Standing in the yard at the Globe on cold winter afternoons in early March, I was continually surprised and inspired by the reactions of young people to theatre. Many of the 1,500 young people at each performance had never been to a theatre before, 82% of them had never seen a Shakespeare play in performance. The production was Macbeth, part of Globe Education's Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank project.
There was a moment at the beginning of the production, set against a background of military conflict, when the witches emerge for the first time from body bags. There was a palpable point where the audience of 11-16 year olds could be seen and heard engaging with that moment--with a realisation of what a play is really about. In the words of one student, 'Everyone enjoyed themselves because it was different to see it and understand than read from a book.' Another commented: 'I found that when you are outside, with the actors, and the scenery, the atmosphere, the story comes to life... the audience really felt alive.'
Such an experience illustrates why Globe Education bases all its work on active, rehearsal based, approaches to Shakespeare's plays. Plays, simply, are created to be played and any study of Shakespeare should be based on this premise. We gain our greatest insights when we explore the plays as an actor, experimenting with the words in our mouths, the emotions of the characters in our bodies. Studying a Shakespeare play without speaking the words or experimenting with staging and interpretation is like looking at a musical score without hearing the music itself, or critiquing a script for TV without watching the programme. This is easy for an arts organisation such as Shakespeare's Globe to claim, but what impact should such an assertion have on teaching practice in our classrooms?
There is nothing new about the idea that Shakespeare wrote plays to be performed and that his work is best taught actively. During his lifetime, Shakespeare's plays were not printed in any format we would recognise. The first folio was printed in 1623, so his audiences would not have enjoyed the access to the plays as texts that we know today. Early publishers of early modern drama were all too aware of the potential pitfalls of doing so. In the preface to his play The Malcontent, John Marston apologises, 'that Scenes invented, merely to be spoken, should be enforcively published to be read,' and asks that the play, 'be pardoned, for the pleasure it once afforded you, when it was presented with the soul of lively action.' It was rare to read a play, common place to see it.
Fast forward to 1908 and an English Association pamphlet on The Teaching of Shakespeare in Schools, warns that '... There is a serious danger in the classroom with text books open before us of our forgetting what drama really means.' The pamphlet goes on to recommend the acting out of scenes and seeing the play in performance as good practice. Fast forward again to 1986 when Rex Gibson founded the Shakespeare in Schools project, to explore the potential for the use of active approaches to teaching Shakespeare in schools. Gibson went on to edit the Cambridge School Shakespeare edition of the plays and to become our leading Shakespeare educator. In his 1998 book Teaching Shakespeare he writes, 'Shakespeare was essentially a man of theatre who intended his words to be spoken and acted on stage. It is that context of dramatic realisation that the plays are most appropriately understood and experienced.'
Yet despite the same words echoing throughout theatre and education history we have still not arrived at a point where the active teaching of Shakespeare is a default position in schools. There are many good reasons for this and there is certainly excellent practice across a great many schools; but elsewhere active approaches to the plays can still be seen as a risk and a potential threat to exam success and academic achievement. …