He may no longer be de rigeur in other parts of the world, but in Indian schools William Shakespeare appears to be fighting fit. “We were all really sad that we wouldn’t be reading Julius Caesar again; it was so much fun,” said Arhana Bose after finishing her ICSE English literature exam.
Instead of being daunted by the archaic language and foreign context, city students seem to be lapping up their Shakespeare, something that can no longer be said for their contemporaries in other parts of the world.
A Higher Secondary board in Australia last month announced that 75 of its schools would be jettisoning the bard from the syllabus in favour of contemporary authors. In the UK itself, the bard’s homeland, schools no longer test 14-year-olds on his texts, while several have moved to the international version of the local GCSE curriculum — the IGCSE board — where Shakespeare is optional.
“Of course he’s still relevant,” said Seema Buch, principal of Gundecha Education Academy in Kandivli. “The kind of characters he portrayed still exist.” The school held a four-day inter-school Shakespeare festival last year with students of 30 different city schools performing scenes from As You Like It, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar.
In a delicious irony that would have post-colonialists whooping with delight, Indian schools still feel that the bard’s place as a long time denizen of the syllabus is justified. ICSE and ISC schools teach a Shakespeare text in Classes 10 and 12, while CBSE students study dramatic excerpts. “One also teaches Shakespeare for the language, and the themes,” said Paul Machado, Campion school principal. “Don’t we still have betrayal and revenge today?”
It’s a testament to the bard’s perennial attraction that even a few SSC schools (that don’t have to study Shakespeare) sent their students and teachers to the Gundecha festival to give them a taste of his work.
But with the pace at which language is evolving, and the general lament that children do not read any more, is Shakespeare a valid poster boy for literature? “If we are to teach him in school we need to expose students to his best plays, not any of his plays,” said Bubla Basu, a senior English teacher. She added that schools should forego the bard altogether, instead of studying weaker works such as As You Like It, just for the sake of it.
Ian Chambers, South Asia regional manager for the IGCSE board, makes a further argument for maintaining Shakespeare at the level of an option.
“It’s not necessarily easy to understand Shakespeare’s language and context in other cultural settings,” said Chambers. “There could be other texts that are also canonical.”