Why is Shakespeare the only compulsory content area in this year’s English Literature GCSE?

Amid the controversy over poetry being made optional in the 2021 English Literature GCSEs, there’s been little mention that the examination of a Shakespeare play is the only non-optional component. It’s possible to trace this requirement back to the 1989 Cox Report which is when the first statutory requirement for teaching Shakespeare was introduced. The question I’ve got is why is Shakespeare specifically mandatory?

Shakespeare has a mythic status in Britain which is difficult to pin down other than a pervading agreement by all that there is something culturally worthy in his writing that schools are expected to teach. Somehow, there is a general consensus that learning about Shakespeare makes a positive (and moral) impact on individuals’ personal growth, contributes to a sense of there being a cohesive national identity and somehow enables economic prosperity.

When was Shakespeare made so important in schools?

Shakespeare was first named as an author in the revised Standards of Education in 1882. Sarah Olive in the excellent Shakespeare Valued (2015) says the Victorians associated Shakespeare with a “gold standard” of literacy. For Standard VI, children needed to read a passage from either one of Shakespeare’s Histories, of another standard author or from any history of England. (I find it interesting that Shakespeare is connected with English history right there from this start.) Olive goes on to say: “Shakespeare had, by the latter half of the nineteenth century, been incorporated into a curriculum of sorts and used to demarcate the highest performing students from their peers.” This placement of Shakespeare as a means of discriminating between more and less able children by the Victorians and established the value and nature of Shakespeare in state education.

Still, why Shakespeare and not any other great poet or writer? Chaucer? Milton? Keats?

On this train of thought, I wonder the extent of Matthew Arnold’s influence on Shakespeare’s place in the English school curriculum. In Arnold’s The Study of Poetry (1888), he repeatedly makes the case that “Chaucer is not one of the great classics…” Arnold goes on to say that what is missing from Chaucer is the Aristotlian “poetic virtue of seriousness” or “high poetic seriousness”:

For Arnold, the greatest poets were Milton and Shakespeare. Milton is “the one artist of the highest rank in the great style” and better than Shakespeare in Arnold’s estimation. Milton has a “sure and flawless perfection of his rhythm and diction… No one else in English literature and art possesses the like disinction.” On the other hand: “Shakespeare is divinely strong, rich, and attractive. But sureness of perfect style Shakespeare himself does not possess.” Arnold’s devotion to Milton seems to me to be admiration for the strong sense of Christianity and his belief in the superiority of Greek and Latin which he sees Milton as channelling in English poetry. (In his essay on Wordsworth, Arnold writes approvingly of a comment which suggests that Shakespeare control of rhythm, musicality of language prose, style, expressing interior thought and feeling.)

For Arnold, it was the sense of consequence which marked great literature:

The substance of Chaucer’s poetry, his view of things and criticism of life, has largeness, freedom, shrewdness, benignity; but it has not this high seriousness. Homer’s criticism of life has it, Dante’s has it, Shakespeare’s has it.

The Newbolt Report (1922) – which essentially established English as a school subject in a form that’s recognisable to today – agreed that Shakespeare was necessary but recommended that Shakespeare was taught as extension to all pupils. This echoes what George Sampson had urged in English for the English:

“Shakespeare is not only difficult but archaic as well; and thus he seems doubly unsuitable for young readers. Fortunately, he is saved for the schools by his wonderful power of re-telling a story in dramatic form and his equally wonderful power of characterisation, and we may add, his incomparable mastery of word-music. Indeed, it is Shakespeare the musician as much as Shakespeare the dramatist to whom we must introduce our pupils.”

In A Language for Life (1975), the Bulloch Report barely mentioned Shakespeare (once plus a mention in a dissenting note by Black Papers contributor and headteacher Stuart Froome). Bulloch discusses the value of teaching Literature as bringing children:

into an encounter with language in its most complex and varied forms. Through these complexities are presented the thoughts, experiences, and feelings of people who exist outside and beyond the reader’s daily awareness. This process of bringing them within that circle of consciousness is where the greatest value of literature lies. It provides imaginative insight into what another person is feeling; it allows the contemplation of possible human experiences which the reader himself has not met.

The Kingman Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of English Language (1988), barely mentions Shakespeare.

Sarah Olive in Shakespeare Valued suggests that it was the late-1980s policy-makers combined with the amount of pedagogic literature created as a consequence of the introduction of the National Curriculum and the influence of organisations like the RSC, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and The Globe.

Sarah Olive in Shakespeare Valued (2015) – which is, as far as I can tell, the only major study of why Shakespeare has a central value in education (although limited to the period 1989-2009) – argues that

The curriculum is silent about what should be achieved through the study of Shakespeare in particular. Standards to which students should aspire in their work are defined across English rather than in relation to Shakespeare: the skills, and increasing quality with which they are to be performed… Furthermore, reasons why Shakespeare might be the most fitting author to make compulsory go unwritten

It’s an excellent, informative analysis. Early on she cites Michael Bristol’s Big-Time Shakespeare (1996) which examines how the policies of the Thatcher government commercialised Shakespeare and presents the “phenomenon” of Shakespeare as being “collectively ‘generated out of the innumerable small-time accomplishments of actors and directors, advertising copy-writers, public relations specialists, as well as scholars, editors, and educators’”.

Olive argues that the post-1989 teaching of Shakespeare has been affected by “broader agendas for raising skills, standards and social inclusion” by both Conservative and Labour governments and that they remain united in their attitude that Shakespeare contributes to economic, moral and social growth. She identified Professor Cox, who had been taught by Leavis at Cambridge as responsible for the literary recommendations established in the National Curriculum. She presents him as Arnoldian in his belief that great literature has a humanistic value. Olive claims that Thatcher was not interested in the details other than having a preoccupation with language and “skills”.

Cox gave far more emphasis to Shakespeare in English than ever before for Ages 5 to 16 (1989):

Many teachers believe that Shakespeare’s work conveys universal values, and that his language expresses rich and subtle meanings beyond that of any other English writer. Other teachers point out that evaluations of Shakespeare have varied from one historical period to the next, and they argue that pupils should be encouraged to think critically about his status in the canon. But almost everyone agrees that his work should be represented in a National Curriculum. Shakespeare’s plays are so rich that in every age they can produce fresh meanings and even those who deny his universality agree on his cultural importance.

As far as I’m aware, this is the only official explanation why Shakespeare has the importance in the curriculum that he has today.

Cox also emphasised an active approach to teaching Shakespeare and other literature:

Pupils exposed to this type of participatory, exploratory approach to literature can acquire a firm foundation to proceed to more formal literary responses should they subsequently choose to do so.

Cox didn’t seem to have the same imperative to study Shakespeare in dry, academic fashion we see today and, instead, gave teachers much more professional agency in the manner in which Shakespeare was taught:

every pupil should be given at least some experience of the plays or poetry of Shakespeare. Whether this is through the study, viewing or performance of whole plays or of selected poems or scenes should be entirely at the discretion of the teacher.

He also insisted that Shakespeare should be taught as drama:

pupils should approach plays through the dramatic medium. This exploratory and performance-based approach will not only lead to a deeper understanding of the text in question (a dramatic exploration of a speech in Shakespeare, for instance, will show how the placing of different emphases can alter fundamentally one’s interpretation of character or meaning) but will also lead to an understanding of the play as theatre. Performance-based activity may, of course, take place at classroom level, in small-scale improvisational sessions or in text work. Where practical, however, pupils should be encouraged to take every opportunity to widen their experience of audiences and/or co-actors. The mounting of school productions and active involvement in community or touring theatre initiatives are thus of immense value.

The Warwick Evaluation noted that teachers felt that the National Curriculum had altered their teaching of Literature by increasing the amount of literature-based activities and ensuring the SAT requirements were met. This included teaching plays by Shakespeare. Teaching the required Shakespeare play in Year 9 was related as taking up a great deal of time (and caused them to abandon schemes of work in order to prepare children for assessments – I remember this well!).

The 2004 revised NC prescribed: “two plays by Shakespeare, one of which should be studied in key stage 3”. In the early 2000s, the newly-founded AQA English GCSE syllabus included Shakespeare as a coursework “crossover” piece whose “task should enable candidates to demonstrate their understanding of, and engagement with, at least one play by Shakespeare studied during Key Stage 4… it must allow the candidate to demonstrate awareness of social and historical influences, cultural contexts and literary traditions which shaped Shakespeare’s writing and/or which have influenced subsequent interpretations of his work.” The form or genre was not prescribed and enabled students to respond to characters, specific scenes or specific performances. Unthinkably – from today’s standpoint – students could present their knowledge and understanding orally. It was made clear that any answer needed to show “sufficient evidence of textual knowledge”.

Some attempts were made in 2008 to encourage a more active and considered approach to Shakespeare in 2008’s Shakespeare for All Ages and Stages but this remained vague about why. I’ve written about it here.

More recently, things have largely shifted towards the approaches to teaching Shakespeare focus purely on securing exam results. Practices which would have been condemned as encouraging “unsympathetic attitudes to literature” (see below) for nearly a century of English teaching are currently all the rage.

Am I surprised that no one has even asked why Shakespeare is considered the only compulsory element of next year’s GCSE English Literature? No, not really.

Shakespeare in Exams

My understanding is that Shakespeare has been used as a mechanism of assessment in secondary schools since the Second World War. The type of questions in this paper remain similar for the next fifty years: a number of short-answer questions about details of plot and character followed by a longer question requiring the candidate to respond to the whole text. This 1957 exam paper shows the sort of responses expected of candidates for O-level.

Up until the 1970s children would either paraphrase passages or identified characters and aspects of plot. This approach was replaced by passages for close analysis based on a detailed knowledge of the play (I would imagine this was a response to the impact of the followers of Leavis like David Holbrook and Peter Abbs). This far more analytical approach was made “open book” so children had access to a text in order to show critical appreciation.

Changes in the 1970s seem to be a focus on the requirement to “refer to words” in longer answers. In a 1974 London exam board O-level paper, the longer Macbeth questions were:

‘Security is mortals’ chiefest enemy’ Write a short paragraph explaining what this line means. Then show in what ways the truth of this statement is illustrated, by referring to the words and behaviour of both Macbeth and Duncan.

Trace the stages by which Lady Macbeth becomes gradually less dominant during the course of the play, making clear your changing feelings towards her as the play progresses.

In the 1980s, O-level Shakespeare seem to have been a similar mixture of short answer questions about specific details from a play (eg. “What two things has Caliban told Stephane to do in order to destroy Prospero (line 30)?”) and longer answer whole-text responses, for example on Macbeth:

Re-read the last part of Act 1 scene 3 from the point where the witches disappear (line 79) to the end of the scene. Write about the different ways in which Macbeth and Banquo react in this scene. How does the relationship between them develop as the play continues?

1984 English Literature O-level, Cambridge Examinations

In the report on the 1984 English Lit O-level, the examiners insist that:

“The question of direction is a fundamental cause of concern. The vigour and thrust of this paper stems from an intention which should be present in the teaching and at all stages of approach to literature: to enable people to read with perception, thought and sensitivity but without predetermined directions. In setting questions we still have a good deal to learn about how to open questions freely without implying directions to candidates about ‘approved’ ways of thinking.”

(As an aside it is incredibly frustrating to compare the way that the report disparages the “unsympathetic attitudes to literature” developed in the manner in which children were prepared for CSEs and O-levels. These are the self-same approaches currently lauded in our exam-fixated English classrooms.)

What Shakespeare has and is actually taught?

Based on looking at which plays were taught for exam, it looks like following World War 2, Richard II and The Merchant of Venice were chiefly set. (It’s worth pointing out that children were also required to read Chaucer – another indication that Shakespeare did not have supreme importance in the Literature curriculum). In the 1970s tastes changed to Macbeth and Twelfth Night. In the 1980s, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream appear to be the favoured texts.

In a recent issue of English in Education, Victoria Elliott and Sarah Olive surveyed teachers and discovered that Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were the most taught plays up to GCSE. In sixth form the choice of plays were: