Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Singapore Needs the Bard

You wouldn't normally associate the Japanese with a taste for the plays of William Shakespeare but they have their own Shakespeare Company that performs Shakespearean plays in Japanese all over the country.  From New Zealand to Alaska, everyone without exception has been, in some measure, influenced by the Bard.  Even the French who are notoriously averse to anything English acknowledge Shakespeare as the greatest literary giant who towers way above their beloved Molière.  In Singapore, there is not a single holder of the pink IC who has not quoted Shakespeare in the course of his daily conversation, even though he may not be aware of it.

If you say you laughed yourself into stitches or that you have had too much of a good thing or that a technical report is all Greek to you or you have not slept one wink, you are quoting Shakespeare.  If you say you refuse to budge an inch or you are tongue-tied or something has vanished into thin air, again you are quoting Shakespeare.  I can go on forever but you get the drift - you can't speak two sentences in English without quoting Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's influence is ubiquitous and it's not confined to his homeland alone.  If we would just take the trouble to look at some of our common household items, we are sure to find Shakespeare's mark imprinted on a few of them.  Just look at this simple bag.

It's sure to bring a smile to anyone who happens to read what's on the bag.  If my memory doesn't fail me, in this scene from King Henry IV Part 1, we see Falstaff boasting in the tavern about his fight with a dozen men when Prince Hal exposes his cowardice and dishonesty.  Falstaff is here giving Prince Hal an earful.  It's particularly funny for us today because Falstaff who is fat is insulting Prince Hal for being thin.  If you want to look for what to say to that slim guy who's always making witty remarks about your generous hips, look no further than what's on my bag.

Next, I have this old wallet but I'm not sure if you can read the words on it.

It says, "There is money; spend it; spend more; spend all".   Isn't this just what any woman would love to hear from the lips of her husband?  I can't make out the source at the bottom of the wallet which has been erased from years of use but I recall this play, Merry Wives of Windsor, quite vividly.  Falstaff (yes, it's him again) being short on cash, wants to seduce two wealthy married women.  The husbands are warned by Falstaff's servants.  Ford, the husband of one of them, is jealous and wants to sound him out.  He pretends to be someone else who is interested in Mrs Ford and he wants Falstaff to act as a go-between.  It's in this context that Ford gives his wallet to Falstaff and those are the words he utters.  The play ends with Falstaff utterly humiliated.

Shakespeare has that capacity to unite the human race regardless of our ethnic differences.  His plays are to adults what Hansel and Gretel is to children.  Just as Hansel and Gretel is read to children from Argentina to China and Russia and you don't have to be a German child to be familiar with the story, Shakespeare's plays and poems are universally watched and read by practically everyone on the globe, and quite aptly, the Globe is also the name of the theatre in which his plays used to be performed but it caught fire and was totally destroyed in 1613, possibly when Henry VIII was performed.  The Globe was rebuilt in 1997 and donations for its reconstruction came from all over the world.  You can walk on the tiles and read the names of the donors.

The Singapore Air Force once had an advertisement in its recruitment drive that was aired on television.  It showed a pilot flying a fighter plane and at the same time, you can hear the line "To be or not to be" chanted repeatedly throughout.  Of course the SAF intended to quote Shakespeare but I thought it was most inappropriate to use a line from the lips of Hamlet who was considering whether to kill himself or to live on.  That's not a good idea for a recruitment exercise for the Armed Forces.  I'm sure the Air Force had no intention of attracting suicidal pilots.  But it's nice to know that even the SAF quotes Shakespeare. They may not know the context of the quotation but quote it they must.  That's how compelling Shakespeare is.

It used to be that every Singaporean student had to read a minimum of 2 Shakespearean plays for the O-levels and if they did Lit in A-levels, Paper 2 which was compulsory in those days was the Shakespeare paper and candidates had to do another 2 plays for this paper.  It is likely that a student, after having tasted such a delightful fruit would crave for more, so perhaps in his university days, he would read another two or three of the Bard's plays.  The average Singaporean in those days would have read by the time he was in his early 20s anything from a minimum of 2 plays to 6 or 7 and these aren't even literature undergrads.  Today, the education syllabus has changed drastically.  A-level literature students can get by without having to study any Shakespeare.  Consistent with the modern concept of freedom of choice, the syllabus is now tailored to allow students to choose the texts they wish to do and there is no compulsory Shakespeare paper.

There are no statistical data on this but I would wager a large fortune that in today's Singapore, we probably can find quite a substantial number of people who have not read a single play or poem by the Bard.  Is this necessarily a bad thing? 

It is universally acknowledged that the standard of English in Singapore has declined at an alarming rate.  People don't speak or write as well as they used to.  The government, ever quick to address any educational problem, launched many years ago a campaign which it simply called the Speak-Good-English campaign.  This campaign has gone on for as long as I can remember but the results are disheartening. I once stood in a crowded subway train and was surrounded by a group of secondary school students who were chattering away and since I had nothing to do, I listened to the conversation that was going on quite loudly in front of me.  For a good five minutes, I thought they were speaking in Mandarin.  I managed to decipher a few words and to my horror, I realised they were speaking in English.  I listened further but I could not make out a word of what they were saying.  That's how bad it is.  If I can't even understand the spoken English of my own people, how can we expect people of other nationalities to understand them?

It's not only in Singapore but in other countries too that we see a decline in English proficiency.  Just last night, I was at a concert and next to me sat a father and his young daughter.  From the accent of the father, I could tell that he was English.  He was a devoted father and before the concert started, he read the programme sheet and explained everything to his daughter.  He told her what a sextet was, what synergy meant.  Then he came to the word "contentment".  Now, this father was thorough and conscientious in educating his daughter.  He first told her it was a noun.  So far, so good.  He then reduced the word to "content" and gave his daughter a sentence with the word in it by way of illustration: "I am content", he said.  He asked his daughter what part of speech "content" in such a context was.  When his daughter was silent, he proceeded to explain to her that an adverb was a word to describe how something was.  Since "content" described how he felt, it was an adverb!

I really had to restrain myself from correcting him.  In the first place, I shouldn't be eavesdropping but I love eavesdropping and besides, they were seated just next to me and I could hardly ignore their conversation.  But how could anyone make such a shocking blunder?  When I told my kids about it, they were all in stitches (yes, that's a Shakespearean quotation).  This is rudimentary English grammar, something a kid of 7 should know.

It's not just Singapore that has this language problem.  It's a global disease and it's perhaps much worse in Britain.  Some years ago, there were suggestions to remove Shakespeare from the school syllabus in Britain and to introduce something as silly as finance in its place.  I can't recall what happened to that awful suggestion but I'm sure the poor standard of English we see all over the world has a lot to do with how we treat Shakespeare in our education.

I once saw that hilarious play, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" in London.  This is a 2-act parody that "goes through" ALL the Bard's plays in the first act and they do that by mentioning a few things that stand out in each play and then move on to the next without naming the play.  At the intermission, a young English woman seated next to me asked me what I thought of the play so far.  I told her I didn't see "The Winter's Tale" fitted into the parody.  She was silent for a moment.  Then I remembered one of the actors mentioning a bear and I told her laughingly that yes, they did cover "Winter's Tale" with just a line about the bear.  It was then that she decided to come clean.  She confessed that education in Britain was not what it used to be and she was quite unfamiliar with Shakespeare.  She was with two other young women who were laughing sheepishly.  They said none of them read Shakespeare and neither did their friends.  Of course I was too polite to ask why then they were at the play.  If you don't know most of Shakespeare's plays, you can't possibly understand the jokes in the parody.  You won't know what it is they are parodying.  Obviously, Singapore isn't the only country that has consigned Shakespeare to the bin.

No book on the English language is complete without some discussion of Shakespeare and his language.  Just for illustration, let's take a look at the Oxford Companion to the English Language.

It has a large section that covers in detail the language of Shakespeare and its impact on the English language.  Now that I have made reference to Oxford, let's turn to its rival institution.

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal acknowledges quite categorically Shakespeare's pivotal role in the development of the English language.  He actually gives due recognition to both Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible but I'm not suggesting the introduction of the Bible into the school curriculum.  I'm aware of the implication of such a move in multi-religious Singapore.  In any event, we really don't need the Bible.  Shakespeare is a thousand times better than any version of the Bible.  I mean it linguistically, not theologically.

I once stumbled upon this same David Crystal in the musty basement of an old book shop in Wales.  I told him what a fan I was of his and that I had read his books since I was in school and we chatted for a good hour.  His son, he told me, had taken after him and they were writing books on English together.  I then asked him what he would rate as the best book ever written.  He replied that his answer would have to be plays, not books.  Shakespeare's plays were to him the very best.  He said he was unable to specify which play in particular because they were all good and he would read them over and over again.  Even Troilus and Cressida?  I asked.  Yes, even Troilus and Cressida was his reply.  Frankly, I don't particularly like Troilus and I think the Bard just ended the play abruptly and went on to write some other better plays but that's just a personal opinion of mine.  All I want to show you is how important Shakespeare is not just to the rest of us but also to linguists and grammarians whose job it is to study the English language.

So what's the solution to the language problems that Singapore and many other countries in the world face?  It's as easy as pie.  Simply introduce Shakespeare in the school syllabus and all will be well.  We can start with something simple and fun in Sec 1.  Perhaps A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Students can even be encouraged to stage a play at the end of the school year.  Schools can be flexible in their choice of plays.  Coed schools may want to try something that can spark a debate among the students on gender issues.  The Taming of the Shrew is sure to keep students thinking about the play.  A boys' school can opt for the history plays with battles galore and a girls' school may prefer light comedies.  Much Ado About Nothing will appeal to any girl, particularly the witty exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick.  When it comes to Shakespeare, there is always something for everyone.

Yes, with Shakespeare, there's always something for everyone.  Even those who insist that language isn't really important may quote Shakespeare's famous lines from Romeo and Juliet:
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."

That may be true for a rose but if you call a rose by any other word, nobody will understand you.  And that's what language is for - communication and in order to have communication, we must be intelligible.  Bring back the Bard!  Singapore needs him badly.


  1. ironically Shakespeare had many grammar errors (back then there were no grammar rules) and invented tons of words... Nothing against Shakespeare because I was literature student but I assume that many students would hate Shakespearean Enlish

  2. Thanks for your comment. It is true that Shakespeare invented many words which we continue to use today but that can only be a credit to him. As for grammatical differences between Elizabethan/Jacobean English and today's English, these are really very few and most students can spot them a mile away. In other words, students of Shakespeare can only benefit from his florid and imagery-filled verses; they can't possibly be misled into using the same grammatical construction of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. If it's a quotation of the Bard they make that contains these grammatical variants, they are sure to place it in inverted commas and because of our familiarity with Shakespeare, readers are sure to identify it as a Shakespearean quotation. If I may illustrate with this sentence: To accuse Shakespeare of grammatical errors would be to deal the "most unkindest cut of all".

    I do not think it's possible for any serious student to hate Shakespeare's use of language. For more than 400 years, the whole world has stood at the altar of Shakespeare to pay obeisance to him. Hate his English? It's his language that has caused the world to fall in love with him in the first place.

  3. I have nothing against Shakespeare. I am just not sure about introducing Shakespeare into lower secondary. In lower secondary, you only read one book for literature. Children nowadays are not interested in reading, much less reading Shakespeare which is tough to read and understand at the start. Reading Shakespeare would most likely turn them away from literature. Serious students may not hate Shakespeare but the average student might. I suspect that is why even in Britian, Shakespeare is no longer taught. An abridged version of Shakespeare would be much more interesting to them.

    When I was studying literature as a A level student a few years back, my cohort had to read many books as part of our syllabus. And our least favourite books were Shakespeare plays... Primarily because we had to take extra effort to read and re-read them to understand him completely. We preferred all the other classic books which we had to read.

    Some Shakespearean errors are still unfortunately commonly made by people today, especially by secondary school students who are still weak in grammar. Again, I have nothing against his grammar because I never took him as a grammar mantra. I am just saying that it may be confusing, especially to students still struggling in English.

    He has written, "more strong", "more stranger", "more corrupter" and "most unkindest" and the famous Julius Caesar line you quote, "the most unkindest cut of all"

    Other errors include using whom and who wrongly and "between you and I".

    What I am trying to say is that I doubt introducing Shakespeare into lower secondary would help improve our English. I am afraid introducing Shakespeare would only turn away people from literature. If it helped, I doubt schools would have taken it out of the syllabus.

    However, I did enjoy reading all the Shakespeare's references you made and how Shakespeare invented words that enriched our vocabulary. Perhaps instead of reintroducing Shakespeare in full which may be a little too much, we can introduce him bit by bit and with interesting quotes from Shakespeare.

  4. Thanks for your response. My personal experience is very different. When I did A-level literature, my school opted for modern literature and we had to do writers like James Joyce and DH Lawrence. There were four novels for that paper (Paper 6) and for Shakespeare (the compulsory Paper 2), we had to do Tempest and King Lear. The other paper was Critical Appreciation (Paper 1). As I recall it, the most enjoyable texts for all of us were the two Shakespearean plays. Even at the undergraduate level when I opted for an advanced paper in Shakespeare and each student had to read at least 20 plays, I don't recall feeling daunted by the task. I believe Shakespeare is addictive. You can't stop at one or two. That's precisely what we need for students who usually don't read, as you rightly pointed out. We need them to get hooked on something strongly addictive and Shakespeare fits the bill.

    The grammatical differences (I won't call them errors) in Shakespeare can usually be grouped under just a handful of categories. As you correctly say, many students in Singapore are struggling with English. Here is where Shakespearean "errors" come in. Students should be taught correct grammar and for illustration, Shakespeare can be used to show them that today, the Bard would be deemed incorrect. In fact the example you gave "between you and I" was the precise example given to me as a boy. I was told this was grammatically incorrect and for illustration, I was referred to The Merchant of Venice where Shakespeare wrote that very same error. I remember finding the whole thing quite amusing and it stuck with me to this day.

    It's a good idea to introduce Shakespeare slowly to a child but secondary school is not too early to do the plays. I started my son on two Shakespearean plays when he was in primary school. Naturally, I had to guide him along. He needed to get the hang of Shakespeare's language at first but it didn't take long before he could read any Shakespearean text with full comprehension. When he was in Sec 1, I took him to a theatre for two plays in a single day: The Merchant of Venice and Othello. They were followed by an hour-long lecture on the differences between Shakespeare and Marlowe. My son enjoyed every bit of it, even the academic lecture. He was not familiar with Marlowe but I was there to help him. All of Marlowe's plays were required reading in a compulsory paper in Elizabethan Drama I took years ago.

    All children are the same. It's just the exposure they receive that differs. It's the job of schools to expose their students to Shakespeare. What I did for my son is what schools should do for their students.

    It's often the case that we underestimate the capability of children to cope with higher levels of education. As a father, I'm familiar with how easily kids assimilate fresh information and process it into knowledge that they can use. When my son was in Sec 1, he had classmates who were already doing the A-levels as private candidates and they scored A's in Physics and Mathematics! My son was certainly not one of them and in any event, it does seem quite extreme to me for a Sec 1 boy to do the A-levels but this just proves my point that kids can cope with a lot of learning. It's up to us whether we want to nurture their abilities.