William Shakespeare: A king of infinite spaceOn the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth and death, Anthony Seldon asks why we are allowing the world's foremost playwright and England's cultural figurehead to disappear from the classroom
By Anthony Seldon
A painting of William Shakespeare which is believed to be the only authentic image of the playwright made during his life Photo: Getty
Forget the election, the Clegg bounces and the Brown gyrations. Blank out Icelandic volcanoes and flight disruptions. For today is the happy conjunction of St George's Day and Shakespeare's possible birthday, his 446th no less, as well as the day he died. It is as good a day as any to be celebrating all that is English, and the world's greatest playwright.
Whichever party wins on May 6 must champion a renaissance of Shakespeare in our schools and restore him to his rightful place across the nation. Shakespeare should make us proud to be British.
Familiarity with Shakespeare must begin early, because it is there that the roots are laid for the rest of life. Yet the Bard has been on the retreat in schools. The dropping in October 2008 of tests for all pupils at 14 may have had much to recommend it in our exam-drunk country, but it has damaged the study of Shakespeare, as his plays were a compulsory element. The numbers of pupils in this 11-to-14 age group who have seen one of his plays in the theatre has halved since then.
The new English Language and Literature GCSEs, beginning this autumn, downgrade the importance of studying Shakespeare through live performance in favour of Shakespeare on film. Schools increasingly are turning to "International" GCSEs, which are more rigorous than traditional GCSEs, but do not require pupils to focus on Shakespeare.
He remains central to English Literature at A-level, but a declining percentage of students are now opting for the subject, while media and film studies are growing apace. Increasingly, there are teachers joining the profession who hardly studied Shakespeare at school, and lack the same passion of older colleagues who were reared on him.
Why does this matter? If our aim is to turn out, not civilised and sensitive young men and women, but unthinking automatons, then the dwindling of Shakespeare does not matter. But few Telegraph readers will agree with the new philistinism.
On St George's Day, thanks to Shakespeare, we can feel proud of our English heritage. No writer has contributed more to our national identity. In times of crisis, we turn to him. Churchill's government did so during the Second World War, funding Laurence Olivier's Henry V as morale-boosting propaganda. How many of today's young can quote Hal's Saint Crispin's Day speech: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother"? Most who revelled in the television miniseries Band of Brothers would never have known the origin of the phrase.
Shakespeare has given us so many of them – "more in sorrow than in anger"; "in my mind's eye"; "old men forget"; "a sea change"; "all that glisters is not gold"; "all the world's a stage"; "as dead as a doornail"; "vanished into thin air"; "fight fire with fire"; "wild goose chase"; "foul play"; "good riddance"; "in a pickle"; "more fool you", "mum's the word", "my journey's end", "sent him packing", "the game is up"; "the truth will out". Studying Shakespeare opens the young to a world of language that will enrich their lives for ever.
His plays give unparalleled insights into human nature. He is the greatest psychologist of all time. I have just returned from directing my sixth formers in Othello in the Far East. In Beijing and Ho Chi Minh City, many in the young audience did not understand a word uttered; but they were engrossed. No spinmaster in this, or any other, election has ever approached the manipulative subtlety of Iago.
As with the Greek playwrights, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, the dramas move deeply into the human psyche. They portray all the seven archetypal plots described by Christopher Booker: Henry V thus typifies "the quest"; The Tempest "voyage and return"; Richard III "killing the monster"; Twelfth Night "rags to riches"; As You Like It "comedy"; The Winter's Tale "rebirth and redemption", while Hamlet gives us true "tragedy", with the perceptive young recognising the same story as The Lion King.
Shakespeare is the best representative of the English renaissance, the age of our greatest artistic and intellectual flowering. Our young need to know about it so that they can gain a better understanding of how English culture – their culture – has developed, with Shakespeare its finest example.
The British obsession with exams is a principal factor in the decline. The imperative of drilling students to learn the dross that examiners expect risks killing our best literature. Instead of being a delight to the imagination and spirit, classes can become a dull drudge of learning "correct" quotations and answers.
Teachers increasingly find that they lack the time to bring Shakespeare to life by allowing the students to read the whole play and act out scenes. Instead they do extracts. "I'd like to be more creative, but playing with the text will not attain the school's academic targets," said one teacher, responding to a survey commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Unsurprisingly, less than one fifth of the students agreed with the proposition that "Shakespeare is fun".
Seeing Shakespeare in the theatre is much profounder for students even than watching wonderful films such as Franco Zeffirelli's (1968) or Baz Luhrmann's (1996) Romeo and Juliet, or Kenneth Branagh's (1993) Much Ado. But many professional productions are too long and worthy, even for adults. It is little fun for the students, their teachers or parents, when the coach arrives back at the school gates at 1am.
The RSC, with its special abridged school versions, has it right, and its productions for schools are proving justly popular. You do not need much more than two hours to appreciate a Shakespeare production. The excellent 2007 production of Othello at the Globe Theatre on London's South Bank was marred by its length; the first Act lasted nearly 40 minutes. It could have been cut
None of the political parties has produced a manifesto on Shakespeare. Let me propose one. All children at primary level should know the stories and see simplified forms of all the major Shakespeare plays. They should learn passages from Shakespeare. At eight, I had to learn "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" from Henry V, and have always been grateful for that (memorising poetry is the entitlement of every child).
Those in their first two years of secondary school should be offered opportunities to act in a Shakespeare, and should study "easier" plays such as Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Thirteen to 16-year-olds should all study a tragedy – Hamlet or Macbeth would be ideal, a comedy such as Twelfth Night, and a history, perhaps Richard III. Lessons should involve acting key scenes, because that helps to create a deeper understanding, and brings character and plot to life. The RSC and other bodies should hold annual conferences and festivals to encourage a love for Shakespeare, and implant passion lost.
On St George's Day, let us remind ourselves that England is a "precious jewel set in a silver sea". Readers will recognise this line from Richard II. How many of our young will continue to do so unless we