Shakespeare and Education

Ishrat Lindblad

"In the Company of Shakespeare" - a cultural and educational project in Stockholm


The aim of this paper is to present and discuss a unique long-term project to introduce Shakespeare in English to Swedish schoolchildren that began tentatively under the leadership of the director and choreographer, Donya Feuer in September 1990, reached a climax in 1998 when Stockholm was cultural capital of Europe, and continues at the present time as a joint project between the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden (Dramaten), Kulturhuset in Stockholm and the Teacher's Training College in Stockholm (Lärarhögskolan).

In her own account of this project, Donya Feuer traces her inspiration for it back to the moment of her reading Ted Hughes's selection of Shakespeare's verse in 1976 combined with what she describes as a

"startling experience while improvising in a workshop [in 1989] with two ten-year olds on 'Take, O take those lips away, That so sweetly were forsworn': beginning with just the physical effort of saying the words in English, then over to their rough Swedish translations, making it then possible to return to and 'use' the original text. Unforgettable … Shakespeare, and the voices of those two children" (Feuer, 119).

One of the results of this "epiphanic" moment was her agreement to enter into a collaboration with a class of science students at Brännkyrka high-school (Class N3B) in response to the suggestion of their English teacher, Ulla Al-Fakir. The class met at least twice weekly to read, translate and commit to memory a stanza each in English of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Instead of the customary special paper this class chose to work on a stage production in English using selected passages from a variety of Shakespeare's works. For this purpose they were given access to a rehearsal studio at Dramaten and had the added privilege of being able, during the preparatory stages of their project, to work with an abridged text of A Midsummer Night's Dream especially edited for them by Ted Hughes. The resulting production entitled "More Than Cool Reason ever Comprehends" used a substantial portion of the text of A Midsummer Night's Dream and was performed entirely in English to an audience of students, their parents and their teachers at Kulturhuset (3 performances in 1991) and was subsequently successfully revived, even though the class had graduated and dispersed, for 6 more performances during the autumn of 1991 at the cinema hall of the Modern Museum in Stockholm.

Petter Lille, one of the original group of students, in writing about this experience some years later, claims that through their work with Venus and Adonis the students felt they had absorbed Shakespeare's language "into their blood" and had not only committed the lines to memory but truly learnt them "by heart" in the fullest sense of the words. (Barn och Kultur, no.5, Autumn 1993, 92). In fact, several of the students, Petter Lille among them, became so involved with the project that they continued to work with Donya Feuer for some time, assisting her in workshops with new groups of students from class eight and nine who came from some of the secondary schools that had seen Class N3B's performances at the Modern Museum. This new group was called "Buketterna" and proved to be quite longlived. Gradually they developed a special way of working and improvising around Shakespeare's texts and also visited a number of different schools in the Stockholm area as workshop leaders to share their way of working.

On account of the enthusiasm which their contact with Shakespeare in the original language generated among the schoolchildren with whom she had come into contact, in 1990 Donya Feuer entered into a joint collaboration between Dramaten (The Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden), Kulturhuset (The Culture House) and a large number of primary, middle and high schools in the Stockholm region in order to get schoolchildren of all ages to engage with Shakespeare's texts in English. This project was entitled "Shakespeare kommer. Kommer Du?" (Shakespeare will come. Will you?). It set a ball rolling that meant that either directly through this project or one of its offshoots by the year 2001 more than seventy schools in greater Stockholm, 14 in other Swedish cities, and a few schools in Rumania, Finland, Denmark and even 4 schools New York, U.S.A had been exposed to Donya Feuer's pedagogic method.

Her method involves the creation of a text that she terms "a particell" (echoing Mozart's use of the word for his notes for a "partitur"). The particell is always taken from the American edition of Ted Hughes's selection entitled The Essential Shakespeare. One of the key particells is: "When my cue comes, call me/ And I will answer, I will answer" (from Bottom's lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream). Another is " I am not what I am/ I follow but myself; /Heaven is my judge…/ I am not what I am" (from Iago's lines in Othello). Students are at first made to read the lines out loud and then to try and find as many synonyms in their own language as they possibly can for the English words. This inevitably makes them aware of the multiple interpretations a line can have and also of the nuances of difference in regard to the connotations of apparently synonymous words. Having experimented with translation, the next step is to memorise the lines. This is done playfully by the students together in chorus. Once the lines have been learnt by heart, the students are divided into smaller groups and helped to devise their own performance of the lines they have learnt. They are encouraged to experiment with a variety of ways of staging the lines - in chorus, or by repeating the same lines after each other, or breaking up a lines to be spoken by different performers. Ultimately they are preparing for a relay performance based on passages the different groups have chosen and rehearsed. In this way they not only get to know a fairly large number of Shakespeare lines by heart, but also derive the manifold benefits of working as a team to produce a play; acting different roles, creating their own interpretations and getting the applause and appreciation of a sympathetic audience that consists of virtually all the pupils and their parents and teachers in their respective schools.

After several years of successful collaboration with schools, in 1996 Donya Feuer was requested by Bengt Börjesson, at the time head of the Teacher's Training College in Stockholm (Lärarhögskolan), formally to join the staff as a professor in order to introduce teacher candidates to her method. The idea was that teachers should learn how to use Shakespeare's language in workshops as a pedagogic tool in their own future professional activities. For this purpose "Buketterna" changed their name to " Will's Company" and joined with the teacher candidates at Lärarhögskolan who created a group called "Lärarensemble". In effect "Will's Company" was "employed" by the Teacher's Training College in Stockholm in order to work intensively on an ambitious project with schools sponsored by Dramaten, Lärarhögskolan, Kulturhuset and Kulturhuvudstadsåret '98) (the name given to the company responsible for organizing the activities to be performed in Stockholm during the year 1998 when it was cultural capital Europe). The immediate goal was a series of relay performances in English of Shakespeare at Kulturhuset throughout the year 1998. This was successfully accomplished when as many as 8000 students from Stockholm, some other parts of Sweden and a few from other countries as well, prepared and presented a number of different events based on Shakespeare's texts. The year was officially inaugurated with a performance at Dramaten (The Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden) in January, followed by relay performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and As You Like It through January, February, April, September and December at Kulturhuset and other venues. Among a host of activities, performances of Shakespeare in English were given during Stockholm University's "Science week", during the National Conference for teachers of Modern Languages, and at the Fifth Nordic Teacher's Conference at Lärarhögskolan.

Largely because of the success of the abovementioned project in Stockholm, in 2001 the government allocated a fresh grant to sponsor a project to be called "In the Company of Shakespeare" in order spread the idea to other Teacher Training Colleges in the country. In close collaboration with Lena Tidholm, the acting head of Lärarhögskolan in Stockholm, all the Teacher Training Colleges in Sweden have been invited to send two or three teacher candidates and one tutor responsible for their training to participate in a series of workshops called "Bottom's Dream" at Dramaten. These workshops are personally supervised by Donya Feuer and her core group of workshop leaders. At the present moment their goal is to produce a relay performance of The Tempest at Kulturhuset in April 2002 with the participation of about 150 teacher-candidates from throughout the country. This performance will be dedicated to the memory of Ted Hughes. In the long-term however, their goal is no less than to inspire teachers throughout the country to introduce Shakespeare in English to schoolchildren from the primary to the high-school level. In the fall of 2002 all the teachers within the network intend to intiate this process in at least 150 different classrooms, by repeating on the he same day at the same time the particell that has become their hallmark: "When my cue comes, call me / And I will answer, / I will answer." It is indeed difficult to find a comparable example of an educational dramatic project on such a large scale.

In his report to the Ministry of Education dated March 1, 1999, Bengt Börjesson claims that the "Shakespeare project" is a linguistic rather than a dramatic one and that its ultimate aim is to help young people to develop their own linguistic and creative ability. Although it is difficult to measure the impact of such education in quantitative terms it is worth noting that in the decade since this project was initiated, about twenty-two thousand Swedish schoolchildren of all ages have been brought into direct contact with Shakespeare's texts.

Reports by three teachers at the primary, middle and high school levels all testify to the success of bringing Shakespeare's texts in English into the classroom. Lotta Harding of Ålstensskolan describes how children in class 2 (aged eight) respond to the energy and rhythm of Shakespeare's original language. She encourages them to play with the few lines they are to learn by heart by speaking in chorus, in pairs, as individuals, and also to hear the rhythm by stamping their feet or clapping their hands, thus letting the language enter their bodies as well as their minds. (Barn och Kultur, 93) She tells how the primary schoolchildren she had worked with through the term were then taken to Dramaten to see "Bottom's Dream" (a collage of Shakespeare's texts based on Ted Hughes's selection and performed principally by "Buketterna"). They remained silent and were clearly fascinated throughout the performance. Afterwards they too were divided into groups of roughly ten each and allowed to rehearse a few lines of Shakespeare together for a quarter of an hour and then given the opportunity to perform their lines for each other with great success.

Similarly reporting on her experience of teaching Shakespeare's texts in English every year for three years to children in Class 6 (about 12 years of age), Eva Edman of Mälarhöjdens school claims that she finds students develop their own ability to express themselves both linguistically and emotionally through the stimulation that the contact with this work affords them (Barn och Kultur, 95). Marie Linder and Christina Holmqvist of Österholms high-school also testify to the positive response they get from their adolescent students (a group often known to be noisy and "difficult" at high schools) especially when introduced to Shakespeare's love poetry and the complexities of his treatment of young love in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Barn och Kultur, 97).

Apart from the number of extremely positive evaluations by school-teachers on record in the project's archives at Dramaten, one of the schools in Stockholm, Högalidskolan, which by no means represents an elite neighbourhood has chosen to profile itself as a "Shakespeare school", consistently using his texts in a remarkable number of different subjects and innovative ways. One such example is the use of lines from Shakespeare's plays as the source of inspiration for art classes which culminated in an impressive exhibition of students' work.

According to Bengt Börjesson's report to the Ministry of Education dated March 1, 1999 the fact that the project includes a large variety of different kinds of schools means that students of different social backgrounds are reached by it. Frequently those who become most enthusiastic about the work are immigrant students with a poor knowledge of Swedish, or else students who may be native speakers of Swedish, but possess poor language skills. Learning Shakespeare's lines by heart in English and rehearsing them together has clearly facilitated the meeting between Swedish and immigrant students across linguistic and social barriers and is especially valuable in allowing the immigrant children to feel they can perform on equal terms with the Swedish youngsters and at times even outshine them (reprinted in "In the Company of Shakespeare", p.4)

Since Sweden does not have a centrally controlled national curriculum and each school is free to select its own programme and textbooks it is very difficult to make generalizations about what is currently being taught in Swedish schools. There is however, little doubt in my mind that politicians and society in general give greater priority to subjects that have a clear "use value" like the natural sciences and information technology. Many Swedish schoolchildren leave school without much knowledge of classic Swedish writers and have even less knowledge of the great classics of Western literature.

A symptomatic resistance to the idea of allocating much time to the recognition of the need for such training as part of the regular syllabus for teacher candidates, is reflected in Bengt Börjesson's observation in his abovementioned report (pp. 8-10) that one of the problems encountered has been that of persuading the decision-makers to include the project as part of the core curriculum thereby ensuring that all future teachers will be exposed to this pedagogic method. At present the regular syllabus for teacher education continues to give priority to a more theoretical and traditional classroom approach to didactics. The aim of the next phase of the project is therefore to have the Shakespeare workshops included as part of the core curriculum rather than as an optional module.

Swedish educators stress the role of the school in transmitting the values of a democratic post enlightenment society. The pedagogy described in the Shakespeare project is an important exercise in team- work and in teaching respect for the individual; values that are more important than ever in what has become an increasingly multi-cultural Europe. The participants learn how to work together as a team with a common goal, they acquire self-confidence and enjoy the recognition of both their classmates and their teachers. Significantly, teachers claim that many of the children of immigrants who do not perform well in other school subjects do well in the Shakespeare project and surmount the barriers of class, race and cultural through their participation in it. In making all the pupils in a given class learn some of the best lines that have ever been written in English and by making them perform in front of an audience, teachers are in effect training them in one of the most creative ways of using language. Not only do these lines become a part of each pupil's "mental and spiritual baggage", (Feuer, 121) they also learn to express meaning them through gestures and deeds.

It is of course possible to question the value of learning a few isolated lines from Shakespeare's texts but in his introduction to The Essential Shakespeare Ted Hughes argues that if there is only one way to read Shakespeare (i.e. the complete text of the play) it can actually limit the use of his lines as poetry. For example, the relevance of Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow" speech:

…is then confined to Macbeth's unique predicament in a sacrosanct, old-fashioned play rather than applied directly to our immediate plight as ephemeral creatures facing the abyss on a spinning-ball of self-delusion. Obviously, by reading the passage out of context, one is missing the great imaginative experience of the drama&emdash;but one is missing that anyway. The speech on its own is something else, read in less than a minute, learned in less than five, still wonderful, and a pure bonus." (Hughes, "Introduction",pp. 4-5).

Indeed, the complete plays are still there for each individual to discover once her/his appetite to learn more has been whetted. As Shakespeare has been established as a cultural icon for several hundred years it is clearly an advantage, even if only in terms of "cultural capital", to have been introduced to him at an early age. The long-term impact of this unique experiment can only be speculated upon but my own persuasion is that it cannot help but be significant and enduring.


Barn och Kultur, nr.5, Autumn 1993

Börjesson, Bengt, "Shakespeareprojektet vid Lärarhögskolan", In the Company of Shakespeare: ett möte over 400 år, Stockholm, 1999 (a brochure available through Dramaten, Stockholm)

Edman, Eva, "Shakespears texter sätter ord på barnens upplevelser", Barn och Kultur, above.

Feuer, Donya, " In the Company of Shakespeare and Ted Hughes", The Epic Poise, ed. Nick Gammage,1998, pp.118-121. (reprinted in In the Company of Shakespeare, above)

Harding, Lotta, "Magiskt arbete med rytmen och kraften i språket", Barn och Kultur, above

Hughes, Ted, The Essential Shakespeare, New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1991

Lille, Petter, "Shakespeare Kommer", Barn och Kultur, above.

Linder, Marie and Christina Holmqvist, "Allvarliga ord om live, kärleken och döden", Barn och Kultur, above.

Ishrat Lindblad, Stockholm University, October, 2001.



Nov. 2001

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