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Friday 18 April 2008

Bits and Pieces

No one told me..

I didn't know, until I read it in the paper the other day, that this is The National Year of Reading Shakespeare on behalf of which a national survey was commissioned to discover the preferred reading matter of 11 to 14 year olds. And guess what? Shakespeare did not come top. Not only that, but the bard escaped bottom spot only by the narrowest of margins, with homework pushing him up one place. First and second places were taken by Heat and Bliss, celebrity gossip magazine and teenage girls mag, respectively.

These unsurprising results were followed by the disconcerting "news" that most serious theatres are concerned that there is no source from which to replenish their existing audiences when, from one cause or another, these fall by the wayside.

All this led up to a consideration of how to interest the teenage youth in the Sweet Bard of Avon. (Why do we insist on referring to him as the bard, by the way? The one thing he never was, was a bard.) Putting him back in the school curriculum is ruled out, Tom Stoppard having been asked what he had thought of his first encounter with Shakespeare (which, as it happened, was Laurence Olivier's Hamlet), and having received the reply that it had bored him "shitless". (Not sure of the connection there, but I do know that I was put off Shakespeare at school, mainly by "The Merchant of Venice" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream". What wouldn't I have given for Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet"!)

There was much discussion of the various media available for communicating Shakespeare these days: opera, dance, radio, T.V., film, music, musicals... no mention was made of puppets or X boxes... but the most likely saviour, it was thought, was cartoons, particularly the Manga series, which are Japanese in style. Particularly, it was thought that the Japanese style of the Manga comics alongside Shakespeare's "funny English" would appeal to teenager Gothic tastes. The Classic Comics series was also thought to be a runner as these come in triplicate with a complete text, a "plain" text and a quick text". (There is also a no text version.)

I don't think the comic approach would have tempted-in many of the adolescents I have taught, though many of them, I am sure, would gladly have read them. But maybe the present teenage population.... maybe I am not well-placed anymore to judge. I would be interested to hear what others might think.

The comic page is from Richard III "plain" text.
Click on it to see larger size.

A Change of mind?

This is a follow-up to my post One man's meat is another man's Haiku, and has been occasioned by my discovery of a recently-published book by Maryanne Wolf, "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain". In my post I touched on the changes to a brain's structure that result from the process of learning to read, and how those changes vary enormously according to the type of reading matter being mastered. The example I took concerned how the structures resulting from learing to read an alphabet-based text such as English will differ from those in the brain of a person learning to read, say, Chinese, a visual encoding whose method is based upon the ideogram. One of my illustrations involved fMRI scans of the two brains. Wolf has a more powerful image which I would certainly have used had I been aware of it at the time: she tells of a bilingual man, a fluent reader in both English and Chinese, who suffered a disasterous stroke which destroyed parts of his brain, such that he could no longer read a word of English. His ability to read Chinese, however, was undiminished. She makes the point that reading is an unnatural activity, or as she puts it: "Our brains were never wired for reading." Reading was only ever made possible by the capacity of the neurons in the brain to forge new links in response to new demands being made upon the brain. This allows the language form being used to write a particular structure to the brain. Or as Wolf puts it: "We are what we read." I think that sums up quite succinctly what I was struggling to express in my original post.

A Subaltern's Love Song

Sad to hear of the death of Joan Hunter Dunn. I am sure many thought she was a fiction. As many as those who think John Betjeman was too light-weight or too jingly to be considered as a serious poet. Much of his work was maybe too light-weight and too jingly to have made of him a likely Poet Laureate, yet Poet Laureate he became. And there was more: he has been called parochial and passe and has been faulted for not doing the big themes - except for death. All of which is fair comment. He was not a nature poet, not a Wordsworth certainly, but perhaps his biggest crime has been that of becoming known for the wrong poems. A Subaltern's Love Song, would, I suppose, be regarded as typical Betjeman. And it is, but if that is to summarise what he achieved, it sells him short. He was best known for his nostalgia, his sense of place and of Victorian architecture in particular, even for his melancholia, but to my mind he was, above all, a poet of landscape, nearer to Crabbe than to Wordsworth. For me his best works are the poems from and of Cornwall and Ireland:

Stony outcrop of the burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe's Stone Age race.

He was also a splendid writer of blank verse and was happier with it than with prose. And what an incredibly lucky poet! How many others have been lucky enough to find a muse with a name like Joan Hunter Dunn? You couldn't even hope for it, could you? To what extent she was his muse, I am not sure, not in the same way that Maud Gonne was Yeats's muse, I think. To the best of my knowledge Joan Hunter Dunn inspired only the one poem (though I am happy to stand corrected on that), but Betjeman's muse is what she is, and I guess, will remain.


Fiendish said...

I think the concern that in twenty or thirty years, nobody will watch any plays is very real. Theatre is, sadly and somewhat inexplicably, a dying art.

As for Shakespeare, I think it is important to recognise him on the school curriculum. I'm bored shitless by Maths - that doesn't mean it shouldn't be on there. Some things in school are boring for some students. Wow.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

I must be sincere about Shakespeare, dear Dave. I teach him at school and it's very difficult to raise interest in the students, I try to concentrate on the sounds and meanings and general atmosphere. I think one should connect Shakespeare to what belonging to him is also valid in these days as for example in Hamlet's soliloquy the pale cast of thought turning enterprises "Awry". Through this I can interpret the way in which the disastrous and illegal war in Iraq has become: an enterprise turned "awry" because the thought at the start had "sickled over" everything with its mendacity and the killed "native hue of resolution" has produced then a domino effect of catastrophies with useless deaths of innocents like the useless deaths in Hamlet's story.
Best wishes, Davide

Jim Murdoch said...

My gut feeling when it comes to teaching Shakespeare is that it needs to be worked up to. I left primary school, where we had no exposure to theatre other than one year our class did a performance of 'The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens' and that was it. The next year suddenly I was hit with Shakespeare but we treated it like a book rather than a play. We never performed the piece, never watched a video or saw a film. I think we may have been treated to an audio recording of Romeo and Juliet once but I wouldn't swear to it. I was in my mid thirties before I saw Shakespeare performed live. Up until that point I'd made do with films (thank God for the BBC's Shakespeare season).

All we did at secondary school was Shakespeare – four years of it – I didn't know any other playwrights existed (being a bit facetious there) till I left school. The thing is, I don't think that Shakespeare is necessarily the best introduction that kids can receive to the world of theatre. That said I'm unsure what I would use as an introduction, perhaps one of Alan Ayckbourn's plays for children. Shakespeare is hard work. Like Beckett, once you get into the right mindset then you can sit back and actually enjoy the piece. Both need to be studied to be fully appreciated.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that fiendish, and welcome, nice to have you dropping by. I have to agree with you that there probably is a real danger of zero audiences in the theatre at some time in the future. What to do about it, though? First identify the cause, I guess. That question might be worth a post or two!

I did not mean to suggest that Shakespeare should not be on the school curriculum. He obviously should. The problem is how to present his work. Another subject for postings!

Thanks again, your comments much appreciated.

Dave King said...

Thanks tommaso, all I can say is that I wish I had had you for a teacher when I was at school. At least you are giving yourself a fighting chance of making the occasional breakthrough - and if that seems too optimistic, remember we have to aim for the stars to hit the treetops.

Ken Armstrong said...

For me, the movies are a super way to get shakespeare to the younger audience.

Theatre *can* work but I reckon if William was around today he would be a screenwriter - oh, and he would whiff a bit, obviously :)

I never felt obliged to like Shakespeare and, in school, found the texts to be largely impenetrable. But the texts weren't meant to be read, like all scripts they are blueprints for a production/performance of the work.

Movies are the magic bullet though, I'm sure of it. Kenneth Branagh's 'Henry V' struck right home to me in a way that stays with my today and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet is a super example of a hyped-up glamorous production which retains much of the romance and the passion

Dave King said...

Hi Jim,
Thanks for reminding me of The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, I had forgotten all about that little beauty! We went straight from him and Lochinvar to Plato's Republic and The Greek Plays.
As for yourself, quite a jump! Much later we came to The Merchant of Venice. It didn't match-up somehow, but that may have been because it was just reading round the class with Q and A to see if we had understood - exam work, you see! No need to actually see or take part. So, yes, I agree it needs to be led up to - and a bit of the old visceral wouldn't go amiss...

Dave King said...

Thanks Ken,
Yes, I am sure that if Bill was about today he would be a screenwriter. I have no doubt about that. I am sure he would write for both the small and the large screens. I interesting to conjecture about the issues he might apply himself to!

And if for that reason alone, I do think the way forward is largely via film and video. Largely, but perhaps not exclusively, for people are infinitely variable and for some individuals other media may hold the key.

Dave King said...

To all,
Only this morning read in The guardian "Writers on writers series:
George Bernard Shaw on Shakespeare -
There are moments when one asks despairingly why our stage should ever have been cursed with this 'immortal' pilferer [...] With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, nit even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his. The intensity of my impatience with him occasionally reaches such a pitch, that it would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him, knowing as I do how incapable he hand hid worshippers are of understanding any less obvious form of indignity."
-Saturday Review, September 22 1896 -

Just thought someone might have a comment to make - it's beyond me.

robinstarfish said...

Living out in a relatively sparsely populated region of the western USA, one might think that the only Shakespeare being introduced to our younger generation would be in the form of fishing tackle, but that is fortunately not the case. We are blessed to have had a visionary Shakespeare lover in our midst for over 30 years, who has tirelessly worked the community with the result being one of the finest outdoor theaters in the Northwest. The children of the region especially benefit, with enormous time and effort spent bringing Shakespeare to them.

So in spite of the distance, both geographically and culturally, from Avon, the love of Shakespeare is flourishing here.

That said, I believe that a survey of local pre-teen's reading lists would have much the same results as in the UK, youth being so in the moment and all. But many of our local kids have grown up to introduce kids of their own to Shakespeare via our local troupe. And so it goes, as long as the dream lives on.

Dave King said...

Many thanks for that, and welcome. It's good to know that Shakespeare lives on in spite of all, and always interesting to compare notes with others around the globe. I guess the old adage is true that, maybe with a few exceptions, kids are much the same wherever they are - as, indeed, are adults.

Thanks again for the feedback.

Conda Douglas said...


Interesting post, especially about Shakespeare and manga of all things--I think it might work quite well because of my experience with discovering Shakespeare at 14 and adoring his work ever since.

Because: At 14 I got to tour Europe on a student tour and we attended a performance of Twelfth night at the Royal Shakespearean Theater in Stratford-on-Avon.

It was hilarious. Fast paced. We understood the plot. And, it had sex in it! Accessible and enjoyable. I remembered that whenever a high school teacher made us slog through a play with questions about theme, etc.

Rachel Fox said...

We read 'Macbeth' first at school. We were..about 14 and I certainly remember loving it - all that death and gore and evil...perfect for teenagers. I didn't see a play or a film of any of his works till a good couple of years later.
If you're going to study Shakespeare that young it has to be chosen carefully and well taught and, goodness me, you certainly shouldn't just do Shakespeare like poor Jim (that explains a lot!). He was only one writer...there are a few others!

Dave King said...

An interesting comment. Your first experience of Twelfth Night contrasts so vividly with mine of reading round the class. Rather underlines what I was trying to bring out. Intriguing though, when rachel's experience is brought into the comparison. Thanks for sharing that.

Dave King said...

thanks for dropping by. Your comment contrasts interestingly with my thought on the subject of reading Shakespeare, as opposed to seeing or acting, and also with conda's experience. Perhaps the difference lies in the two plays, Macbeth a rather more promising choice than Twelfth Night - and maybe in the teaching, too. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems in this world, is it? Thanks for the feedback.

Rachel Fox said...

Maybe the ideal class of teenagers needs to be split into groups by taste (instead of the usual split by ability)...group one for gore and the horrors of life and death (Macbeth), group two for....whatever it is people get out of Shakespeare's 'comedies' (can't say I've got it yet, in all honesty) and group three for something completely different (for those who will never like Shakespeare, those who aren't ready and those who would rather do something else than read literature anyway). Would that cover it? Might need more teachers!

Anonymous said...

The best music lessons have students playing instruments and singing. Art lessons have students engaging with the process through the use of materials. The Dance curriculum is designed to have its participants moving around physically, generally to music. Shakespeare wrote plays. Plays are meant to be acted out. Teach Shakespeare practically and apply the same logic that drives the other 'creative' subject areas within school.

Personal experience. When I've directed kids in plays by Shakespeare - 'Macbeth', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', 'Romeo and Juliet', 'As You Like It' - they have taken on the challenges with enormous enthusiasm, mastering the language and embracing character and situation with all the appetite (and frequently greater freshness of approach) of those who might claim a more scholarly relationship with 'the bard'. Not personal trumpet blowing, this, but a tribute to the accessibility of the work and the openness of kids in school - if Shakespeare approached practically!

Dave King said...

That Rachel, is "thinking outside the box", as they say. Might even be worth a shot. I was wondering about Shakespeare as a soap, so the kids could choose between three; "Blood and Gore Street", "Gigglewick" and a futuristic "Starbase Shakespeare". It might even introduce a competative edge...

Dave King said...

Yes, thanks for that, Dick. I absolutely take the point you are making. I, too, know from personal experience that this can work, but whilst I also accept unreservedly that you are not trumpet blowing, I do wonder whether there are enough teachers of sufficient quality and with a genuine interest in Shakespeare to make it work generally. I have known a few who would say they did what you suggest exactly, but with disastrous results.

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Dave King said...

Hi gps and welcome. Thanks for dropping by and for the positive comments. Will do, for sure.

Lucy said...

Gps is spam, as you probably know...

I enjoyed this discussion, though I've come a bit late. I didn't mind the comedies which I came to first but I think it's a common mistake that younger people will enjoy them more because they're 'lighter' and supposedly funny. I didn't really grow to love Shakespeare until a bit older, getting my teeth into the tragedies and histories especially Julius Caesar(not the King palys at that stage, I discovered them later at uni). It was the passion and psychology that turned me on then. Between about 16 to 18 I devoured every production I could get to of these, but have to say that the last Shakespeare I saw at the theatre, a reasonable, I think, King Lear, with, I think, Anthony Quayle nearly 20 years ago, left me bored and tired and disenchanted(cheap seats in an old-fashioned theatre didn't help...)

I'll occasionally watch a screen version, but generally don't think much about it any more, but I'm very, very grateful to have a lot of it in my head now, though much of that is from reading the plays as books, which was something I always liked. My brother-in-law runs a similar sounding group in NZ to the one Robin describes, and I think such people must do wonders.

Oh yes, Betjeman. I was really surprised by a poem called, I think, Portrait of a Dead Man, a quite macabre memento mori. Wasn't his actual long term muse Deborah Mitford ( the one at Chatsworth), I seem to remember hearing that somewhere?

Dave King said...

Much appreciate your comment - not late at all! I agree that it is a common error to suppose youngsters will be more amenable to the lighter plays - the comedies. You seem to be confirming the experience of others that video and T.V. are probably the best media. I do recall - though only as a few dramatic, but isolated moments,
- the film of Richard III which I saw many moons ago now. I think the
powerful images which have remained with me will be with me for all time.
Thanks again.