A Shakespeare Stimulus?

Whenever politicians talk about education, at least here in the US, they focus on Math and Science. We’re falling behind on math and science, we need innovation in math and science.
What if they said Shakespeare instead? Or, more generally we’ll say, “The Classics”. I’d say Literature in general, but I’m not really interested at the moment in promoting new literature, I want to talk about improving the standing of existing literature.
Imagine a world, hypothetical though it may be, where the president announces a couple hundred billion dollars to be allocated toward advancement of Education in Literature. I’ve grown up to be president, and I want to live in a country where any four year old who knows the plot to Cinderella also knows the plot to Midsummer, and every parent could answer questions about it.
The actual numbers don’t matter, just assume that there’ll be enough that programs could be implemented on a national scale. Ignore the politics of “it would never pass”, “it would take longer than my lifetime”, “all the money would be wasted” and so on. We all know the unfortunate reality. These thought experiments are supposed to be fun :).
How would spend it? What would the title of your grant request be? Would you spend it on elementary education, or high school? Would you fund more new theatres? If you suddenly got a green light to focus on making people appreciate and understand Shakespeare more, how would you break it down?
I’ll start with an easy one : seed money for people who make movie versions of Shakespeare’s works. We already have all the superhero, horror, sequels and animated 3D movies we need, why not a sudden surge of Shakespeare films? While it’s true that this would not do wonders toward advancing actual education of Shakespeare (i would expect most of the projects to be more “mass market” than academic), but it would get the brand recognition out there and get people more appreciative of the body of work they may not even realize exists.

6 thoughts on “A Shakespeare Stimulus?

  1. What we need most are teachers who have been taught to teach Shakespeare. The key is, of course, performance, performance, performance. Too often it's something to be got through, with kids "reading" on their own, several scenes a night, answering questions and then suffering through a movie version of a play they really don't know.

    Kids need to "own" Shakespeare by being made comfortable reading it aloud and acting it, by learning how to use the text to decide how a character should move, gesture, speak.

    Any classroom can be a theatre. The texts can be printed from any computer. No costumes are needed. What we need are imaginative, inquisitive teachers, with a passion for the subject. Spend money on training and mentoring and the chance for teachers to explore Shakespeare on their own, and you'd have something.

  2. I have to say (and admit that I work in a professional theatre) that I don't think "free" is the way to go. I think free tends to make people undervalue a thing. Even granters are moving toward requiring some kind of buy-in from the people they are giving money to, so that everyone attaches some value to the enterprise and understands that the good things in life aren't free. Too, I don't think film is the way to go–Shakespeare wrote the audience into his plays, so when we put up a 4th wall (screen) we are not serving the way he wrote the plays. And speaking of the way he wrote the plays–that is what I think the secret is to teaching them. We can't teach them as poems or just great characters. Instead, we must consider the conditions for which Shakespeare wrote. He knew his actors, they knew rhetoric and meter, they also knew that they had a stage with 3 doors, an above and a below, and they knew that the most important character didn't arrive until about 2 pm…the audience completes the plays and must be an active part of it.

  3. Ditto Ed.

    And performance oriented Shakespeare is not only useful when it comes to teaching Shakespeare. The positives includes public speaking skills, self confidence, positive self expression, and an incredible sense of accomplishment. These are things you can't exactly 'teach'. They're arrived at through an osmotic process instigated by Doing.

    I was recently invited to an Artist in Education consortium for teaching artists in my state. Representatives from the State Council for the Arts who attended had woeful news re: the amount of ever-dwindling support for those of us who actually do what we teach.
    There's so much to be said for bringing in a living, breathing artifact, if you will, to teach a subject they know from the inside. This ties in perfectly with the doing aspect needed when it comes to Shakespeare being absorbed correctly and successfully. Not surprisingly then, I would advocate for much more to be funded to support resident artists in schools, at every level of education, as an interim solution to teachers learning how best to teach Shakespeare. We've explored the strictly academic road. We've explored the sensationalist avenue of making films and hoping to generate real interest. They're not working.

  4. My concern about the "teach it better" approach (sorry for the drastic paraphrase) is that it doesn't address the rest of society. It's often been said that if you want your children to read, they need to see you reading. Children who grow up in a house with books will better appreciate books. Can't we apply that to Shakespeare?

    I went to engineering schools. I took advanced math courses in high school. When I brought home Calculus, not only couldn't my parents help me with it, they didn't even understand what it was. I don't want that same fate for Shakespeare. I'd think it would be terrible for the Kindergarten group to rush home from school excited to say that they saw Midsummer Night's Dream, and have the parents dismiss it as quickly as if today's guest speaker had been a magician or made clown animals.

    I know the movie thing is sensationalist, but I'm ok with that. I think that a change-the-world movement like this would need to take place over a generation or more. And yes, maybe if we completely overhauled how Shakespeare is taught, then that first generation would survive the "my parents didn't understand this" problem and go on to help their own children with their Shakespeare homework. I'm just more impatient, I guess. I want to walk into the lunchroom at work and hear people talking about The Tempest, rather than The Social Network. Or maybe not "rather than", but "alongside".

  5. @Sarah: I disagree. Since the 1950's Joe Papp's Public Theatre's Shakespeare in Central Park has been free and can hardly be considered "undervalued" – considering the hundreds of thousands of people over the years who have been willing to wait in line, for hours on end, to get in.

  6. I get your point about the societal aggregate, Duane, and it's well taken. But we have to start on 'long-term' sometime. And there's a little bit of difference when a kid comes home from school and says, (first of all, Anything about school) but when that something is "Guess what? Today I DID Midsummer" the reaction is usually quite different.
    I'm not tooting my own horn here, just stating facts: The reaction I get from parents whose children have participated in a residency are far different from what they might be for other subjects. "I don't know how you do it, but Billy's behavior at home has changed. He's usually quiet and has very little to say at all. Now he's markedly vocal. When I ask him what he's doing he says, (like I should know 🙂 "Mom, I'm practicing projecting!". From a Dad: "We try to make the dinner hour the time for communicating with the kids, but prying anything out of them regarding what happened in their day has been something less than one-word successful. Now they don't stop talking –and it's about Shakespeare, of all things. Thank you." This reaction from parents isn't the exception, it's the rule.

    You know, we're talking about the English language here, something that's a lot more common to us all than is calculus. And most parents know 'something' about it, even if they think it's boring as hell from their own learning experiences with it. When their kids start talking it, they have a tendency to sit up and listen–especially if it improves the social and communicative atmosphere of the household.

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