Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Bored with the bard

This week's minor furore over whether Shakespeare should appear in the NCEA curriculum ( took me right back to studying first year university English literature. One of the papers I did was a survey of English literature across the centuries, from Chaucer through to Samuel Becket. The bard featured; but so, too, did Aphra Behn, Jane Austen and Virginia Wolff. Both the latter were taught by a feminist lecturer. Her approach to these texts, and the choice of the texts themselves, were greeted with a level of hostility from students which I found surprising. Students grumbled about the inclusion of female authors 'for the sake of it', as if they were being cheated out of 'real' literature by some sort of affirmative action policy.

I quite enjoyed studying Shakespeare, but as I progressed through my English degree, my eyes were opened to a wonderful world of 'non-traditional' literature. New Zealand writing, post-colonial writing, indigenous writing - stuff of tremendous quality, by whatever 'objective' measure you might like to compare it with Shakespeare, but stuff which is also worth reading because it reveals those 'other' voices historically marginalised by the traditional literary canon.

I think the issue is not about whether Shakespeare is a good writer. He is. Rather, the question to ask is what makes him better, or perhaps more relevant to NZ school pupils, than the hundreds of other fine authors throughout history and across the world? Could pupils develop the same analytical skills, glean the same insights into human nature, by reading something which they enjoy and perceive as more relevant?

Shakespeare's proponents call his possible loss from the curriculum a form of 'dumbing down'. By implication, studying Shakespeare is more intelligent than studying an author from another time, place or culture. It seems to me that some people who hold this view may be harbouring a lingering elitism which views (male) European heritage as superior to other sorts. It's this very elitism which has kept 'other' voices out of the canon for so long.


Hugh said...

Shouldn't what's relevant to their lives be a decision for pupils to make, not teachers? Am I really supposed to find the writings of Frank Sargeson more inspiring simply because we share citizenship?

I think the problem with the New Zealand literary canon is not that it's insufficiently national, it's that it's too national. There are an awful lot of, to be frank, extremely mediocre writers being pushed on kids simply because they write about punga ferns, buzzy bees and jaffas.

Brett Dale said...

Kids should the best writers, and shakespare is the best.

Whats next, music classes not teaching Beethoven and teaching Anika Moa instead?

Placebogirl said...

Anna, I understand where you are coming from here, and I certainly think that the curriculum is very likely too limited. Having said that, Shakespeare's tales are used as archetypes for many other kinds of literature (including theatre, movies, songs...) and having some background in Shakespeare is useful for analysing these other things in context. Having said that, I think we did a full quarter of our final year on Lear when I was in high school in New Zealand, and this is almost certainly excessive.

ideologicallyimpure said...

I seriously don't want to be buying into any kind of imperialist ideas, but given the spectrum of things I studied in fourth/fifth form English, the Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice/Much Ado) was DEAR GOD so much more interesting than the suffragette-chick-lit and the NZ short stories.

Anonymous said...

All I remember from school English were the poems of Wilfred Owens and Roger McGough. I had a good teacher who opened up the world of literary expression. He tried hard with Shakespeare too - and made some progress, but I was left with the impression that it really was pretty irrelevant - like studying 500 year old scripts of Home and Away.

I reckon quality should trump all other criteria.

ms poinsettia said...

I think it would be a shame to junk Shakespeare from the curriculum for some of the reaons people have discussed above. Having said that, my own experience of studying it at school made me hate it. Weeks reading it aloud, or watching the BBC productions was so boring. Our teachers didn't do a very good job of making us see the relevance of the plays to today.

I wonder if part of that was to do with the elitist notions of Shakespeare that many people have, as identified by Anna. I didn't enjoy Shakespeare until I did a uni paper called Shakespeare on Film, where I did a cross-cultural analysis of Othello productions, from early plays to those dodgy American high school drama film ripoffs. I really enjoyed that kind of approach to Shakespeare, but a lot of people in my class (but not the lecturer) talked about Shakespeare in almost reverential tones as the epitome of literary genius and thought only his original works were worth studying (the class actually reached consensus on this).

Anna said...

But Shakespeare isn't the best - that's the thing. He's just one of a large number of fantastic authors. (Chaucer is ten times more rad in my opinion, although I'm not suggesting we teach him to school kids). We assume Shakespeare is the best because he comes from 'our' literary tradition, but the more you read outside that tradition, the more great stuff there is to be found. for example, when I discovered postcolonial African writing and some modern US authors, they just blew me away.

The Beethoven vs Anika Moa comparison is an interesting one. For some time, schools have been teaching both classical and popular music in the same courses. You learn the same analytical skills from both (eg harmony, instrumentation, etc). In my sister's day, the curriculum included Split Enz's 'I hope I never' - I defy anyone to analyse that and say it's lacking in quality!

And being forced to study shite chick lit is horrible, but the choice between that and Shakespeare is a false binary. There are many wonderful quality options out there between the two...

The ex-expat said...

Actually it is interesting that they study of music is mentioned and perhaps demonstrates the point Anna was making, a number of New Zealand's top music talents failed school C and bursary music yet go on to have careers industry.

But I think Anna's point is relevant especially as New Zealand's society becomes diverse. There's a huge body of work from Asia that might speak to some students and give a window into a different world to others that is worthy of analysis.

Anonymous said...

I have a BA in English and none of the Shakepseare plays were required texts in the courses I took for my degree (though some of the sonnets were). However, I studied the plays at high school so I don't think I was missing out on anything. As far as I can see, the study of English has a number of purposes including gaining awareness of the canon. However, I would say that developing the skills needed to respond critically to texts is also important (more important?) and this means that the issue of what to read is more complicated because it isn't so defined.

As for the issue of "our" literary tradition, I agree that there are some wonderful worlds to be found beyond the NZ/Anglo-Saxon tradition in French literature or Arabic literature or Chinese literature. Personally I love Japanese literature; the Tale of Genji ("the world's first novel", written by a woman in 1000AD)) is loads richer and funnier than Shakspeare or Chaucer IMHO ;) However, I don't think we need to rely on school or uni to expose us to cool stuff, if we are keen why can't we go and find these things for ourselves? katy

ideologicallyimpure said...

Well, a big problem with people "going and finding these things for themselves", katy, would probably be that after being forced to endure either works they hate or poorly-taught works they otherwise might love, a lot of people just decide they don't like literature.

Heck, I'm just finishing English Honours, after refusing to do English in Bursary because I was so convinced that literature was boring and painful.

Anonymous said...


1. What texts do you think should be taught to high school students of English? My own experience as a literature-lover is that this was not dependent on what we read at school, rather the opposite, to be honest.

2. What exactly is the problem if some people end up not liking literature? Some people aren't particularly interested in sport or theatre or film or cuisine but still manage to live rich lives. katy

The ex-expat said...


While I think the quality of the literature is important. It is also dependent upon the quality of the instruction, as demonstrated by the love/hate people have with the bard is often informed by their experiences with it in school.

I don't think everyone is going to have a love of literature. I haven't red a fiction book in years but the point is that during school kids should be exposed to it and then make their own decisions.

Anna said...

To find literature you enjoy by yourself, you need to have the reading/analytical skills to enjoy it, and enough interest in literature to see the point of pursuing it. I think English teaching at school should aim to enhance students' basic skills and interest so they can go on to do their own thing.

Here's what I think is an example of a good learning text (although I didn't enjoy it that much personally): Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale'. You can engage with it at a bunch of levels depending on your interests and skill levels. You might just like it because it's a rollicking good futuristic tale. You might like the feminist theoretical stuff about control of women's reproductive abilities. You might like to look at the imagery and symbolism. You might like the echoes of Chile and the implicit critique of US foreign policy. Or you might want to watch the movie.

Shakespeare isn't accessible on all these different levels, partly because the language is a barrier. Only those who can get past the initial barrier can go on to get anything at all out of it.

Anna said...

Fair point, Katy. Enjoying literature isn't mandatory and people manage to lead meaningful lives without it! I think it's good to give everyone the opportunity to be able to enjoy literature, though, which means imparting a few basic skills.

I also think that learning to analyse themes and stuff is a generally useful life-skill, and arguably maturity-enhancing.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with you on what yuo see as the value of studying literary texts, that's what I was trying to convey in my post. Because I agree that it is very difficult to come up with a list of "meaningful" or "important" texts I think people have to be expected to indulge their own curiousity, if they have it.

And lol, I read 'The Handmaid's Tale" for high school English and found boring because it seemed a bit laboured (though I loved other Margaret Atwood novels) but didn't have a problem with the Shakespeare, which I found accessible because the stories are constantly reproduced in the Anglo-Saxon culture I grew up in. katy

Anna said...

I didn't much like the Handmaid's Tale for the same reason (although I loved the other MA novels I've read).

The point about Shakespeare being a template is an interesting one. Yes, the stories he wrote are quite good, but the template thing is self-perpetuating - we teach Shakespeare because we already recognise the stories, and we already recognise the stories because we teach him.

Tim Ellis said...

This is an interesting discussion.

I understand that the calls to remove Shakespeare are not about what is more culturally relevant, but whether Shakespeare is "too hard" for Level 3 students. I found this call to be pretty alarming.

My first school-based introduction to Shakespeare was in 4th Form, in the form of watching West Side Story in class. I suppose a modern equivalent might be Ten Things I Hate About You, O, or even Shakespeare in Love.

I simply do not believe that Shakespeare can't be made accessible and culturally relevant to Level 3 students.

The next question is, should Shakespeare be made available? I don't think that you can seriously have any grounding in English literature without some exposure to Shakespeare, any more than you can have any grounding in French literature without Moliere, German without Goethe, or Italian without Dante.

Or to take a non-language parallel, can anybody seriously contemplate a grounding in physics without exposure to Newtonian physics, even if Newtonian physics isn't the be-all-and-end-all of physics? Or how about we scrap the periodic table in chemistry, because memorising elements is "too hard"?

I'm not saying that Shakespeare should be the only thing taught in schools; of course, introduce kids to Frame, Glover, Baxter, Ihimaera, Gee, Shadbolt, Campbell, Stead, Hunt, etc--we all were--but taking Shakespeare out of the equation is just absurd.

Anna said...

I'm not sure the comparison with physics holds. It's possible to get an English degree without studying Shakespeare in any depth. What actually makes Shakespeare fundamental to the study of English lit, other than tradition? There must be writers (particularly non-English ones) who have managed to produce writing with little or no study of Shakespeare - this suggests he's not indispensable.

Anonymous said...

Anna, I think the point is that for those of us raised in societies based on Anglo-Saxon culture, Shakespeare has been very influential and this makes the writing culturally relevant. Kids aren't going to die if they don't read it but it provides context for other aspects of our culture and context is interesting. Culture is about shared stories; it's like how knowing the stories of the Bible is useful for understanding where so many artists and musicians and writers are coming from. katy

Tim Ellis said...

What actually makes Shakespeare fundamental to the study of English lit, other than tradition?

That's an interesting question Anna. I think the answer is essentially that no other writer towers over the English language to the extent that Shakespeare does, so disproportionately. I don't think a person can have a true understanding of the cultural references in the English language without at least a basic understanding of Shakespeare's influence.

Take the many thousands of quotes from Shakespeare's works that are often taken for granted in the modern English language. English would be a much, much narrower language without him. What is a "mortal coil"? Why would somebody trade their kingdom for a horse? What are the "darling buds of May"? What's in a name? Where does "the world's mine oyster" come from? How about "star-crossed lovers", a "sorry sight", a "pound of flesh", a "tower of strength"?

How about a "brave new world"? No, that wasn't Huxley. Is the expression "bated breath" or "baited breath"? Shakespeare has the answer.

It was Iago who first wore his heart on his sleeve. It was Celia who first laid it on with a trowel. Strange bedfellows. One fell swoop. The better part of valour. A wild goose chase.

Nobody else comes within cuckoo of Shakespeare's dominance. I think for that reason alone he needs to be introduced.

anna c said...

During my last four years of high school (not in NZ) I was in the "top set" for English and studied three full Shakespeare plays and a number of sonnets. We had brilliant teachers and an enthusiastic class (so much so that we took the initiative in organising a trip during our holidays to see the plays in question*) and I credit that with, amongst other things forcing me to stop dismissing the comedies and realising that they could actually have as much or more to say about politics, social issues etc as the tragedies.

But throughout that time, and when I studied them again at university (again generally well taught) I never found they really spoke to me. They were interesting, amusing, beautiful language at times, but there were none of the moments I look for when I suddenly feel that the perfect thing I needed to hear has been said, or that a whole new segment of the world has been opened up. (I'm getting a little cliched here, I know, but I can't find a better way to describe it.)

Shakespeare may be the best by some objective notion (though I don't believe it to be the case) but their are hundreds of brilliant works out there. My parents had thousands of books, I was reading at the age of two. With many children there is only one chance to get them interested, get them excited by literature. Shakespeare may do that, as may many others, but why are we restricting ourselves? Certainly three plays was excessive at that level, when it came at the expense of so much else.

Going back to the point I made about high school. One of my friends was in a lower set (more due to undiagnosed dyslexia than intelligence, but I digress). The teacher decided they wouldn't be able to cope with Shakespeare (and the kids clearly had no reason to think so if the teacher had no faith in them) and so gave them a watered down summary of it, complete with bad colour pictures, which was what they had to memorise for their exam.

Now this is appalling teaching, without question, but if insisting on Shakespeare is going to intimidate teachers and intimidate and blow the confidence of children, then I can only see that as a bad thing.

One last thing; I am thoroughly against the idea that literature has to be exclusively that which is relevant to the children being taught it in terms of location, ethnicity, gender etc. Having some distance helps means you can appreciate the universality of it and not focus on the details.

Of course, this applies in both directions - DWMs are not the standard and anything which deviates from that is not watered down guff the masses can identify with rather than real literature.

And the relevancies focused on tend to be rather superficial. As a teenager in the midst of much confusion around my sexuality I was helped a lot by a rather insightful teacher telling me (individually) that I had to read The Color Purple (despite my majormajormajor issues with a lot of it). Actually, that is a relatively obvious connection, but people can find them in obscure places, but it was listed on the sheet of options as 'Black Literature' which would have been easily overlooked if we were simply going for pigeon holes.

(Sorry, Lit Major :D)

*Of course, we were lucky enough to have the money to do so - our Saturday pay wasn't needed for household expenses.

JoMo said...

This is a fascinating discussion. I'm an English teacher and it's great to read people interested enough to debate what I think is an important issue.
The original article was (suprise!) misleading, in that it suggested that the new standards will differ from current practice significantly. In fact, Shakespeare is currently not a required element of any high school English programme. Most schools probably offer him however, because - well, because by and large, English teachers love Shakespeare. However the only time there is a Standard explicitly mentioning the Bard is at Level 3 (Bursary for people my age)and it's perfectly possible to construct a programme without offering the standard. No schools I have contact with do, although I think it would be sensible in, for example, a school with a high ESOL population.
My philosophy is to offer texts that I'm passionate about and that I think the students in any given class will also come to love. This year, that's meant teaching texts as diverse as 'High Tide' by the fabulous Anna MacKenzie - a fine New Zealand author for young adults - and 'Lord of the Flies', Hone Tuwhare and Simon Armitage and Fleur Adcock, 'I'm not Scared' (an Italian film) and 'Hairspray' (the re-make). And, of course, 'Macbeth' and 'Much Ado about Nothing'!
The beauty of the New Zealand Curriculum is that I don't HAVE to teach certain books.That leaves me free to choose texts that will inspire and motivate my students.

Anna said...

I wish I could have been in your class! I did enjoy MacBeth, I have to say - but I think that was because the language meant that the teaching was slow and intensive, and the themes were spelled out.

Tim, well argued! One of the things that helped me during my English degree was my familiarity with obscure parts of the Bible - all those boring hours spent in Mass as a kid...

Craig Ranapia said...

Shouldn't what's relevant to their lives be a decision for pupils to make, not teachers? Am I really supposed to find the writings of Frank Sargeson more inspiring simply because we share citizenship?

My counter-question to you, Hugh, should we chuck Janet Frame down the memory hole because her use of language, form are "challenging"? That the social and emotional contexts of her work are very different from those of the average contemporary teenager.

Yes, you've got to WORK at it. And we can't have education actually challenging pupils to get outside their complacent comfort zones!

Hugh said...

My counter-question to you, Hugh, should we chuck Janet Frame down the memory hole because her use of language, form are "challenging"?

No, and I'd be really interested to idenfity where you think I said that.

I'm not claiming all New Zealand authors are bad (although the vast majority are). Merely that their 'relevance', eg their New Zealand-ness, doesn't change the fact.

Anna said...

Two things here - students aren't necessarily in the best position to determine what's relevant or best for them, hence the fact we don't let them have too much input into the curriculum. NZness doesn't necessarily make something relevant either, although it may help. My reference to NZ literature was more to illustrate the strands of literature which have had difficulty asserting themselves in the face of the dominant tradition of the classics.

Hugh said...

NZness doesn't necessarily make something relevant either, although it may help.

So what does make literature 'relevant'? Writing about the sorts of issues that teenagers face - relationship angst, economic hardship, identity crises? And which of these is absent from Shakespeare?