Happy New Year William Shakespeare: you will be the man of the year again.
England and the other countries in the UK have had many great men and women of culture in their history. Giants like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, Wordsworth and Blake, Milton and Chaucer in literature; Constable and Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds in art; Christopher Wren and Charles Rennie Macintosh in architecture; Stephenson and Brunell in engineering; Handel, Elgar, Purcell, Byrd and Tallis in music, carry the UK cultural flag proudly.
But among these giants it is Shakespeare, the British writer who the world is most interested in. He is established as the UK’s top cultural export – by far. He is a named author on the curriculum in the schools of 65% of the world’s countries and more than half of the children in the world have some kind of encounter with his work during their schooldays – even in some places where the lessons are held on soil-eroded patches of earth beneath a tree.
Shakespeare is proudly cited by British people as their most valued poet. If asked who the greatest English writer is they will invariably say Shakespeare and, indeed, in competitions that look for the public’s verdict of who the greatest Englishman(person) is he always beats the other contenders – Darwin, Churchill and Brunell.
But, as Jesus observed (Matthew 13:57): ‘A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.’ The sad fact is that many British children encounter Shakespeare only in their teens as a topic studied for exams. Many grow up to regard Shakespeare as difficult, and not for them, and in turn are very unlikely to introduce their own children to his creative influence. The cultural wisdom has been that Shakespeare is ‘boring,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘obscure’ etc.
That was largely due to the appalling teaching of Shakespeare that has been the norm until the last couple of decades. In the midst of all this bad teaching, though, there were individual teachers and researchers who looked for new ways of introducing Shakespeare to children. And then, in 1991, a research project, Shakespeare in Schools, under Rex Gibson, began its work of gathering those experiences together and developing them in a systematic way. Gibson’s work has been very influential and now teachers routinely use imaginative techniques to make children’s experience of Shakespeare exciting, fun, and filled with pleasure. It is not uncommon these days to hear children talking positively about Shakespeare.
And so, as we move into 2015 Shakespeare comes closer to being a ‘prophet’ with honour in his own country. The previous mismatch of his reputation as England’s greatest writer on the one hand and children’s attitude towards him on the other is melting away and in 2015 and forever on, ‘so long as men can breathe or eyes can see,’ you, William Shakespeare, are, and will continue to be, ‘The Man’