Teaching Shakespeare, actively

Shakespeare’s will. Although rarely seen by the public, it is currently on display as the centrepiece of a fascinating exhibition at King’s College, London entitled ‘By me William Shakespeare A Life in Writing’. Organised by Shakespeare 400, a consortium of leading cultural, creative and educational organisations, this event is one of many marking of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

There is nothing like looking at the real thing. It’s dated 25th March 1616, and if you look closely at the will you can see a number of corrections, additions and a variety of spellings (I counted his name spelt four ways: Shackspeare, Shakspeare, Shakespeare and Shakspear). There is so much more in the document than just the ‘second best bed’ that is popularly referenced; for example, the list of friends to whom he bequeaths money so that they can buy a mourning ring each and the ten pounds he gives to the Poore of Stratford [sic]. By reading the will, you get a sense the man committing his wishes to paper.

Active interest

This direct engagement between the individual and the words is what Rex Gibson encourages us to do in his key work Teaching Shakespeare. Newly revised for the current generation of teachers, it sets out his manifesto for inspiring and engaging students with Shakespeare’s plays. Rex argues that by treating the plays as scripts rather than texts, teacher can help their students to ‘own’ the play they are studying. With six weeks being the longest a teacher generally has to work on a play with their class these days, it can take a significant leap of faith to get pupils out from behind their desks and try out ‘active Shakespeare’. Rex will convince you of the benefits of this approach, and also guide you with the best ideas to do it.

‘Shakespeare was essentially a man of theatre who intended his words to be spoken and acted out on stage. It is in that context of dramatic realisation that the plays are most appropriately understood and experienced’. This is Rex’s manifesto and in Teaching Shakespeare he explains the pedagogy behind it. He makes a strong case for the enduring qualities of Shakespeare and how ‘participatory and co-operative activity’ can make students ‘agents of their own learning’. This is also a practical book. Rex suggests a host of activities and cites many examples of ‘active Shakespeare’ for the classroom and elsewhere. He has helpful advice on how to introduce themes, tackle the issue of racism in the plays and how to get to grips with Shakespeare’s dramatic language. This book is a must-have for all new English teachers.

Works in progress

The revised edition includes contributions from a variety of educators who bear witness to the power of Rex’s approach in their own work. They share a deep and infectious enthusiasm for ‘active Shakespeare’ and have many powerful examples to share from their own experience. Rex also worked with Cambridge University Press to create the Cambridge School Shakespeare series, which follows the same approach. This popular series has recently been revised to include more activities to highlight the importance of stagecraft. The fact that stagecraft is now a key element in many syllabuses is in large part thanks to Rex’s influence. The series is also full of inspiring photos of diverse and thought provoking productions.

In this exciting anniversary year, direct and sometimes free exposures to Shakespeare are being offered to the public, but engagement with Shakespeare can best begin at school.