Making Shakespeare Relevant For All

By Hetty Steele


Last month saw the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s first folio, marking four centuries of the playwright and poet’s influence on the theatre and literature of this country. Almost without exception (baring perhaps international qualifications), every 16-year-old in this country is required to study a Shakespearean play at GCSE.

This requirement is met with varying levels of enthusiasm, by students and staff alike, and there are voices that complain of inaccessible language, outdated characters and ‘done’ storylines. However, I argue that these works from 400 years gone by are as important and as relevant today as they ever were. In fact, I argue that they are fantastic vehicles into important 21st century discussions around race and power.

For evidence that Shakespeare can be successfully updated to the needs and interests of the time, we need look no further than the Globe. The Globe are acutely aware of the need to scrutinise the words, themes and content of Shakespeare. So much so, they dedicated their Summer 2023 season to ‘Anti-Racist Shakespeare’, hosting webinars that invited actors, directors, academics, and members of the public to come and discuss the representations of race and social justice in Shakespearean works.

The last of these occurs in February 2024 ‘Anti-Racist Shakespeare: Othello’ and considering the play’s prominent place on the English Literature A-Level syllabi around the country this is one to encourage our Year 13s towards. The Globe’s role in the contextual history of the plays, and its stance in 2023 surrounding issues of race, is a fantastic ‘in’ for conversations with students.

The key is to remember the context in which the plays were written – it might be easy to condemn Shakespeare at first glance for stating ‘all the water in the ocean/ Can never turn the swan’s black legs to white’ as though such a pursuit were surely all a living creature could wish for. But Shakespeare was very much a product of the social fabric of the sixteenth century, and we cannot forget that Shakespeare wrote black leaders, clever black lovers, and black, beautiful ‘natives’.

Let’s turn to Othello then, and issues of power. It is impossible to avoid issues of race within the play: Othello is the only black character and ultimately emerges as a deeply flawed individual. He also receives a host of racial remarks from other characters. At the turn of the sixteenth century Elizabeth I wrote a series of letters complaining that there were too many black people in England: there is no denying racial prejudice existed in this country at the time. However, colour and race in Othello are more complex than the play merely holding a mirror up to the sixteenth century’s audiences’ prejudices. The act of staging this prejudice was, debatably, a brave theatrical and literary act of its own.

Othello is the protagonist of the play, ultimately flawed but also powerful. His characterisation is more than the colour of his skin, his role as general questions notions of loyalty, betrayal, persuasion and what it means to have and retain power. Othello is a subtle, nuanced and impressive character and our students analysis of his character can draw parallels with 21st century politics: what will individuals do, and who will they tread on, to obtain power? Is there a strength in being the outsider, and what dos Othello’s refusal to be cowed on intimidated tell us about Shakespeare’s view on the prejudices that were aimed at black people at the time of original performance?

To explore ideas about societal divisions in 2023, you could provide students with production shots where directors have taken risks with the casting of the play. In 1997, director Jude Kelly cast Patrick Stewart in the role of a white Othello with all other cast members played by black actors – images available on Google. Clint Dyer’s 2022 production at The National projected Othello posters from performances past, including Laurence Olivier in blackface, deliberately critiquing previous production decisions. It’s a fascinating way into racial divides that still exist in society today, issues that have never been more prevalent to our students.

The Merchant of Venice is another text ripe for examination through the 2023 lens, demonstrating acutely how these issues are relevant for young people today. Stubborn Shylock belligerently insists a debt must be repaid, demanding a pound of flesh in return for his unpaid loan. Shylock is outsmarted on a technical detail by his daughter in disguise, who has converted to Christianity, and Shylock’s conversion to Christianity is demanded: ‘Two things provided more, that, for this favour,/ He presently become a Christian’. The significance of two religions living side by side and the vilification of one speaks to our modern-day conflicts most poignantly. There is the ancient stereotyping of Shylock as a miserly Jew, and there is the transformation of an elderly man into a bloodthirsty monster thirsting after the abject human body. What has allowed this view of a religion to pervade through thousands of years? Who is in the wrong? Why?

Finally, a third play that facilitates conversations about how Shakespearean characters remain relatable to us (and our students) 400 years later: The Tempest. Caliban is one of Shakespeare’s lowliest characters, a wood-fetching slave bound to a master through magic, vulnerable to lusts of the flesh, alcohol, and the merest shred of human decency. The island his master lives on was rightfully Caliban’s, but the land was taken from him. As well as obvious links to modern-day slavery, Caliban is a fascinating character to dissect through the lenses of social control. Caliban is subjugated through threat of punishment and physical pain.

He has intimate knowledge in some spheres (geography and the natural world) but is hugely naïve in others. After one sip of alcohol he decries the man who gave it to him a God and vows to serve him always. Caliban is controlled through threat of pain, intoxication, and through the promise of freedom. The servant plots murder (unsuccessfully) in order to free himself from his oppressor.

It is worth asking out students, would you follow a person who gave you a liquor that released you from your physical pain and allowed you to feel a confidence that had been beaten out of you until now? If your home was taken from you by force, or by war, and you were captured by the invaders, how would you respond? Does the fact Caliban’s master taught him language atone for any of this at all?

Labelling Shakespeare as ‘outdated’ or too difficult for our younger students to understand does them a disservice. Our young people are more adept than us at learning new terms and language, they can decode and code at a much faster rate than us, and they are astutely emotionally aware. These characters, themes and narratives speak to modern day anxieties and big questions. These plays are much more than ancient, disintegrating relics of literature from years gone past – they are real, tangible and our students gain an enormous amount from them.


You can read more articles by Hetty Steele here.


Hetty Steele is a PhD student and Head of Drama at a comprehensive school in Bishop's Stortford. Hetty also contributes regularly to Litdrive UK and to MTPT Project - a UK charity for parent-teachers.

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