Is all the World Still a Stage? Shakespeare and ESL in Higher Education in Japan

Roundtable panel discussion, part of the Japanese Society for Theatre Research Conference held at Kyoto Sangyo University, December 3-4 2016.

Panel rationale

            Student-led productions of Shakespeare were a common feature in post-war Japanese universities. Shakespeare was still widely seen as the centre of the western literary canon, and English literature departments took pride in “conquering” the perceived complexity of his works, especially his language.

            In 1951, for example, undergraduates in the English Department at Doshisha Women’s University, Kyoto, performed Macbeth, the first in an ongoing and unbroken line of annual Shakespeare plays in English. A similar tradition was established at Konan Women’s University in Kobe, starting with a version of As You Like It in 1966. In Tokyo, students at the Christian Women’s University built a strong reputation fortheir impressive delivery and imaginative stagings, and numerous other groups appeared across the country.

            At the same time, counter culture movements in the 1960s ushered in critical discourses on race, gender, sexuality and postcolonial identity politics that rightly displaced the Bard’s position from western hegemon to a multiplicity of local Shakespeares. By the 1980s Shakespeare had become intercultural, hybrid and queer, and his language had been adapted, rewritten and reoriented. By the new millennium, the spread of global capitalism led to critical enquiries into the relationship of educational institutions to the big market. Arts and humanities departments in Japan and beyond came under pressure at governmental levels to demonstrate the social impact and commercial viability of their teaching and research practices. This prompted questions on the relevance of Shakespeare to students at the threshold of the new digital economy. How does one construct the commercial value of Shakespeare in education and at what risk? How does one demonstrate the impact of teaching Shakespeare in English as a second language (ESL)? Is the practice of Shakespeare in ESL an exercise in repeating old cultural codes and continuing to claim cultural capital or is deeper learning at work?

            In response to these tensions – whose effects are not limited to Japan – there has been an increase in publications pleading the case for drama and Shakespeare in ESL education. This includes the re-edition of Alan Maley and Alan Duff’s seminal book Drama Techniques (2005), but also Drama Education and Second Language Learning (2013) edited by Joe Winston and Madonna Stinson, and Performing the Art of Language Learning (2015) by Kelly Kingsbury Brunetto. The common thread among these books is that through contextual learning, drama helps develop interaction, fluency and pronunciation, but also self-confidence, inter-personal skills and learner autonomy.

            In terms of Shakespeare and ESL there has been a noticeable increase in writing on practices in Asia. Among these are Eileen Lee’s essay, “To Hell, with Shakespeare” (2010), which discusses approaches to reading Shakespeare’s conceptual and spiritual landscapes in schools in Malaysia; Astrid Yi-Mei Cheng and Joe Winston’s work in Taiwanese ESL classrooms in an article entitled “Shakespeare as a Second Language: Playfulness, Power and Pedagogy in the ESL Classroom” (2011); and Leung Che Miriam Lau and Wing Bo Anna Tso’s book Teaching Shakespeare to ESL Students (2016), which gives practical insight into four production projects in Hong Kong.

            In contrast, publications on Shakespeare in Japanese universities are relatively few. Satoshi Kuwayama (2009) has written on the relationship of Shakespeare’s English to second language learners, arguing that the phonological characteristics of the plays help learners to develop sensitivities to rhythm and sounds, which in turn help unlock correlations with meanings and emotions. Eiko Ando has written about her work on Shakespeare with “zemi” students in an article titled “The Effectiveness of English Drama on Studentsʼ Communicative Abilities” (2014). Ando argues that through production work, students develop a “dialogical relation to the English they are learning that pitches their acquired language closer to real communication.”

            Drawing on first-hand professional experiences in the practice of Shakespeare in higher education, this roundtable panel will discuss a range of questions on the function and potential of Shakespeare and ESL in universities in Japan and beyond. Questions will include but are not limited to the following: what are some of the benefits of Shakespeare in ESL for students, teachers and audiences? How does one answer the claim that “Shakespeare’s English is no longer relevant to students in the 21st century”? What role does Shakespeare play in the relationship between the university and the global marketplace today? What, if at all, are the barriers of entry to starting production work for a newcomer to Shakespeare in ESL? What are some of the strategies to working with students who have little to no experience of drama training?

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