Skip to main content

When TV actor and supply teacher Marvin Karon asks a class of Toronto high-school students whether they hate Shakespeare, three-quarters of them usually raise their hands.

A new poll commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and released last week showed British young people are a bit more enthusiastic: A third of those under 35 agreed that Shakespeare's plays are relevant today. The RSC trumpeted this as wonderful news -- a third of the population under 35 is a whole lot of potential theatregoers -- but it does leave you wondering what the other two-thirds think. Maybe, like Karon's students, they think Shakespeare's language is incomprehensible and his plays are boring.

Or at least, that's what they think before Karon and his friends have got to work on them. He is co-director of ShakespeareWorks, a program that brings professional actors into the classroom to do scene work with students. The professional takes a lead role -- Hamlet or Desdemona -- and the students play the other parts and direct. Suddenly, both the universal and the archaic become clear, as the students agree they all know a braggart like Falstaff or realize that when a servant cries "Anon!" in Romeo and Juliet he must be lagging behind his mistress to comic effect.

The program, originally called On Board with the Bard, began in 1998 with a conversation between Karon, who was then teaching at York Mills Collegiate, and actor R. H. Thomson.

Depressed by a colleague who said she dreaded teaching Shakespeare, or another who suggested a drama class could busy itself doing improvisations based on The Jerry Springer Show, Karon told the veteran stage actor that he better look to his future audiences. Thomson took up the challenge and came to the school to workshop scenes from Macbeth.

Today, a list of actors that includes founding members Peter James Haworth, Rosemary Dunsmore and Yanna McIntosh along with the likes of Martha Henry, Gordon Pinsent, Fiona Reid, John Neville and Colm Feore have now visited 150 schools in the Toronto area, while Karon has also taken the program to Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School in Halifax, and to several schools in England. Meanwhile, Haworth is expanding the program this summer, setting up a day camp in tents at Ashbridges Bay on Toronto's eastern beaches, offering children from ages 8 and up the opportunity to spend a week or two performing Shakespeare.

At the core of the ShakespeareWorks program is the notion that these weighty texts of the Western canon have to be taught as theatre rather than as literature. When students have handed in essays that begin "In Hamlet, the book makes the point . . .," Karon the teacher angrily scribbles in the margin, "It's not a book!"

That's also the philosophy at the Stratford Festival, where education manager Pat Quigley runs training programs for both teachers and students to supplement the matinees attended by an average of 70,000 young people from Canada and the United States every season.

"If you approach it as literature, you destroy the intent of the playwright," she said. Indeed, when asked why students should study Shakespeare, she replied, "I wouldn't dwell on the universal [themes]that everybody talks about. . . . They are marvellous examples of how to write good plays, with interesting characters and plots packed with action."

To encourage teachers to move beyond line-by-line reading of the text and its analysis, she pairs them with actors who are trained to take a more physical approach to the script. Then the actor returns with the teacher for a classroom visit: Last year, Graham Abbey, who was playing the title character in Henry V, reported inspirational experiences working with the students at Toronto's Central Technical School.

The actors show how Shakespeare is fun and physical, but that doesn't mean they skim over the text. At York Mills Collegiate, English department head Peter Polley says what impresses him most about the ShakespeareWorks sessions is how the actors never let a line slip by unexamined but insist that every reference be explained and every word understood.

When I originally phoned Karon, Quigley and Polley, I thought to ask whether they believed Shakespeare should be compulsory in the schools. The curriculum varies from province to province, but most Canadian teenagers can easily avoid the Bard. In Alberta, for example, a Shakespearean play is required reading in the advanced English classes for students headed to university, but in the basic classes, the teacher can substitute a modern drama. In both Ontario and Nova Scotia, Shakespeare is simply one of a list of possible writers to be studied.

Quigley doesn't see any trend toward ditching Shakespeare, but Karon is worried that intimidated teachers won't teach demanding plays that they themselves may find difficult to understand.

Similarly, Polley is concerned that the stress on measurable standards in the new provincial curriculum will mean teachers use easier texts to ensure their students pass.

"There's a list of 72 [curriculum]expectations. . . . You can accomplish them using John Grisham or you can accomplish them using Julius Caesar," he said.

But as all three talked with huge enthusiasm about getting Shakespeare up on his feet in the classroom, my question seemed increasingly irrelevant: There is little point forcing students to study Shakespeare if they are only going to be left with the impression that the plays are irrelevant and boring. On the other hand, those lucky enough to have an R. H. Thomson or a Graham Abbey visit their class may be in for the educational experience of a lifetime.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe