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Much ado about studying Shakespeare



The study of a play by William Shakespeare is a compulsory part of the English Grade 12 syllabus and one of two core works assessed in the final matriculation literature paper.

Its place in the curriculum remains a “perennial question” and the catalyst for an “ongoing debate about the relevance of Shakespeare in the school syllabus”, says Professor Christopher Thurman, the director of the Tsikinya-Chaka Centre in the School of Literature, Language and Media at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Thurman says there are two key stances to the argument. “One side of the argument is that Shakespeare arrived in South Africa as part of a colonial imperial project. Therefore, the way in which he has been taught for centuries has reinforced that project and what it has to say about race, the global north versus the global south, and the assumptions about the centrality of European and specifically British culture and perspectives.”

As such, “proponents of this view, would suggest that in the South African context, if we want to decolonise the minds of young learners, we need to think about knowledge production that comes from the south and literary and cultural production that has come from our part of the world”.

Here, the view might be that “Shakespeare has to go” in favour of South African and African works.

On the other side of the argument, says Thurman, is the idea that “we owe it to our learners to introduce them to a cosmopolitan global perspective on literature and literary production, that it’s part of their education as citizens of the world to exchange ideas about important cultural points of reference. This is where the idea of Shakespeare and the timeless universality of his characters and themes often becomes a central proponent, one that suggests Shakespeare captures something of the collective shared human experience.”

Yet, cautions Thurman, “If we are thinking about Shakespeare’s universality it’s only because he has sometimes borrowed, adapted, or stolen or sometimes written his own versions of stories and archetypes that respond to the universal human condition. That’s a very different way of thinking about Shakespeare as relevant rather than placing him on a pedestal.”

In addition, the idea that the language of Shakespeare is the entry point into his work is one which worldwide pedagogical studies have shown is inaccurate, says Thurman. “In fact, it’s in countries where Shakespeare is encountered as a linguistic fellow rather than a linguistic other; where students encounter Shakespeare in performance and in their own language that’s shown to be the most successful and the least likely to be perceived as boring, inaccessible, and irrelevant.”

After all, proposes Thurman, essentially, “Shakespeare always comes to us in translation. Even if you are an English monolingual speaker, when you engage with Shakespeare’s early modern English, you are already embarking on a process of translation.”

Moreover, along with being interpreted linguistically, “it’s also interpreted on stage and screen. There’s no such thing as a kind of authentic, original Shakespeare.”

This should be celebrated, he suggests, especially in South Africa, where many students have apt abilities to move across languages. It falls into a long but little known history of translating Shakespeare into African languages, starting with those made by Sol Plaatje, a founding member of the African National Conference. It should also allow students a sense of “playfulness” when engaging with the text, Thurman says.

For Justine Sandler, the head of the English department at King David High School Linksfield, and matric English teacher David Kaplan, the often cited inaccessible language, too, is a red herring.

“To say it’s a controversy isn’t really accurate, it’s just a perception,” says Kaplan, “one which is soon overcome by the power of the works.” From an initial sometimes trepidatious response, students end up “with a real sense of achievement that they’ve completed a Shakespeare, understood it, and accessed it,” says Sandler.

“There’s no question it’s meaningful. The characters stand apart,” says Sandler. Seeing how “students identify the links within the Shakespeare texts and their own situations” makes it a most gratifying teaching experience.

Kaplan affirms this perspective, describing how “as a teacher, you cannot help but enjoy teaching it; it’s giving people an idea of life. It shows us that no matter whether you are the king or clown, you are imperfect.”

When it comes to social comment, “If we look at governments of any kind, Shakespeare’s narratives parallel their power dynamics perfectly,” says Sandler.

There is, say the teachers, something for everyone. For example, stories about leaders like Coriolanus and Henry V are “identifiable and accessible to team sportsmen who love the idea of being motivated and inspired”, Sandler says.

Even Antony and Cleopatra, which was a recent matric setwork, might at first have seemed problematic in how distant its context is from our own. However, the students found the central romance compelling. “They understood the dynamic between the man and the woman. this hasn’t changed,” says Kaplan.

In the Independent Examinations Board curriculum, along with the Shakespeare text, a novel is taught and assessed. Each school is given a choice between a novel considered a classic or a South African text.

Demi Kaplan, a King David Linksfield matriculant from 2021, suggests that it’s important that the Shakespeare play is studied alongside these other texts, saying that she particularly enjoyed the South African novel which was selected in her year.

“I’m an avid reader, but I’ve not read a lot of South African novels and this experience really opened me up to reading more. South African novels are unappreciated, and I really enjoyed it. If we could get another book in, I think we should read other classics like The Great Gatsby or A Tale of Two Cities.”

Samara Jay, another matriculant from the same cohort, feels the same, saying that along with the Shakespeare play, an African or South African text should be mandatory. “Something with our heritage would be interesting and connect us to our South African identity,” Jay says.

For both students, Shakespeare had powerful resonance. “I’m a feminist and it’s just so interesting to see the perspective and the status of women at that time and how it’s completely evolved,” says Jay.

Kaplan says that her matriculation Shakespeare text, The Tempest, “made me reflect on my own ideas of power and how a society should be run. As a teenager who can now legally vote and who is going into the big world, it’s a very important concept to think about. It made me realise that it’s not realistic to expect a perfect society where everything is fair, but at the same time, a dictatorship where one person rules with an iron fist cannot ever work.”

Ultimately, she muses, the study of Shakespeare gave her deeper insight into humanity. “The characters teach us what to do and what not to do with our own flaws and feelings. It teaches us to have compassion for people around us who are struggling in that same way.”

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