Spotlight On: Shakespeare

7 June 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 7 June 2019.

At 10, it was the magic of the fairies in the woods. At 12, it was the brave spiritedness of a young woman standing up for herself. At 14, it was risking everything for a grand love. At 17, it was the slow awakening that there may be nothing after death. At 21, it was the burning jealousy of newlyweds. At 30, it was the shock that a mother would kill her own child for power. At 35, it was the pain of seeing a father choose a favourite child. Then in the last 10 years, it’s been cycling back through the same stories but seeing them all over again with new eyes. The crippling grief of losing a parent and the constant pondering on what to make of life when you know the looming final outcome is the great leveller of humanity.


A name that can conjure up joy and groans, fear and love, laughter and confusion. He’s been around for a while for a reason. Schools, universities, curriculum authorities, theatre companies and film directors all contribute to his ongoing cultural and educational currency. Every year I have the enormous privilege of being part of that sacred contribution. I feel the weight of responsibility when I step into the classroom for our first lesson with the Bard. He means so much to me and I determinedly want for him to mean something to the young people I teach.

Why Shakespeare? Firstly, he is the vehicle through which you can tell students important facts about history. Secondly, he writes something initially impenetrable then suddenly glorious in its manipulation of the English language; it’s hard and that’s good for the brain. Thirdly because he represents every possible human experience and emotion and thought in the most extravagant way that you scoff at how ridiculous the situation is but then quietly realise that is exactly how you’ve felt and you know people just like that in your own life.

I am not sure how many of the opening references you recognised but the one play that has been my literary soulmate is “Hamlet”. It is the play I have had the privilege of teaching so many times I’ve lost count; I’ve taught it twice to Queenwood girls. Teaching “Hamlet” makes me feel like Spiderman: with great power comes great responsibility. I hold this play in my hands, and want with every fibre of my being, for the students to love this play, to think deeply about this play and to find many, many things in this play to help them navigate through life’s most difficult times. Hamlet is nothing like a girl at Queenwood living in the 21st Century; however, Hamlet is everything like them. There is no better age to introduce them to this depressed and infuriating Prince of Denmark. He’s asking all the questions they are: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Who am I? Why on earth are my parents so annoying?

Better still; to get to all of those connections girls have to think really hard. They have to decipher language that is unfamiliar and yet familiar. There are allusions they have to make connections to stories from mythology, the Bible, history and other works of literature. So soon they are reading and researching multiple texts just to work out one line in the play. It’s brilliant! Then you find yourself going off on a tangent to tell them about a beautiful painting of Ophelia created in the Pre-Raphaelite style and, look at that, you’ve now added another whole period of history to their mind banks. It is knowledge overload but something will stick and that’s all that matters. All of the works provide an intersection of knowledge domains like no other. He’s the embodiment of a liberal education.

The most important layer for me is the magic that happens when students stop seeing the language as a barrier but feel ready to dive deeper. In the recently released film, “All is True”, Kenneth Branagh plays a melancholic and rather lost William Shakespeare in his twilight years. At the climactic point in the film, a young man reminds Shakespeare of his legacy; he exclaims, “There is no corner of the world which you have not explored. No geography of the soul you can not navigate”. This is the true power of his plays. Students are taken on a journey to times and lands they have never been (and have much to gain in this new knowledge) and also on a journey inwards to the very heart of what is to be human. No wonder I feel this precious responsibility so deeply and want to ensure the magic is passed along to a new generation. Branagh’s cinematic version of Shakespeare implores, “Consider the contents of your own soul. Your humanity. For that is the business of theatre (or in the case of this Queenwood teacher, a liberal education). Everything else is just stage directions.”

Mrs Kim Elith
Director of Curriculum