November 26, 2005


It is a travesty that the study of Shakespeare remains compulsory for all GCSE English students. Shakespeare’s plays are probably among the most respected works in the English language, and the number of extremely popular plays that he has produced is impressive, but he does not have a monopoly on good literature. Obviously GCSE English is designed to teach and examine pupils, but further to this is an opportunity to inspire young people about books and enthuse in them a passion for literature.

I went to a private school (that’s an argument for another time) and my teacher, Mr Wilkinson, was an absolute legend who was extremely well liked. He chose Henry V for our play, in my opinion the best choice for a class of 16 year old boys because of its theme and because there are some awesome speeches. However the class of generally quite literate and intelligent people were largely uninspired, partly because of the language barrier and partly because of the big sections where nothing much seemed to happen. I found myself sometimes roused by a good speech, but more often bored by a few poor pages.

Were Shakespeare’s plays an undeniable cut above the rest then I would concede that the language barrier is an obstacle we must force our young people to overcome in order to appreciate the best writing in the English language. As it is there are other works of the same quality and depth but which have a more instant appeal, for example Arthur Miller’s ‘A View From The Bridge’ covers in some detail the issues of guilt, shame and betrayal while maintaining a light and accessible feel. If we are serious about inspiring in everybody a passion for literature then we should use the GCSE to show people that books can be stimulating and pose tough moral questions without needing three reads before they are understood. While Shakespeare is brilliant, he is not appropriate for every pupil, and so while his works should remain an option on the syllabus they should no longer be compulsory.

On a related theme, did anyone see 'The Taming Of The Shrew' on Monday? I only saw the last twenty minutes but was quite impressed by how the BBC seemed to have shifted the focus. Rather than requiring the woman to submit to the dominance of her man, the BBC required both the man and the woman to submit to a mutually loving relationship.

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  1. It is worth remembering that Shakespeare's presence on the GCSE syllabus is not due to a handful of people who think his plays are "an undeniable cut above the rest", it is due to a spectrum of specialist opinion which all rate him highly. I may read a play and think it is fantastic and start thinking "wouldn't it be great if I'd studied something like this at GCSE rather than dry old Shakespeare" but I stop myself before believing this gives me the expertise to judge the appropriateness for a GCSE syllabus.

    It must also be made clear that Shakespeare's work is not only chosen for the issues covered or the themes of the play, as your second paragraph seems to suggest. For example, good teaching of Shakespeare gives pupils the skill and confidence to try to engage challenging texts, which most definitely is "appropriate for every pupil". As you say, there is a "language barrier", but learning how to overcome such barriers is a crucial to the GCSE.

    Shakespeare offers excellent value for covering many of the GCSE's aims, if you are going to call the compulsory study of his work "a travesty" then you would do well to suggest a better replacement than Arthur Miller.

    10 Dec 2005, 15:09

  2. Hmm, not sure I agree. As people who have recently gone through the GCSE process we are ideally placed to comment on it, i'm not suggesting that we are the only voices that should be considered but certainly if there were a debate on the GCSE english syllabus it shouldn't be conducted entirely by academics and specialists.

    I think i'd agree with your second paragraph, except that I think overcoming language barriers is a supplementary skill that A grade students should master but surely it is not as crucial as gaining the passion to read literature in one's spare time. Fair point about Arthur Miller though, he's awesome but i suppose he doesn't really tick the same boxes as Shakespeare.

    17 Dec 2005, 21:06

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