Thursday, July 24, 2008

Oxford School Shakespeare




Let’s nail the first point well and truly down – this is an edition of the play that is intended to be used in the classroom situation in an educational institution in the UK: It would be totally unfair to treat it as anything else.

That is not to say it is not usable (or indeed preferable) in other situations, but with the title ‘School Shakespeare’, the colours are firmly attached to the flagpole. Maybe I should clarify the use of the word ‘school’ for our transatlantic language speakers – a school is a place children go to learn – it is not a higher education institution – school children attend schools.

When you pick it up – and that is the first experience many people will have of the full text of any Shakespeare (this is, after all, mistakenly considered one of the easier and safer plays to do with young people) … as I was saying … when you pick it up, it feels good: Not too heavy; clear flexible binding (which state school in England could afford the hardback?); good colourful picture with suitably dramatic facial expressions; clean white paper – which falls open to give a tantalizing glimpse of lots of space and not too intimidating amounts of print. You also notice the pictures – black and white.

The blurb on the back is unhelpful in the classroom – just advertising promoting the series – although it does claim to deliver the full text and student notes. A missed educational opportunity based on a commercial decision?

On the title page we get two Oxfords, one Oxon, a Cantab., and an OBE – an M.A. and a B.Litt.: We also get the name of the woman many of these letters attach to: – oh, and a Title.

None of this will interest the schoolchildren – none of it really interests the teachers – the editors are giving as much ‘clout’ as they dare to support a supposed need for academic excellence attached to The National Poet’s works.

Most students at this point will be flicking through the book looking at the pictures and picking out bits of text and the notes.

Oxford have done a good job at this point – there are quite a few illustrations – some photographs taken from RSC productions – principally 1995; others line drawings illustrating and supporting particular points in the text or the notes.

You notice pictures of cards, cannons and puppets; men in silly trousers on a scooter, a woman in an off the shoulder dress, and one in a wedding dress – two women fighting and several young men … all will stimulate the interest in the majority of classrooms … and raise the first hooks for understanding the play. They also help reduce the ‘intimidation’ factor – this is not going to be as difficult as people say.

Most teachers will have introduced the play their own way – and would initially ignore the Introduction – “Turn to the characters on page xix,” is a very likely start to the lesson. However, I will go through the book in book order – just to make things easier ...

(To be continued)

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