A Year 10 English cover.
“Sir, you can’t teach us English. We’re doing Macbeth.”
“You’re right. I can’t teach you English. We’re going to look at the history of the Globe Theatre and of Shakespeare’s times instead.”
They enjoyed discussing the earthy realities of theatre life at the Globe, and were interested in the ideas that the Sixteenth Century journeys of discovery changed the way that people saw the world. They looked perplexed when I talked about the power of the church in Tudor times. They could not understand how the church could be powerful. To explain pre-modern beliefs to 21st Century teenagers was a challenge. The story of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, wandering because his soul was unshriven would have made no sense at all.
Perhaps I would have done better to have picked on an accessible theme that would have appealed to the rebellious spirit among the boys in the back row: clowns.
Clowns have for centuries been regarded as subversive. Shakespeare certainly thought them so, he uses clowns to express thoughts that others might not articulate. In the script of the closing act of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, the two gravediggers are called “First Clown” and “Second Clown.” They discuss the death of Ophelia, who had thrown herself into the river, pondering if Ophelia had drowned herself in self-defence and sceptical that someone from a less powerful family would have received the rites of the church. The Second Clown declares:
Will you ha’ the truth on’t? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial.
Unaware that he is talking to Hamlet himself, the First Clown speaks of Hamlet being sent away. “Why was he sent to England?” asks Hamlet, and the First Clown replies,
Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.
The peasant character that clowns had assumed in Shakespeare’s time was the sort of man who would have stood among the stinkards and penny knaves in the pit at the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare understood that one could use these comic characters to say otherwise dangerous things. The cutting wit of the gravediggers in Hamlet was the use of comedy to ask subversive questions about the unequal treatment of people by the church. It was a way of poking fun at the powerful.
Had I known in advance that cover duty awaited, I might have prepared a lesson on Shakespeare as a troublemaker.