University of Melbourne Magazine

Teaching: Why I teach Shakespeare

  • In 2014, the 450th anniversary of his birth, Shakespeare’s plays and poems continue to enthral audiences, readers and students around the world. Scholars have come to refer to the period in which he was writing as the “early modern” period, in recognition of the fact that much of what we regard as “modern” about our society now was already emerging during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and can be found in his work.

    This includes progressive ideas about gender relations, the dynamics of family and friendship, political models, and even race relations. We are fortunate in Australia to have the opportunity to pursue such complex and topical debates with relative freedom – since 2011, it has effectively been illegal to teach some readings of The Tempest in the state of Arizona. When I teach The Tempest, I’m able to show rare archival footage of Simon Phillips’ MTC production with John Stanton as a “First Fleet” Prospero and indigenous dancers as the “spirits of the island” of Australia.

    Produced in 1999– 2001, this production spoke directly to spirited debates about reconciliation in Australia, and Shakespeare became a powerful vehicle for exploring these issues through theatre.


    Despite four and a half centuries having passed since his birth, there is still so much to learn about Shakespeare. When I teach undergraduates here at the University of Melbourne, I devote equal time to Shakespeare’s works in their own time and in ours: to appreciate his brilliance, we need to understand him in his historical context as well as thinking about the relevance of his work now. I take students to the Baillieu’s special collections reading room to look at our invaluable copy of the 1632 Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works (pictured), and to see other important contextual documents.

    We also think about Shakespeare being adapted in contemporary performances and films (including Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, for example), and performance-based assessment reminds the students that Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed, not just read. During short, five-minute performances in tutorials, students are encouraged to bring a reading of a play to life; to think about how meaning and interpretation are constructed through production choices including acting styles, blocking and even the use of multimedia.

    My greatest pleasure in the classroom is seeing that “lightbulb moment” when, despite the ostensibly oldfashioned language or complicated imagery, Shakespeare’s words come to life for a student and they see his relevance in their own world.

    Dr David McInnis

    Dr David McInnis