The Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Council hope to change the way young people in India approach Shakespeare

Drop the name of Shakespeare in a group of young people and a few groans are almost always audible. Particularly from those who had Portia’s Quality of mercy mercilessly thrust down their throats or those who remember breaking into hives when set with the brutal task of recalling Brutus’s famous words before an entire class.

You cannot blame this on the Bard — 400-and-odd years ago, he made a living by making human passions play out gloriously on the stage. He might have said anything but aye, had he known that centuries later he would be prescribed as a textbook, memorised grudgingly by students who missed out on his wit and would be graded on what they thought were the undercurrents of his merry A Midsummer Night’ s Dream. All this while bazaar guides made a fortune decoding the Bard for young people.

Timeless as he is, the way Shakespeare is taught in schools can turn people against him for life. “Studies in the U.K. have shown that the way Shakespeare is taught in our schools can be damaging to people rather than being stimulating or liberating or acting as a catalyst,” says Chris White, an educator with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). The RSC has been working with students and educators in the U.K., hoping to make a change in the way Shakespeare is taught in classrooms, almost 450 years after his birth. Its 2010 survey revealed as many as half the world’s children, across different cultures, encounter the Bard in the classroom.

“We hope these educators will be the vanguard in this initiative,” says Rebecca Gould, trainer with the RSC. Drama education may not figure as an important part of the curriculum in India, but the scene is slowly changing, particularly in private schools and colleges. Instead of conducting workshops that target young people, the RSC decided that long-term results would be possible if the initiative instead targeted people who are involved with young people on a regular basis. “The main parameters are that they work with theatre and have experience working with children or have a desire to do so,” says Chris White.

Anshul, who conducts theatre workshops with children, has never integrated Shakespeare into his work yet. “I still flounder with Shakespeare and I have always done so. I think it is because I was never introduced to Shakespeare in a way that excited me. So I’ve turned to doing my workshops based on history and Indian mythology. But it is essential for me now to revisit Shakespeare.”

Inspiring students

The RSC adopts three tenets to take Shakespeare to young people. “Do Shakespeare on their feet; see it live; and start earlier.”

Getting students excited about a text penned 400 years ago is not a cakewalk. “While dealing with young people, the text is never the starting point,” says Ananat. “It may even be the last link. I find ways to work around the text first.” Through games, exercises and activities, teachers and educators are encouraged to make young people explore a play not sitting down but on their feet, living it. It is important to be familiar with the text first before planning an activity, cautions Ms. Gould. “Know the essence and then devise something around the text that can inspire students. Use exercises which you are comfortable with. But don’t beat yourself up if they don’t work.”

Chris White chips in, “If an exercise falls flat, don’t abandon it the first time, reflect on it and see how it can be modified.” It is important to constantly reinvent material on dealing with the text, felt one participant who teaches drama in a government school. “I am amused with the many new ways parents devise to keep their kids occupied in buses and trains. It becomes an inspiration to find something that can engage my students.”

Interpreting Shakespeare

Another mistake educators make in teaching Shakespeare is passing on preconceived notions and assumptions. “Many Shakespeare characters, though evil, may have the audience empathising with them,” says Ms. Gould. “Don’t tell them this is what it means but lead them to interpret the text.” She suggests asking “What do you think?” after introducing a scene or the play to young people and eliciting their response.

A lack of openness in approaching Shakespeare can only end up reinforcing stereotypes and cut out the possibility of discussion. Deliberately looking for an agenda or forcefully drawing a parallel to a real world situation can also fall flat. It is better to allow students to find comparisons on their own.

RSC also plans to stream live its Shakespeare theatre to schools and colleges collaborating with the company, so that students get to experience the plays.