“The play’s the thing”, as Hamlet mused in a famous soliloquy. And it’s certain that Shakespeare never anticipated that his work would be studied as a set text –he meant it to be performed in front of a live audience.
Teachers like Anita Ark of Eastbury Community School are convinced that this is the key to enthusing and engaging a new generation of students.
RSC Learning & Peforming Network
Between 2006 – 2017, the Royal Shakespeare Company initiated a long-term partnership programme with schools, communities and theatres and Eastbury was part of this Learning and Performance Network.
Performance is a very effective way to access the plays and live theatre is thrilling. But the next best thing is watching recorded versions of the plays, often by some of the greatest and best-known actors.
“Teachers would traditionally show hour-long videos to students – but now that we have the BBC Shakespeare Archive, we can use short clips that are really effective and don’t take up much time in a lesson,” explains Anita. “Multimodal, visual presentation of Shakespeare goes hand in hand with our rehearsal room pedagogy inspired by the RSC.
It really tackles student disengagement in the classroom.”
Teachers are now highly selective in their use of audio-visual material and use resources for maximum impact.
“Young people are surrounded by visual media,” comments Anita. “We use visual media to enhance learning rather than passively watching a piece of film. At a basic level, visual aids help students understand the plot of a scene. Looking a little deeper student can begin to infer ideas to do with characterisation and authorial intention
Having ready edited clips that are easily searchable saves teachers time when planning lessons as they don’t have to trawl through hours of clips or recordings on YouTube.
“At Eastbury we have worked with the RSC for 3 years as part of the LPN. Part of this journey has meant adapting our teaching style to meet the demands of the reformed curriculum and in particular the reformed GCSE exams,” Anita adds.
“Closed text and 100% exam courses mean students need to really engage with the performance elements of Shakespeare if they want to understand and retain the plot, characterisation and language.”
Anita has used the archive material to focus on portrayals of characters such as Oberon. Viewing several interpretations of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, one Year 7 student commented:
“I like how they can be all different people playing the characters – they can be any gender, race or anything, and still be that character.”
Stimulating Critical Thinking
Anita uses audio visual resources in almost every lesson. They are a useful stimulus for developing critical thinking as focusing on performance encourages students to explore issues beyond the plays themselves, for example, what is this production trying to do, what inspired the interpretation, etc.
“This encourages students to think more independently and critically, and bridges the gap between GCSE and ‘A’-level,” Anita explains.
There have been other benefits at Eastbury too.
“We have students who speak many different languages as their mother tongues, “ comments Anita. “One of my students speaks five languages and the language of Shakespeare was another that she could engage with and enjoy.”
Far from being inaccessible, when students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds learn the language of Shakespeare together in this way, the result is a feeling of cohesion and shared cultural experience. And watching different interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays means that they can draw upon their own cultural references.
“We draw upon the cultural capital of our students and use that richness to deepen their understanding and enable them to make connections,” says Anita.
A Year 13 student commented after watching live RSC Hamlet 2018:
“The African setting really connected with me. I can totally imagine these scenarios playing out in an African home based on my own experience.”
For more information on using the BBC Shakespeare collection have a look at the RES blog to watch a short film.