04 October 2006

Dear William Shakespeare (3)

Another day spent trying to make teenagers like you. They don't.

They enjoy themselves because it's a day out of school. The boys enjoy playing at fighting and the girls enjoy playing at being in love. They don't enjoy doing it through this - to them - near-dead language.

To me the language is more alive than anything I'll ever say. And it's not just language. The words are spurs to action that, if you listen to them, can't be refused. "Why, does not every earthly thing cry shame upon her?" says Leonato, and the words "every earthly thing" make him cast madly around, looking for support, for succour, for answers. That's what we see. All he has to do is what the words make him, and we see Leonato in full.

It's easy for me to say. I've directed two and performed four of your plays, studied ten and read thirty. I've had practice. But the ones I've least enjoyed have been those I studied at school; I'm still getting over my education. I read Hamlet when I was twelve and enjoyed it, read Romeo and Juliet at fourteen and didn't understand it. That's the wrong way around. And that lack of understanding puts kids off learning about it and teachers off teaching it. Why are we forcing them to study what they might enjoy if left to find it themselves, but don't when forced? The best way of getting a kid to learn piano is to tell him he can't learn piano. Why not build up, through the eighteenth century, to your work, rather than trying to clear a four-hundred year comprehension gap in one leap? By year ten, they might get to Keats; why not save you until A-Level?

Or: if the teaching of languages weren't so lamentable in this country, and we taught French and German to primary children when they're fitted to learn them rather than at secondary level when their brains have started shrinking, perhaps the language wouldn't be so much of a barrier.

Or: I'm not teaching it right. I'm doing a five-week project running workshops on your work in January and February for the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I'll get them to like you yet.

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