Monday 20 January 2020

Shakespeare's essential role in Irish classrooms

They grapple with the plays at first but in the end, students see that Shakespeare just can't be bettered

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet
Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet

Niall McMonagle

Something is making America great right now. And, yes, of course, I'm talking about Shakespeare: he who spelt his name six different ways; he who left the world only 14 words in his own handwriting and whose collected works were published seven years after his death in 1623. But how that man lives on. And not only in the US but throughout the world; and he plays a huge part in Irish classrooms.

The collected works, known as the First Folio, is one of the world's most prized and valuable books. When Paul Getty bought one in 2002, it was reported that he paid £3.5 million. An estimated 750 copies were printed; each contained 907 pages and originally cost £1. The Queen owns one too, just the one, but the Shakespeare Folger Library, in Washington DC, contains more First Folios - over 70 of them - than any other institution in the world. And this year, in an imaginative and magnificent gesture, it is sending a copy of this extraordinary book to be displayed in every one of the 50 states in the Union, to mark and honour Shakespeare's death on April 23 1616.

Last year, deep in the basement vaults of the Shakespeare Folger Library, I held a First Folio in my hand. For over 40 years the works of Shakespeare have been a huge part of my life as pupil, teacher and theatre-goer. And here it was. For once, I thought the word to capture that sensation was "Awesome!" a word not found in Shakespeare.

The man had sense.

This big, early 17th-century book, 45cm x 35cm, announced in the Frankfurt book fair's catalogue in 1622, teems with life, and is alive to every imaginable aspect of being human. John Heminges and Henry Condell, Shakespeare's friends and fellow actors and publishers of the First Folio knew his worth: "Reade him... againe and againe; and if then you do not like him, surely you are in some danger not to understand him..."

We know so little about Shakespeare and that's a plus. Covering his tracks, he is everywhere and nowhere. The fact that New Place, the second largest house in Stratford, bought in 1597 when he was 33, the house where he wrote his will in January 1616 and the house he died in three months later, was demolished in 1759 by its owner - a Rev Francis Gastrell, fed up with literary pilgrims knocking on his door - is totally in keeping.

Shakespeare, from beyond the grave, erases all biographical details. It also means that the play's the thing.

Throughout my teaching life Shakespeare was the one who never failed to astonish or impress the youngsters in front of me. Life in the classroom and beyond was enriched by Shakespeare's work and, though Shakespeare hadn't much to do with Ireland, Ireland has much to do with him.

From the thousand Shakespeare characters he created, only one is Irish, the quarrelling Captain MacMorris in Henry V. But Shakespeare's a household name here, especially if that home has a secondary-school-going child.

At Junior Cert, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar are the ones. Edna O'Brien says that in her convent days the nuns loved Julius Caesar because it contains no sex. For years, it was Hamlet, King Lear or Macbeth at Leaving Cert; Othello was thought too sexually explicit but we got over that and "making the beast with two backs" is an image Irish schoolboys and schoolgirls now take on board.

When the Leaving Cert changed with the new millennium, with texts by Margaret Atwood, Arthur Miller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Seamus Deane, Khaled Hosseini, Maeve Binchy, Hugh Leonard, Jackie Kay, Yann Martel, Sarah Waters and many others now on offer, I always asked students, in the home-stretch, to name the greatest writer they'd encountered over their two-year course, and they always, always named this dead white male who, 5,000 books claim, never even wrote those plays.

English-born with a global reach, he is the greatest poet and the greatest maker of plays. In school, I put on a Twelfth Night. It opened with love-sick Orsino listening to Are You Lonesome Tonight? and Feste was played by a jazz-singing girl. Shakespeare is nothing if not flexible.

Then there was a 30-minute version of Romeo and Juliet and I put together a collage of scenes called 'Women Talk' where Portia and Nerissa, Julia and Lucetta, Emilia and Desdemona discuss the men in their lives and the life in their men. Shakespeare, always feminist, wrote great female roles and though there are only a handful of women in each play, it never seems unbalanced. Cleopatra, Rosalind, shrewish Kate always hold their own.

Yes, the language is challenging but it's a case of the beauty of things difficult and once a meaning is teased out, not only does it stay with you, but you realise how rich the original is, how inferior the paraphrase. "O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!" is just more romantic than "She's hot to trot!"

Harold Bloom says that "the purpose of teaching is to extend the blessing of more life" and when teaching involves Shakespeare then everyone's life is blessed in all kinds of ways. Shakespeare alerts us to every aspect of existence, its familiarity, its strangeness, its sadness and happiness. There isn't an emotion that he hasn't explored.

School kids are astonished and impressed by Iago's scheming and manipulation; by Lady Macbeth's ruthlessness, her cry to be "unsexed" and her husband's tormented conscience; by Edmund's "Stand up for bastards" or Lear's "Let copulation thrive" or Hamlet's journey from "To be or not to be" to "let be, let be".

But what impresses most is Shakespeare's quick, inventive genius and his ability, always, to be ahead, whether it be in a dazzlingly memorable phrase such as the atmospheric "light thickens", the paradoxical "happy dagger" or details like Juliet's Nurse telling how she weaned little "Jule", the porter in Macbeth's castle speaking of how drink "provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance... makes him stand to and not stand to" or Hamlet's cruel sexual joking with Ophelia, "Do you think I meant country matters?".

Someone, somewhere is speaking in a Shakespeare play right now, but he's also lured millions to the silver screen. The first Shakespeare on film, a two-minute scene from King John, dates from 1899 and along the way we've had Marlon Brando's Mark Antony, Burton and Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew, Polanski's Macbeth, the more recent one with Michael Fassbender, Zefferelli's and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, Branagh's Hamlet. Every generation gets its own production but I discovered, that in the end, most kids preferred the traditional Zefferelli to Luhrmann's clever-clever, fireworks version.

And then the spin-offs and adaptations: Looking for Richard, My Own Private Idaho, 10 Things I Hate About You, Theatre of Blood, Westside Story, Shakespeare in Love do the very thing Shakespeare himself did: plunder a source, make it your own and, with bums on seats in mind, find a new and bigger audience for it.

And this year, well-known novelists are publishing "cover-versions" of Shakepeare's texts - Anne Tyler's novel Vinegar Girl is a rewrite of The Taming of the Shrew, Malorie Blackman updates Othello, Howard Jacobson's Shylock is My Name locates his novel to Cheshire, where Bassanio is Barney, a mechanic, who prefers TV celebrity Plurabelle's [Portia's] Volkswagen Beetle to her Porsche Carrera! Lead instead of Gold. Or in Jeanette Winterson's sexed-up take on The Winter's Tale, The Gap of Time, Perdita is not found on a seashore but rescued from a hospital baby hatch, Autolycus is a used-car salesman, Polixenes, now Zeno, is a gay dad.

What it Says in the Papers is of immediate interest. But these words will not be read tomorrow. What Shakespeare has to say is interesting for all time. He wrote for intellectual and illiterates. His different plays speak to us at different times. In Thatcher's Britain, between 1979 and 1990, there were six major productions of Measure for Measure, a play that rigorously asks what is good government. In South Africa during apartheid Othello had a special place and power.

The one downside? The exam. Leaving Cert English, Higher Level, Paper II, at three hours and 20 minutes, is just cruel. Most choose Shakespeare as their major text and 60 minutes of that 200-minute exam is given to answering on a play, explored and thought about and discussed over two years of their young lives.

But somehow they survive the world's most brutal exam, and later will still remember a snatch of Shakespeare or the way Cordelia or Polonius thought about things.

To quote himself, Shakespeare really is, despite that Leaving Cert, "Too much of a good thing". And we didn't need Mae West to tell us that "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."

Niall MacMonagle is an editor (Windharp: Poems of Ireland since 1916), a broadcaster and a former English teacher

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