. We are defined by where we are in the rat race and that is where we feel most secure. This fear that education might change people, who they are at their very core, is something that eats away at some people’s fears about schooling. ‘Shakespeare is not for our kids,’ might be the cry of some secure in the knowledge that teaching Macbeth to the oiks might see them rise up to Upper Middle Class rectitude and result in them indulging in dark arts at the golf club or even, God forbid, in the Labour Party.

Stahl might have a point, imagine an education that sets out to change Upper Class people into Working Class toilers… What would the timetable consist of? The school lunch menu would be relatively simple: KFC. The lessons could comprise the subjects of gambling, tabloid reading, beer swilling, football (playing as well as the pride and prejudice), Brexit fear of foreigners and all sorts of other such stereotypical nonsense. How would the Upper Class like that?! Do we really think that the working class are a morass of people who indulge in such behaviours that define who they are and if they are subjected to opera, fine dining and JMW Turner their entire world view is shattered and they are left bereft?

This is the problem with the model of education that purely celebrates identity. Firstly we rely on the idea that there is a broad ‘type’ of people defined by their job, or lack of it, their gender, fluid or not, their race, culture and creed. This is useful for Marxist sociologists, snobs , advertisers and algorithm designers – and, indeed, it becomes ever so sophisticated as we are all seen as ABC1s D2s and CD borderlines… but do we really fear teaching and learning things that are of human value beyond our algorithmic echo chambers? If we want education to worship at the altar of our own identities then we will never learn to look beyond.

Rather than change people education refines our understanding of who we are as human beings, it adds to our knowledge not through social engineering; neither meritocratic or anti- aspirational, a good education should expand the self. If education is about the rat race then rats are the only ones who will benefit. If education is a personalised, Narcissistic look at trying to make ourselves feel better about who we are or have chosen to be then it will never be about who we truly are. We don’t have to change who we are, but in order to find out, we might have to take a broader view than the one we think justifies our personal proclivities. An education in ‘high culture’ is for all, not just a supposed elite. Shakespeare is for everyone, whether they like it or not.

Shakespeare’s Schooling

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Shakespeare’s Trivium, ‘The whining schoolboy …creeping like snail unwillingly to school’

It is not too hard to see Shakespeare in the schoolboy creeping snail-like to school – but thank goodness he didn’t play truant. The education he received at Stratford Grammar School is reflected in his plays. The aim of the school would have been to teach Latin and provide a solid grounding in classic Roman, Greek, and biblical texts, as well as teaching ethics and religion. Classes would begin at six o’clock in the morning, with breakfast at nine. This would be followed by more study from quarter past nine to eleven. There would then be school dinner and a break from study until one o’clock, after which there would be further study until five. Finally, this extended school would serve supper, and six or seven pupils would formally present what they had learnt that day – or, on Fridays and Saturdays, review the week’s learning. One week every school year would be devoted to the pupils reciting their learning for the year.

The method of learning was through the trivium. Grammar would generally be studied first, in order to learn the precepts. As Shakespeare got older, he would have moved on to logic as a tool of analysis and rhetoric as a method of composition. Texts would be studied to look for evidence of how they used the three arts of the trivium (grammar, argument, and style), and then little William would have practised using the arts through copying, writing, and speech making. It is likely that his schoolmasters also taught contemporary literature and debate rather than just logic.

Such exercises in exploring rather than solving arguments are just the sort of thing that might have inspired a young dramatist in his playwriting. Clearly, Shakespeare uses this exploratory art in his most famous speech, ‘To be or not to be’, in which Hamlet goes through self-reasoning, or anthypophora, a rhetorical device he may well have learnt at school. In her superb book, Shakespeare’s Uses of the Arts of Language (2005[1947]), Sister Miriam Joseph explores how Shakespeare’s education – and, in particular, the trivium – is reflected in his plays…

Could the underlying method of Shakespeare’s education, the trivium, offer a blueprint upon which to build a contemporary approach to teaching and learning?

I answer this question in the book: Trivium 21c (spoiler: the answer is yes)…

And further explore in the forthcoming book: Trivium in Practice due to be published at the end of May 2016.

The above extract about Shakespeare’s schooling is taken from Trivium 21c, I reproduce it here on the event of the 400th anniversary of his death.