In 2008 – during the era of the various National Strategies – the Department for Children, Schools and Families in collaboration with organisations like the QCA and RSC produced Shakespeare for All Ages and Stages, not only a booklet giving guidance on the teaching of Shakespeare in schools but what it variously describes as a “framework of opportunities” or even a “map of opportunities”.
Don’t groan when you see the pun in the title, though. It seems to have been unintentional.
It’s noticeable that it begins by asking the question “Why Shakespeare?” and immediately finds difficulty in articulating why Shakespeare is so essential for teaching in schools. Instead of celebrating Shakespeare’s humanism or literary qualities, the booklet places Shakespeare’s economic value and world-standing as of primary importance:
His work is at the centre of Britain’s twenty-first century theatre industry, is constantly adapted for film, has been translated into hundreds of languages and is performed throughout the world today.
Shakespeare’s other purpose is in enabling social and political considerations:
Watching, performing and reading the work of this extraordinary poet and playwright asks us both to challenge and celebrate our social and personal lives. Shakespeare can open up brave new worlds to young people and offer them fresh ways of dealing with familiar ones. His work can challenge our language skills and introduce us to new realms of poetic playfulness. He can extend our concepts of what fiction can do, and of what stories a drama can tell. Working with Shakespeare can be challenging but is eminently rewarding, rich and fulfilling.
Why Shakespeare, though? Why Shakespeare is elevated to importance above other writers isn’t addressed. Why not Chaucer? Milton? Keats? Is it because Shakespeare wrote more surviving plays than his contemporaries? (Shakespeare does seem to win by the numbers: Shakespeare: 40, Middleton: 30+, Jonson: 20+, Marlowe: 17, Fletcher: 16+, Webster: 9). The “Why Shakespeare?” question isn’t answered at all. Instead we’re to be dazzled into teaching Shakespeare by his reputation and “relevance”.
The booklet gives a “framework of opportunities” in which “significant experiences” are recommended. Perhaps this booklet was aimed more at primary teachers as many of the “significant experiences” it suggests would be fairly routine in secondary schools: studying the plays, watch a production, use dramatic approaches to explore the plays.
Bearing in mind this was produced during the great era of objectives of the National Strategies, the “opportunities” are transformed into year on year objectives:
After that there are “Suggested Teaching Approaches from the Foundation Stage to Key Stage 4” which are linked to strands of the primary and secondary Literacy Frameworks.
Many of the teaching approaches are based on encouraging younger children to consider texts in terms of literary heritage. For instance, Year Seven students should be taught “To engage with some of the issues, themes and ideas in Shakespeare’s plays and to appreciate the way they remain relevant in the 21st century”. It suggests that Year Eight students should be taught “To understand how characters’ actions reflect the social, historical and cultural contexts of Shakespeare’s time”. Another is “To understand the cultural significance of Shakespeare and his place in our literary heritage”.
In Years Nine and Ten there’s a focus on characters, dramatic conventions and language but, in Year Eleven we’re back with the “relevance” of Shakespeare. The objectives for Year Eleven are “To understand the significance of the social, historical and cultural contexts of a Shakespeare play” and “To appreciate the moral and philosophical significance of Shakespeare’s plays and their relevance for a contemporary audience”.
There are interesting ideas in the booklet for English teachers to use – particularly active approaches – that encourage students to consider the play as a drama (for example, sculpting a scene or creating models of stages). Bearing in mind I’ve just read a book where practical learning tasks are disparaged in favour of “knowledge instruction”, lots of the ideas are quite refreshing and a reminder that the philistine and rote-driven teaching which dominates English lessons at the moment doesn’t need to be this way.
Shakespeare for All Ages and Stages can be downloaded here.
There are some teaching suggestions for Macbeth provided in the booklet:
- “Hot-seating a character at a moment of dilemma, for example, Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. The teacher might be hot- seated by pupils first in order to model the process before moving on to thought tracking whereby pupils can be taken from ‘public answers’ to more private responses in order to reveal the differences between what a character says and what they might really think.” (Year 3)
- “Giving pupils the opening scene of Macbeth, perhaps on the whiteboard, and practise chanting the lines together with them. Show pupils images or extracts from one or two productions to see how the witches have been portrayed. Ask them how they would portray the witches and ask them to act out the scene in groups of three. Compare the different presentations, and encourage each group to explain why they presented their witches in a particular way.” (Year 3)
- “Taking a play with a strong theme, e.g. ambition in Macbeth and helping pupils to explore it through a familiar scenario, e.g. “Have you ever been temped to do something that you knew was wrong because you wanted something very badly?” Ask pupils to explore this through discussion or role play before exploring it in the context of the play.” (Year 6)
- There’s a description of a cross-phase project at Larkmead School based on Macbeth which involved simple drama work, storyboards and use of software (Kar2ouche) for children to animate scenes.
- “Taking a significant scene from a play and exploring its various interpretations in two or three different film versions. Possible film versions include Macbeth (Polanski’s 1971 version and the RSC’s 1979 version starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench)… Explore the effect and impact on the viewer created by each interpretation by considering the decisions made by the director with regard to setting, costumes and how actors play their parts.” (Year 7)
- “…focus on modern parallels to some of Shakespeare’s key themes, for example, by: …How far would I be prepared to go to get something I really want? (Macbeth)” (Year 7)
- “Exploring the very real belief in witches and their malign influence as portrayed in Macbeth (James 1 had taken part in the interrogation of witches and believed that they had attempted to drown him on a sea voyage). Ask pupils to contrast the reactions of Macbeth and Banquo to the witches in Act 1 Scene 3 or explore Lady Macbeth’s reaction to her husband’s letter in Act 1, Scene 5.” (Year 8)
- “Placing the name of a key character on the wall or screen and annotating it with quotations which focus on his or her feelings and state of mind at key points in the play. This activity is best applied to a character who undergoes change or development from the beginning to the end of the play: Prospero from The Tempest is a good example as are Macbeth and King Lear.” (Year 9)
- “Exploring some of Shakespeare’s villains, such as Iago, Macbeth, Richard III, Don Pedro, Claudius, etc. As a starting point, take a character from the current play who might be considered a villain and place him or her on a continuum with other Shakespearian villains, from those whose evil seems inexplicable to those who are more complex, flawed characters to those who are likeable rogues. Tease out the nature of the villainy in the character in the core play. Notions of leadership, heroines, outsiders etc could be similarly explored.” (Year 10)
- “Putting a character on trial, involving every member of the class in various ways, e.g. as a character witness, as an expert witness, as a victim of the defendant, etc. Invite pupils to make creative links with other plays, e.g. by transposing the doctor in Macbeth to stand as an expert witness for Othello or Hamlet. This might form part of a piece of speaking and listening coursework as well as a response to Shakespeare.” (Year 10)
- “Investigating Shakespeare’s treatment of his source material and the way he adapted it for dramatic and artistic reasons, e.g. Richard III was a successful soldier and popular leader, a patron of the Arts; Macbeth was actually a good king who reigned in Scotland for many years. Pupils might write in role as Richard’s or Macbeth’s lawyers, demanding a retraction of the damaging portrayal of their clients.” (Year 11)
- “Using whole class and group discussions and strategies such as ‘conscience corridor’, ‘walk of fame’ and ‘walk of shame’, encourage pupils to explore the moral issues that underpin the play they are studying. Build up a working wall display on these issues and allow pupils to annotate the display with quotations or their thoughts on characters’ actions that exemplify these themes. Encourage them to make connections with films, novels, and popular TV series, e.g. the parallels with the downfall of Macbeth and Darth Vader in their pursuit of power. Pupils could write the obituary for their chosen character using evidence from the play to demonstrate how their actions, their attitudes and what other characters have said and feel about them, reveal their moral position and how it is contrary to the good of society.” (Year 11)
- “Asking pupils to identify the characters that represent moral or philosophical perspectives or could be seen as a moral touchstone for the themes of the play, e.g. Banquo and Macduff in Macbeth, Polonius in Hamlet or Cordelia in King Lear. Pupils might plan and present a 15-minute version of This is your Life using other pupils as characters who talk about the star of the show and their exemplary life.” (Year 11)