Jane Nead, Research Intern, considers how active approaches to learning - as practised by teachers - impact upon young people’s understanding of Shakespeare’s plays.

Training with Impact

Many people’s first experience of Shakespeare is sat at a desk in the classroom, reading unfamiliar words from a book. But the idea that a child’s first introduction to Shakespeare should revolve around the text feels like a contradiction to me. Shakespeare wrote his plays for a company of actors to perform, not to be printed and read, and I believe that to really understand Shakespeare, we too need to experience it as performance – whether that’s watching it or playing it – because in performance it’s alive and exciting, and it really can be for everyone.

When I began my six-month placement at the RSC, I was excited to find out more about the company’s approach to teaching Shakespeare. The idea of getting on your feet, of applying rehearsal-room techniques in the classroom fascinated me.

Teachers in an RSC training workshop learning rehearsal-room techniques
Photo by Sara Beaumont © RSC Browse and license our images

In June 2023, I participated in a training workshop, meeting teachers who have been using rehearsal-room techniques for years, who know the impact of this work and want to pass on that knowledge. We played the games that they play with their classes, and we spent much of the two days on our feet exploring passages from The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry VIII. Then, in December 2023, I joined a brand-new group of teachers as they experienced the training for the first time, working with Macbeth and The Tempest.

The striking thing about both workshops was the way we were gently pulled further and further into Shakespeare’s world. Through a process of ‘scaffolding’, a picture was built gradually – to understand the context, mood, social position, relationships, dilemmas, and emotions of the characters – so that by the time we were given the words of a scene, it instantly became easier to comprehend.

That group of 29 teachers virtually replicated what the experienced teachers had told us they saw in their classrooms. They transformed from a pretty quiet and reserved set of individuals to an ensemble that created the entire story arc of Macbeth (including witches, spells, dead kings, battlefields and moving trees) on day one and the massive storm and shipwreck from The Tempest (complete with sails, waves, thunder, spirits and magicians) on day two. The atmosphere was one of excitement and inspiration, they couldn’t wait to go back to school and try the techniques they’d learnt with their pupils.

A Teacher's Perspective

In essence, the RSC teaches Shakespeare through practice and this active approach to learning is the key to understanding. In an interview about her Teacher-Researcher project as part of Time to Act, Roh Keys, a teacher from Sydenham Primary School in Leamington Spa, talks about the difference active approaches to learning have on confidence, resilience, and information assimilation:

"If they’re sitting staring at a page, you've already lost a significant chunk of children who are scared of that page […] When the language is dense or difficult with lots of unfamiliar words, it’s a real barrier. Whereas if you get the children up and doing it, all those barriers fall away."

Transforming the experience of Shakespeare

In my own jewellery practice, there is no substitute for doing – it’s only when you do it yourself that you really understand it. And when you embody a character in a play, when you put yourself in their shoes – see what they see and feel what they feel – it is truly transformative.

For me, the best Shakespearean performances on stage are the productions where the director has respected the words and the power of Shakespeare’s imagery. When they put their trust in Shakespeare and focus on ensuring that the entire company understands the play inside-out – their feelings, their relationships, their motivation, their lines – the difference is enormous. Because, when you explore the text by exploring the characters’ situations, issues, and challenges, when you really try to get under their skin, by being them, magic happens. I’ve seen it many times in the theatre and it’s what keeps me going back to see the same Shakespeare plays again and again – because within that process is the incredibly exciting and fascinating variety of interpretations that can be drawn from the same words.

But as words on a page, they are just that, words on a page. The RSC approach opens the door for school children to experience that power, to feel what the actor feels, to become part of the play and to understand it from the inside out. Then, when they watch a great production, they can see it, feel it, empathise with the characters, and remember how it felt to be on that ship in the storm, confronted by the three witches, or lauded as a hero. The language is incredibly powerful. It just needs to be unlocked and that happens when you get on your feet, when you access the play the way Shakespeare intended – not as text, but as practice.

Jane Nead, Research InternJane Nead, Research Intern

Jane is a jeweller and PhD researcher at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her research into metallurgical metaphors focuses on Shakespeare’s use of the language of counterfeiting, precious metal testing and hallmarking to create imagery relating to the themes of disguise, deception, authenticity, and authority in the plays.



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