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Patrick Stevens

Former mathematics student at the University of Cambridge; now a software engineer.

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I’ve now seen two Shakespeare plays at the Globe - once in person, to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and once with a one-year-and-eighty-mile gap between viewing and performance (through the Globe On Screen project), to see Twelfth Night. Both times the plays were excellent. Both were comedies, and both were laugh-out-loud funny.

The performance of Twelfth Night, then, was beamed into a local-ish cinema for our viewing pleasure. (Definitely more comfortable than the seating at the Globe, although I am reliably informed that if you go to the Globe, you really have to be a groundling, standing at the front next to the stage, in order to get the proper experience.) My seat was next to those of some young-ish children. The result of taking several young children to a three-hour performance of a play which isn’t in Modern English was predictable, but it got me thinking. (Bear with me - this will become relevant.)

I said that both the plays were laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll be talking about Twelfth Night, as that’s the one I remember best (since it happened in the past week). In fact, it started out pretty dull - I was completely lost for the first five minutes while some Count or other pontificated about how much he loved a reclusive Lady. I was only able to get the gist of what he was saying, through snatching out some words every now and again. However, as soon as the Count got off-stage, the play picked up immensely, and became properly funny. It was really noticeable that Shakespeare was writing in two different registers - the posh one, with the Count wittering on in soliloquy, was all but incomprehensible to me, while the standard register, in which everyone else spoke, was pretty much just English.

It is also really hard to grasp the nature of the humour of Shakespeare just from reading the plays. Once they are being performed, however, it becomes immediately obvious that every other line is an innuendo of some sort. Even while the Count is talking, Shakespeare gives him double-entendres (“How will she love, when the rich golden shaft/ Hath kill’d the flock of all affections else/ That live in her…”) - we are clearly meant to be laughing at him, such a serious character accidentally making ribald puns - and once the silly characters come on, the humour just gets coarser. You don’t see that from the script unless you’re actually looking for it - but actors can make so much more of it, with their freedom to move around and inflect. In fact, with the exception of the wordplay of the Fool and the plot-based shenanigans (twins being mistaken for one another, and so on), I would say that well over half the humour in Twelfth Night is sexual in nature.

Cue smooth segue to the English National Curriculum, which seems desperate to get children learning Shakespeare. Thankfully, Michael Gove doesn’t seem to have gone sufficiently mad as to insist on its teaching in primary school (that is, from the age of 4 to 11), but before his reforms take place in 2014, it is/was required [cached] that pupils be taught on at least one Shakespeare play in Key Stage 3 (that is, aged 11 to 14). I can’t find information about the draft 2014 curriculum for Key Stage 3, but I’m sure it appears in there too, given Gove’s attitudes to pedagogy.

I just don’t understand why pupils are taught Shakespeare at such a young age. I speak for myself here, but 14 is really not old enough to understand the main source of humour (innuendo) in Shakespeare plays. Shakespeare’s comedies are full of it - essentially all non-plot-based humour is sexual in nature. It is bizarre that pupils who are too young to understand the humour would be taught to analyse it.The language is difficult enough to read (another hurdle that simply goes away when it’s acted properly), but the plays are simply horrendously drab unless you are able to grasp the humour - when you remove three-quarters of the humour from a comedy, what is left?

Aside from the fact that such young children can’t really understand the humour, it’s also difficult for a teacher to teach, unless that teacher is one of a very unusual breed who can talk to eir pupils candidly about anything at all without it feeling awkward. Most teachers would find it much easier simply to ignore the double-entendres in the first place - I know that when I was taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Year 6 (aged 10-11), my teacher focused entirely on plot, but the plot of AMND is nothing special. The same happened when I was subsequently taught AMND in Year 8 (aged 12-13) - even worse, we were shown a film adaptation that was just not funny. (This may be that I was too young to be amused by Shakespeare-humour, but I actually think the film didn’t portray it at all.)

So we have this strange situation of young children being taught centuries-old plays, of which they understand neither the content nor the syntax. There is absolutely no reason for a pupil to find Shakespeare relevant or useful in any way, taught like this. It’s a shame, because the simple fact that “Twelfth Night is laugh-out-loud funny” is enough to tell me that Shakespeare is relevant. There are a couple of interesting historical notes to be gleaned from it - for instance, the treatment of the puritanical Malvolio, the only character not to receive a happy ending (aside from the pirate and the Fool), seems to show that people really liked to put down killjoys back then, in contrast to our view now (I find Malvolio’s plight rather sad, and so does everyone else I’ve spoken to). But that’s not really why I think Shakespeare is relevant - I think his plays are relevant in much the same way that I think the Marx Brothers’ films are. They are really entertaining plays. Humour seems not to have changed very much over the last few centuries. Taking pupils at a young age, and turning them off good plays which are part of our cultural heritage, is something of a travesty.