© Matt Lloyd/ Rex

If I Ruled the World: Fiona Shaw

Love Shakespeare, ditch exams
June 17, 2015

It’s wonderful knowing that I will never rule the world, but if I did I would immediately encourage a new style of teaching the arts and literature in schools. Everyone bemoans the fact that children are less interested in these things than they used to be, but it’s the way they are taught. I would get rid of exams for starters and allow young people to develop at whatever pace they like.

One of the terrible things that has happened is that Shakespeare and his extravagant language were stolen by the universities and by some notion of analysis. Shakespeare is a good example of somebody who was able to harness ordinary language and turn it into brilliant language—he’s a genius in that regard. He wasn’t out of reach for people in the 17th century and shouldn’t be out of reach for people in the 21st century either. His language touches on the kinds of things that have always touched people—love or loss or bravery or cowardice. Or humour. He allows each character to have a different voice. So if Shakespeare is turned into an exam item, or something seen as highfalutin’ or too powerful so that you have to be of a certain rank to read his words, then we lose access not just to his poetry but probably to all poetry.

I’m very much for people picking up books and learning about the wonder of literature for themselves. My love of Shakespeare didn’t come from school. We had a lovely family friend called Milsie O’Brien. When our parents were away she would look after my brothers and me, and stay in bed all day reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She would say, “Come and sit with me,” and we would read the play together. It was pure delight because she had no academic interest in Shakespeare at all. For her, it was simply the pleasure of curiosity, the joy of the eccentricity of people and love of language. Most people can sense that words are playful or serious. Encouraging children to play with language from early on would mean they would be better able to order the world in front of their eyes, and re-order it, look at it, appreciate it or dislike it. If I ruled the world, I would allow teachers to teach whatever delighted them.

It’s not that I would want everybody to become an actor or director. Even if you never become a professional, art can have a calming, positive moral influence on you. When you have attuned to feeling in that way, it becomes very hard not to identify with other people. Maybe some of our other difficulties would fall away if people were not so anxious to achieve wealth and power over others, but rather power over their own mind and spirit. Learning to love and understand language can help with that. Nobody would be able to speak to you using words you didn’t understand, if you already understood them. Nobody could pull a fast one on you. Your eye for noticing when people are acting—with politicians, for example—would be much clearer. Too many people are disempowered; too many people are unable to have the life that they might have once dreamed of because they don’t have access to this basic cultural power.

I would also make sure every child was given a musical instrument. In other European countries, where students really do learn to play instruments, children are fluent in the language of music. Popular music is absolutely fantastic for capturing the feeling on such a night or holding one emotion very well. But more complicated kinds of music like classical or jazz deepen the experience—and for that you need to have the opportunity to practice. Children should be offered music as another way of making sounds that come from their spirit. Children should have the pleasure of rejection as well. They should be able to reject Shakespeare or musical instruments if they want to. But you can only reject something once you have been exposed to it.

Of course I don’t want to stop people from playing internet games—they should be allowed to do that too! But if we allowed them to embrace the arts they would find that their minds were getting ready for their lives. As children the arts should teach us how to live so that we can better cope with this chaotic world as adults. To help with that everyone should have access to them.