One of the areas of exploration in IB Diploma for English is how literature fits into time and space. In other words, how a text may be interpreted and received by audiences across different time periods and cultures. We have already begun developing this kind of conceptual thinking at KS3 this year as we study Shakespeare in term 3.
In year 7, we are reading ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’; year 8 is studying ‘The Tempest’; year 9, ‘Romeo and Juliet’. One of the concepts we drive home is how the texts would have been interpreted and received by a contemporary Elizabethan audience versus a modern-day audience. All three of the plays have sparked interesting debates in the classroom on the attitudes and values of Elizabethan England: parental control, violence, arranged marriages, colonialism and the role of women in societies. This is one of the reasons why Shakespeare is still so popular over 400 years on. The themes of his works transcend time and they explore what it is to be human.
Year 7 has been exploring the relationship between father and daughter and how the shift of power over time has given females more of a voice in respect to their conjugal relations. The same theme is also prevalent in Romeo and Juliet with year 9 as we analyse the relationship between Juliet and her domineering father, Lord Capulet. With year 8, ‘The Tempest’ has conjured up the still prevalent debate over colonialism. As students have already studied the concept in BSS, they were able to apply their knowledge in a new context by exploring the colonizer / colonized dynamic between the Prospero, Ariel and Caliban. Again, they were able to look at the theme through the lens of an Elizabethan perspective and then under the fresh lens of the 21st century. What has society learned from its past mistakes?
All of the above sparked some interesting classroom discussions, one of which was: Would Shakespeare be cancelled in 2021? We live in a very sensitive age where the line between free speech, hate speech and freedom of expression in general is more blurred than ever. I was so impressed with the year 9s as they explored the themes in Romeo and Juliet with such maturity and open mindedness. We were able to constructively share ideas and beliefs in a respectful and safe environment where all voices were on the table. This healthy kind of classroom debate is a great platform to build on as they move through GCSE and IB, becoming rounded and open-minded thinkers, tackling the polemic topics of our age with the maturity needed for success in adult life.
More importantly, it led to the intriguing question of what would society in 2400 think of our 21st century customs and beliefs? Perhaps our attitudes and values today will be looked down upon with scorn by posterity; perhaps we will be mocked for our customs; perhaps our controversy will be their triviality. Who knows?