Asking the Bard questions

Asking the Bard questions

From the Director of English

When I am driving or riding along, I divide my curmudgeonly attention between fuming over roadside advertisers’ crimes against English (a house on my commute was recently “Reuced for Quick Sale”) and thinking of wittier, better-informed or merely functional replies I should have made in earlier conversations, but wasn’t clever or quick enough to come up with. I suffer from that particular affliction the French call esprit d’escalier, and for which English has no satisfactory equivalent. ‘Afterwit’ was around in the 16th century, and ‘stairway wit’ is a fair current translation of the gallic original, but its stairy specificity excludes those of us who come up with belatedly stinging ripostes and irrefutable but long-redundant arguments in our showers, cars, and just before bedtime. 

This article is an instance of esprit d’escalier par excellence, because it is a reply to a question put to me a very long time ago.  After a Year 10 Parent Night a few years back, a Dad asked me an unusual question: “Why do we [at Girls Grammar] study so much Shakespeare?” I say ‘unusual’ because questions decrying a supposed ‘lack’ of Shakespeare are much more common, and because in the English-speaking world, asking “why?” (or even “wherefore”) about the Bard is to tread iconoclastically close to cultural heresy. For the record, our girls currently study A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Year 8, Macbeth in Year 10, and Hamlet in Year 12. My reply at the time was probably unsatisfactory, as I suffer from the condition I mentioned above, but the question has stayed with me, and has become particularly relevant as we teeter on the edge of the new Australian Curriculum.

The question is one very much worth asking.  Why do our girls study Shakespeare? Socrates was right (I’m sure he’d be glad that I think so) that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and the same can be said of curricula; the unexamined curriculum may well turn out to be not worth learning. The soon-to-be-Australian Curriculum has certainly been examined, and the print media in particular has covered not just the curriculum itself, but also the responses delivered by professional bodies and state authorities to the draft documents in English, Maths, Science and History.  The pithy headlines have summed up the general sentiment of educators (and revealed how out of touch journalists are with how we teachers grade these days): “F for Fail: ‘overcrowded, incoherent’ national curriculum panned’ (Patty, 2010). 

While the crowding and incoherence are irrefutably there, it is with Shakespeare’s place in the school curriculum that I am concerned. The Draft Consultation version of the Australian Curriculum for Senior English proposes that teachers be allowed to choose texts for Year 11, but that ACARA “in collaboration with the states and territories, will develop and regularly review prescribed text lists” (ACARA, p.5) for Year 121.  In the “plays” section of this draft prescribed booklist, the first dot-point simply proclaims: “Shakespeare”(ACARA, p.6). No actual plays are specified. Tellingly, all of the other dot-points on the list refer to specific plays.  There is no “Miller” dot-point, but a specific reference to The Crucible.  Shakespeare’s name alone appears to act as a guarantee of academic merit.  Apparently which play is taught is immaterial, so long as it’s Shakespeare. If I were to follow the letter of this document and write a new unit for Year 10 on Titus Andronicus, the folly of this bardolatry would quickly become apparent.  Titus is “Shakespeare” but it is to Hamlet what Peter Jackson’s early schlock/splatter films are to Lord of the Rings; its plot is more Saw IV than Henry IV. Here’s my proposed examination question: “Comment on the imagery of dismemberment, glossectomy and cannibalism . . .”  I can hear Dr Bell’s phone ringing already.

The problem (let’s pretend there is only one) with ACARA’s dot-point is that it is informed by what Barbara Bowen (2003) calls “the surprisingly resilient paradigm of Shakespearean exceptionalism . . . the Romantic veneration of Shakespeare as a solitary genius” (p.209).  Somehow Shakespeare is different from all other writers, a “paragon”. His name is a brand which implicitly confers and guarantees artistic and educational value. Put simply, if it’s Shakespeare, it has to be good.

Not only is it good, it’s good for you. Shakespeare, the authorities and their betters tell us, is a kind of literary codliver oil.  In 2008, then Education Minister Julia Gillard asserted that students ought to “read Shakespeare . . . to help know themselves”, adding that this kind of ‘traditional’ study was a “civilising and individually uplifting force that requires no economic or social justification” (Ferrari, 2008).  Clearly, the writers of the new National Curriculum agree with the second part of this statement, as no justification is attempted.  What troubles me (and my friend Socrates) is that this amounts to an inviolable barrier of “common sense” around literature and Shakespeare based on the premise that their place on the curriculum is a given.  The assertion that the bard civilises, uplifts and helps us understand ourselves also looks a little flimsy in light of the flurry of unkind “Lady Macbeth” comparisons in the press after Ms Gillard’s ascension to the Prime Ministership. Championing Shakespeare can seemingly lead to what Hamlet calls being “hoist by [one’s] own petard” (III, iv, 207).

So let me try to do what my curricular superiors have not: propose a partial rationale for why we study Shakespeare at Girls Grammar.  The first reason is aesthetic and subjective; the plays are good (if not original) stories that we hope the girls enjoy and appreciate. I have some un-empirical evidence that this may be so: my young children (ten and seven at the time) sat through Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, the long version, with me one lazy Saturday, of their own volition. The next morning I rose to find that the play was being happily re-enacted in a dolls-house Elsinore, with a cast of Playmobil figures, including a ghost. Enjoyability aside, the struggle with strange Shakespearean idiom and verse forms stretches and develops verbal and mental acuity.  English teachers have long known this, but, as Dr Stephens has been busy using the school’s EEG machines for her secret “re-animation” project, we have had to wait for neuroscience to provide evidence.  A University of Liverpool study found that “by throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity [in which] the brain is positively excited” and forced to work backwards to make sense of the text (“Reading Shakespeare has dramatic effect on human brain.” Dec 18, 2006, paragraph 3). It seems that the difficulty of the language itself may well be worth the effort.

Reading and studying Shakespeare may foster neural pathways, but I would argue that its greatest benefit is the provision of cultural capital. I do not use the term in its original Pierre Bourdieu sense of a hidden curriculum at which only the culturally privileged can excel, but in the sense that Shakespearean allusions, quotations, and motifs are so ubiquitous that not being able to identify, understand, and, above all, respond critically to how they are used places a person at a disadvantage.  Studying Shakespeare provides students with entry to a vast storehouse of allusive material.  This goes deeper than the ability to recognise The Lion King, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Forbidden Planet as adaptations of Shakespearean adaptations of earlier tales.  It also hopefully means more than knowing that “Alas poor Yorrick, I knew him” is followed by “Horatio”, not “well”, and that Juliet’s famous balcony question refers to Romeo’s name rather than his whereabouts.  Erica Hateley (2009) refers to such “display[s] of cultural capital” as “self-congratulatory” (p.13), and as an habitual self-congratulist, I have to admit that she is right.  But equipping young people to feel smug about a bit of bard-spotting cannot be the goal of the English curriculum.

Girls don’t need Shakespeare to “know themselves” but they would be far less critical readers of Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun, Phillip Coorey of The Sydney Morning Herald, and Jennifer Hewett of The Australian if they hadn’t read Macbeth and been exposed to the somewhat dated Aristotelian reading of the play as a morality tale about ambition.  Having had this exposure, girls can see to what uses Shakespeare is being put; uses which usually reveal more about the user than they do about the bard and his plays.  The flurry of Lady Macbeth references around Ms Gillard’s ascension cast light on the media’s treatment of women in high places.  I don’t recall a similar rush to the bard when Mr Abbott or Mr Rudd rose at the expense of their predecessors. The deposed were not likened to Duncan, nor their deposers to Macbeth.  This may not be “knowing themselves” for the girls, but it is certainly a step towards knowing their world and its politics.

This represents a shift away from Ben Jonson’s famous description of Shakespeare as “not of an age but for all time”. Passing on the adoration of the bard constitutes what Hateley (2009) sees as “present-adults producing and circulating qualities they consider valuable, in order to create future-adults who share such views” (p.13). There’s not a lot of educational value in this. When “Shakespeare” is viewed as a cultural arena rather than as an unquestioned universal genius, we see that the plays, as was written of Hamlet, “turn a new face to each century, even to each decade.  [Each play] is a mirror which gives back the reflection of the age that is contemplating it” (Wells, 1977, p.24).  Vast attention has been and is paid to Shakespeare’s plays, and this attention naturally reflects the preoccupations of those reading and writing.  Reading the plays at school enables students to step into this arena, and to see past and present societies refracted through the plays.  To stick with the Lady Macbeth example, seeing the play in the context of past critical traditions brings students into contact with historical interpretations of the play as a revenge morality tale, and of Lady Macbeth as the so-called “fourth witch”.  Girls who followed recent political events (often cruelly forced to do so by their parents’ insistence on informative radio in the car) and the use of Shakespeare by the media in reporting them couldn’t have helped but join a few dots between the attitudes that produced these readings of Macbeth, and those that informed the political reportage.

Reading Shakespeare in this way at school isn’t an exercise in hagiography, it’s an invitation to sit at the big table. The Year 12s did just this in Term III.  They read Hamlet, and as they did so, they made note of their responses, confusions, and questions. Then they were exposed to the major traditions of thought about the play, which meant interacting with Aristotle, Goethe, Coleridge, Freud, and a host of twentieth and twenty-first century critics proposing, among others, psychoanalytic, feminist, metadramatic, and gender interpretations. In their task, they entered into a conversation with the play, with these previous readings of it, and with their own analysis of how the play resonated (or equally validly, didn’t) with them and with their 2010 milieu. The very fine work that resulted constitutes, to my mind, an answer to the question put to me at that Year 10 Parent Night, and fills in some of the awkward silences of the Draft Australian Curriculum.

Mr S Woods


1. Any prescribed list is by definition and extension a much more extensive proscribed list. Queensland English teachers are not used to the pre- and pro-scription of the texts they teach by a central authority, and the Queensland Studies Authority (2010) has expressed this unease about ACARA’s appropriation of control over the booklist in its response to the Draft National Curriculum (QSA, 2010). How ACARA responds is yet to be revealed.


ACARA (2010). Australian Curriculum: Senior English Draft Consultation Version 1.1.0.  Retrieved July 5, 2010, from

Bowen, B. “Beyond Shakespearean Exceptionalism” in Davis, L. (Ed). (2003). Shakespeare Matters. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 209-221.

Ferrari, J. (2008, May 28). Back to basics is best, says Julia Gillard.  The Australian [Electronic version]

Hateley, E. (2009). Shakespeare in Children’s Literature: Gender and Cultural Capital. New York: Routledge.

Patty, A. (2010, October 15). F for Fail: ‘overcrowded, incoherent’ national curriculum panned The Sydney Morning Herald, p.1

Queensland Studies Authority. Queensland response to the draft senior secondary National Curriculum.  Retrieved October 10, 2010 from

“Reading Shakespeare has dramatic effect on human brain.” Dec 18, 2006. Retrieved 14th October, 2010 from

Shakespeare, W. (1997).  Hamlet with Related Readings. Melbourne: ITP.
Wells, S. (1977). Royal Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Leave a Reply