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“All the world’s a stage”: the importance of global Shakespeare

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As a panicked second-year English student currently in the middle of writing her Shakespeare essay, you might find it surprising to hear me still insist, with bloodshot eyes and a stretched smile, that Shakespeare should be taught everywhere.

The news that the South African government is planning to review the place that Shakespeare has on school curriculums, with a view to potentially excising his work from the curriculum altogether, is something that upsets me.

Who could be more of a ‘world literature writer’ than our beloved Bard?

What I found even more shocking was that this was actually being advocated by Professor Chris Thurman of the English department at Wits University, who specialises in teaching Shakespeare.

I completely understand the idea that this is part of a larger move to ‘decolonise’ the South African school curriculum. Having Shakespeare on the syllabus, they say, reinforces a colonialised pedagogical process and neglects the rich literary history of Africa. Thurman states his desire for the works of more South African, African and world literature writers to be taught to schoolchildren. But who could be more of a ‘world literature writer’ than our beloved Bard?

Shakespeare is not just an English writer entrenched in his historical moment, but a global presence that transcends time

Right here at Warwick we have one of the most renowned departments in the world for Shakespeare studies. In partnership with Queen Mary University London, we have embarked upon a singularly exciting interdisciplinary project: Global Shakespeare. Academics, teachers, students and writers from backgrounds across the world have all come together to participate in this project and prove that Shakespeare is not just an English writer entrenched in his historical moment, but a global presence that transcends time.

One of the things closest to my heart in the discussion of teaching and learning Shakespeare is accessibility. It is so important for people to understand that his work is not just for the old, white middle classes. It is a phenomenal canon that resonates throughout all of humanity, breaking all barriers of race, class, gender and age.

It is so importance for people to understand that his work is not just for the old, white middle classes

Accessibility undoubtedly necessitates adaptability, and Shakespeare’s work lends itself beautifully to translation, both literally and ideologically. Dr Priti Taneja, a Research Fellow for the Global Shakespeare project, has spoken about the political relevance of Shakespeare as it has been adapted by cultures across the world: “when they first began to do it, it might have been as a way to answer back to a colonising culture, but as time has gone on, those practices have become a little bit more mixed in with local cultures, with local traditions, with local ways of making theatre.”

And South Africa has been known to embrace this idea. Shakespeare was one of Nelson Mandela’s favourite writers; a volume of the collected works of Shakespeare became known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ after it became a treasured work in the prison. Important passages personal to each prisoner were highlighted as it was passed from inmate to inmate. Mandela’s biographer, Anthony Sampson, wrote: “Shakespeare became more politically relevant than the Bible or Marx. Successive generations of African leaders saw his plays as an inspiration for their struggle and for humanity.”

We need to revolutionise the way Shakespeare is taught to schoolchildren. The work was written to be performed, and this is the key to unlocking the ‘mystery’ of Shakespeare

But what relevance do all these ideas have to schoolchildren at such a young age? Isn’t it enough that Shakespeare is taught at university level? How can these students overcome the language barrier that early modern English presents?

We need to revolutionise the way Shakespeare is taught to schoolchildren. Admittedly even a passionate fan such as I would not have been able to grapple with something as hefty as Hamlet as a child. But the work was written to be performed, and this is the key to unlocking the ‘mystery’ of Shakespeare. Schoolchildren should be able to see performances, whether professional or amateur, and in whatever medium, be it film, television or other kinds of creative interpretation such as dance. They should be able to perform it themselves, to get under the skin of the characters and create their own worlds from the texts.

Shakespeare was not meant to be exclusive: translation should be allowed and even encouraged

Shakespeare was not meant to be exclusive: translation should be allowed and even encouraged. South African schools are a melting pot of different languages, and if the way to make the work accessible is to play with these diverse cultures and ideas, that could not be seen as a bad thing.

The key is choice. Shakespeare has not been compulsory on South African school syllabuses since the 1980s, and the idea of precluding the study of his work completely is ludicrous. I feel privileged that my upbringing involved dynamic encounters with Shakespeare, and I would wish this for every student across the planet. All the world should be a stage for one of the most culturally important writers in human history.

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