Fiona McCade: Don’t deny teenagers of Shakespeare

Replacing Shakespeare with Adrian Mole would deny teenagers the chance to examine the human condition and escape self-absorption, writes Fiona McCade

Sue Townsend, not Shakespeare, wrote the Adrian Mole series. Picture: PA
Sue Townsend, not Shakespeare, wrote the Adrian Mole series. Picture: PA

General Gaddafi once said that he believed Shakespeare had really been an Arab scholar named Shaykh Zubayr bin William. In the 19th century, someone alleged that Shakespeare was just a nom de plume for an Irishman called Patrick O’Toole, and there is another theory that he was in fact Michelangelo Florio, an Italian churchman. In 1976, a Spanish academic suggested that the playwright and Miguel de Cervantes were the same person, making him the author not only of 38 world-famous plays, but also of Don Quixote. Even the Klingon chancellor in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country declared that: “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.” It seems that everybody wants to claim Shakespeare.

Well, almost everybody. An author called GP Taylor has called for schools to dump “dry” Shakespeare in favour of modern books such as The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. He said: “‘Nobody will want to criticise Shakespeare because he is the nation’s Bard, but when I visit schools young people tell me that reading Shakespeare is a pain… The key is to get them to read about things which are relevant to their lives.”

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Interesting. I have always thought that the glory of Shakespeare – the reason he is still feted across the globe (and perhaps even across the universe) – lies in his ability to speak directly to the hearts of all people, in all cultures and for all time.

However, it looks like there is one group of people for whom love, loss, betrayal, envy, ambition, jealousy, loneliness, heartbreak, ecstasy and despair are not significant, interesting, or indeed anything to do with them. And that group is British teenagers.

Granted, I can’t find a single reference to acne in Shakespeare, so Adrian Mole definitely wins on that score, but isn’t it terrifying that there are people out there who can see no relevance at all in a body of work which pretty much encapsulates the sum of human existence?

The main difficulty in teaching Shakespeare lies in the fact that his works are plays, not books, and so in order to be fully enjoyed and understood, they need to be performed, not read – but that’s a problem easily remedied. What worries me most is Taylor’s use of the word “relevant”.

Surely relevance is relative. It took Archimedes a lifetime of baths to realise that the water in his tub contained the key to a mathematical puzzle. Who knows what apparently innocuous knowledge might one day turn out to be useful?

Information that might seem pointless to a 16-year-old, but is absorbed anyway, might end up being hugely valuable to them later on. Taylor is saying that Shakespeare is irrelevant to the lives and experiences of young people, and therefore we shouldn’t waste their time and ours exposing them to it. We should let them stay safe in their little adolescent bubble and not challenge them with any hard work. I couldn’t disagree more.

Quite apart from the fact that Shakespeare wrote about teenagers and their hormone-fuelled angst with incredible insight and feeling, all his plays and poems offer a window into a greater, richer world which no ordinary teenager will have experienced. I want our kids to taste this; I want their horizons broadened and their minds expanded. I want them to learn that life-changing romance, shock, agony and triumph don’t just happen in the pages of Heat and Closer, or on Britain’s Got Talent.

School should be about introducing our children to the best of ourselves, and the sum of what the human race has achieved, not letting them wallow about in the shallows of self-absorption, just because the genuinely good, important, stimulating stuff is a wee bit difficult and sometimes comes in words of three or more syllables.

Ideally, we should be introducing kids to more information, not less. Of course there should be a good range of authors included in any curriculum, but if we let the likes of GP Taylor get away with questioning the relevance of Shakespeare, then Burns and Homer will soon be hurtling towards the scrapheap and there’ll be absolutely no hope for Joyce.

If we based our children’s education solely on what they think might be relevant to them, I doubt that school would happen at all. You couldn’t even make a case for cookery, or woodwork, because we have takeaways and Ikea. Besides, I’m trying and failing to see the relevance of the young Adrian Mole to a 21st-century audience. He didn’t have a mobile, or a Wii, and his mum went to a place called Greenham Common. It’s all, like, so 30 years ago, what’s it got to do with anything?

When I was a teenager, I wanted an easy life too, so I understand schoolchildren not wanting to put effort into their work. Shakespeare forces his readers to think, and he makes tough demands on the sort of young brains raised on Kim Kardashian and Simon Cowell. However, we owe it to our sons and daughters to help them see the bigger picture.

Giving this generation a solid intellectual foundation is vital to the future of humankind, because then they have the tools to develop, progress and improve. Our job is to inspire and encourage them, not to make condescending decisions on their behalf about what matters to them and what doesn’t.

You could argue that all sorts of things are irrelevant to everyday life, but does that mean they should be ignored? I loathed maths at school, and since I left, I’ve never had cause to bisect a triangle, but I wouldn’t take that to mean that it’s a waste of time teaching the subject.

We need to find out as much as we can about all that we can, because ultimately, it helps us understand ourselves.

I say there is no darkness like ignorance. Except that I didn’t say that, did I? Shakespeare did.