Hi Rachel. Thanks for the context – makes all the difference! Those are two of Shakespeare’s most offensive plays (viewed from some perspectives – The Merchant of Venice gives a platform to antisemitic stereotypes and The Taming of the Shrew certainly appears on the surface to be condoning and perhaps even promoting domestic abuse, although there are various arguments surrounding this) which gives an excellent starting point linking the two. How about a very open question, referring to the modern phenomenon of the cancel culture, like “Should Shakespeare be cancelled?”. In the first lesson students could look at the idea of “cancelling” someone for their expressed beliefs or behaviour, and then look at quotes from the play they are studying and discuss why in modern society these might be considered problematic. (e.g. Kanye West and Gina Carano (from The Mandollorian) are relatively recent examples of people who have been sidelined for expressing perceived antisemitic views, and Jonny Depp for widely publicised allegations of domestic abuse. Obviously sensitive topics for a group as young as Y8 so would need to be very careful how far down this road discussions were allowed to go).
They could spend the bulk of the inquiry looking into the context of the plays – for TToTS they would need to focus specifically on the lives of women in Shakespeare’s time, and for TMoV the attitudes to Jewish people (who were not even legally allowed to live in England at that time – at a quick glance this is a really interesting article that lays out some of the arguments for background. It is from a pro-Jewish website rated right-biased and mixed for factual reporting by media bias / fact check due to the prominence it gives to religious stories rather than scientific ones. Not really an issue in this particular case.). Worth noting in particular that TMoV has been used since Shakespeare’s time to promote antisemitic views e.g. in Nazi Germany, but was expressing common sentiments for the time it was produced. I suspect most children (and some adults) are largely unaware of the scale of Jewish persecution in Europe, particularly in medieval times (interesting but depressing article here), and I think there is a tendency in the UK to view the holocaust as a German problem where the Allies came riding to the rescue. After all, ‘it could never happen here’. An understanding that Jewish persecution was widespread throughout Europe (including the UK) from about the 4th Century onwards would be healthy, and sets children up well for subsequent study of WW2 (which often happens in History in years 9 and/or 10 in many schools). I know I’m straying off the point a bit, but inquiry certainly has a role in promoting social and cultural awareness and preparing children to become responsible, active and thoughtful members of society, alongside its role in developing both curricular understanding and skills. Some interesting tie-ins possible here for History, Religious Studies and PSHE…
Both these contextual studies would require students to develop a background knowledge of Shakespeare’s time (when was he writing? What were the prevailing social and cultural attitudes at that time?) so would satisfy that part of the objectives. Probably the only thing you would lose is a study of The Globe Theatre, but that would be easy to do somewhere else in a different, perhaps more meaningful, way (tie in with Drama maybe?).
Express? Lots of options, but you or the English teacher could maybe write a letter from a ‘parent’ to the headteacher objecting to their child being taught one of these plays because they find the attitudes in it offensive and then ask the pupils to write a letter of response from the headteacher explaining why they think the plays should be taught and what they would need to do to address the issues in the play. Good opportunity to teach formal letter writing skills too.
I’m just going to have a look at the FOSIL skills framework to see which particular Y8 (Grade 7) skills you could address through an inquiry like this. Lots of critical analysis I think.
Would love to hear others’ ideas for inquiry questions. I’ve taken it in a certain direction, but there are lots of other ways to go.