The Plays We Learned

Image Source: Unsplash

Image Source: Unsplash

Saoirse Anton

It’s September and that can only mean one thing, it’s back to school time. The pencils have been sharpened, the school bags have been dusted off, and students around the country are looking uncharacteristically tidy in their school uniforms.

Since the first teacher sighed wearily as they noticed yet another student staring out the window instead of listening, boredom, disinterest and rebellion have been as closely associated with schools as learning, interest and education have been. Even Albert Einstein, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, disliked science in school, once writing: “One had to cram all this stuff into one's mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.”

I was lucky, I already loved poetry and plays enough that even poring over the same script for months on end couldn’t spoil it for me, but I have lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with people who say that they hate Shakespeare because of studying him in school, or can’t stand Sylvia Plath because they had to answer so many questions on Poppies in July that it stopped even feeling like a poem any more. Even I have to admit, it was a good year or two before I revisited and enjoyed the plays I studied for my exams. But coming back to Shakespeare’s works later on stage revived them for me. When we study things, sometimes we forget that they first existed outside a classroom.

Shakespeare wasn’t thinking “Ah, this soliloquy of Macbeth’s in Act II, Scene I will make an excellent passage for those Leaving Cert students to dissect in a couple of hundred years’ time.” Most likely, he was thinking of the best way to draw the audience to the edge of their seats, to invest them in the torment in Macbeth’s conscience, and to tell a good story. Similarly, Ibsen was writing A Doll’s House for his audience in a 19th Century Copenhagen theatre, not in order to provide some meaty quotes for students to scatter through essays. Plays are written to be brought alive on stage, not plodded through line by line at a rate of a couple of scenes a week. Seeing an actor play Hamlet’s anguish through the much mulled over “to be or not to be” monologue is vastly different to reading it in the confines of a classroom. 

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

Magic can be produced in classrooms, the things we learn in them can stay with us for the rest of our lives, but some things are better enjoyed away from a desk. The powerful alchemy of a play is only complete when it is on a stage in front of an audience. The answer to making Shakespeare accessible to students isn’t to simply publish the script with a modern-text “translation” next to it – it’s to see it performed, to use the script as the active text it is and let students stage scenes in the classroom, to let it come to life as the living breathing thing it can be.

And living, breathing things these plays certainly are, with Mill Productions bringing Hamlet to Dundrum next month, Othello taking to the stage in Smock Alley the following month, Nicholas Hytner’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream coming to screens across the country from the Bridge Theatre with NT Live, and Rough Magic’s Much Ado About Nothing heading out on tour, to name but a few.

As children around the country head back into their classrooms this month, revisit a play you read in yours. Whether it’s listening to a recording or radio play version of a script, diving in and reading a few scenes of Macbeth aloud to yourself, snuggling down to enjoy Baz Lurhman’s Romeo+Juliet, or heading along to your local venue to catch their next offering from the Bard, it’s time to bring those chalk-dusty words back to life.


Saoirse Anton

Saoirse Anton is a writer, critic, theatre-maker, feminist, enthusiast, optimist, opinionated scamp & human being.