Shakespeare in the English National Curriculum

Sarah Olive


Cultural criticism and cultural histories of the development of English as a subject place special emphasis on the role of intellectuals, education and national identity (sometimes, nationalism) in asserting the cultural authority of Shakespeare, and literature more widely. They are also concerned with the status of Shakespeare’s currency in Britain and internationally, through technology and popular culture. F. R. Leavis, in particular, provides an invaluable case study with which to demonstrate the importance of engaging with cultural criticism from the inception of universal education onwards; and to understand its contribution to shaping values for and the unique place of Shakespeare within and beyond the English curriculum.


Shakespeare Staging the World

How do cultural critics such as F. R. Leavis continue to influence Shakespeare's position within the English curriculum? [Image by Farrukh under a CC BY-NC license]


Leavis is lauded and lampooned in equal measure. Praise of Leavis celebrates the range and volume of his output, his influence and his continued ability to engage other critics. Despite acknowledging the debatable quality of his later output, such appraisals emphasise that he contributed to, and for the most part, edited nineteen volumes of Scrutiny and authored, co-authored, or edited over a dozen monographs. Richard Storer’s assertion that Leavis’ influence was ‘more concentrated, more sustained and more widely disseminated than the work of his contemporaries’ (1) is borne out by the success of Scrutiny, including reprints in 1963 and 1968. Today there are several journals still issued which may be deemed, at least in part, its successors: Essays in Criticism, Critical Quarterly and Cambridge Quarterly. Indeed, at least one of these titles was founded by his former students.

Bernard Bergonzi’s claim that ‘it is easier to attack Leavis than to dismiss him’ (55) is evidenced by the sheer volume of critics pouring over his works and producing their own critiques, which form  critical consensus about Leavis’ flaws, about what renders him a lesser critic. Elitism is a common criticism of Leavis’ writing – not only in terms of the ‘minority culture’ he appoints as guardians of culture, morality, tradition and literature (inter-connected concepts in his work), but also his expressed desire only to teach those ‘positively intelligent’ students; and his resistance to the extension of the university system to include polytechnics (Johnson 110-111). Other criticisms include the ‘outlaw’ narrative which he created for his own and Q. D. Leavis’ career as well as for the reception of their work; his tendency to mythologize history and society in his work; his over-insistent, hostile, or more politely-put ‘polemical’ tone (Mulhern 317).

Several critics argue that in striving to be authoritative, Leavis became authoritarian since although he seems to invite dialogue, with his trademark question ‘this is so, isn’t it?’, he crosses the ‘rather fine line between, on the one hand, aiming at a shared perception of the human world and, on the other, simply arriving at your own view of it and requiring the rest of the world to accept that’ (Storer 18). Leavis has also been considered authoritarian in his imposition of a discourse whose terms (‘Life’, ‘value’ etc.) he resisted defining until the end of his career, thereby excluding from any real sense of dialogue readers who lacked the appropriate, and specifically Leavisite, cultural and intellectual capital or literary critical education. To give but one example, in The Great Tradition, he forgoes any positive definition of ‘value’ instead relying on its relative meanings (288).


Law 102 - After

Rethinking Shakespeare's educational value in the c21st: the current Department of Education is constructing "great" English literature through changes to the curriculum [Image by Kevin Creamer under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


Wherever you position yourself in relation to Leavis, his influence on subject English is worth revisiting at this juncture in twenty-first century when the value of Shakespeare, and cultural value more widely, is a hot topic in the media and the academy alike. Additionally, in Britain the National Curriculum for English is currently undergoing a review (to be published in 2014) and the purpose and content of the subject are being widely discussed in politicians’ speeches, press releases, and independent reviews such as the Henley Review of Cultural Education. Senior figures in the current Department of Education overwhelmingly persist in constructing English as ‘the great tradition of our literature’ (‘All pupils’ my emphasis). Not only is great English literature apparently still literally that coming out of England, but it is overwhelmingly nineteenth-century, white, male-authored: ‘Dryden, Pope, Swift, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Austen, Dickens and Hardy should be at the heart of school life’ (Gove).

Many will invoke Leavis’ name in criticising this vision of English. Yet, this is a list which makes Leavis’ great tradition, with its two female authors (Jane Austen and George Eliot), one immigrant to Britain (Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Nalęcz Korzeniowski in Poland), and one American (Henry James) look progressive. Leavis favoured novelists in his canon, purveyors of a then increasingly popular form, whereas Gove has placed a large emphasis on poets, whose work a diminishing number of students and teachers engage with of their own volition. It should also be noted that two of Leavis’ chosen authors wrote into the twentieth-century, only a few decades before his publication seized on them as exemplars of literary art. Gove’s authors have, on average, been dead for 206 years. It is arguably not then Leavis’ choice of authors that continues to offend today, but his legacy in encouraging English to be defined as a body of texts, above and beyond, for example, a set of skills or as an act of political or social identity formation.

Although this article focuses on his legacy’s implications for the teaching of Shakespeare Leavis’ own work was not primarily concerned with questions of the playwright/poet’s place in the canon. However, Leavis’ controversial attempts to delineate the value of specific literary genres and authors, demonstrated throughout his work, but especially prominent in titles such as The Great Tradition (1948) and ‘Valuation in criticism’ (1986), as well as to fix the value of education and culture has been most profoundly adopted by policymakers in relation to Shakespeare, singled out in 1989 as the sole compulsory author in the curriculum. It is in this way, alongside his determination to share his ideologies as ‘a teacher of teachers’ (Bergonzi 47) that Leavis maintains a strongly discernible influence in the English classroom globally (Mulhern 317). For instance, while New Zealand has downgraded Shakespeare in English from compulsory to optional, those who choose to study him will still be examined on their ability to close-read an unseen extract of a play, looking at language, theme, imagery and so forth. Meanwhile, Australia is working on implementing its version of a National Curriculum so that experience of authors such as Shakespeare is defined federally rather than by individual states. Leavis’ legacy casts a long shadow over these decision-making processes: long enough to stretch to Britain’s ex-colonies in the southern hemisphere. (For more information on how Shakespeare is experienced in curricula internationally visit the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wiki Shakespeare ).


Globe Theatre

Shakespearean heritage: UK policymakers are drawing on Leavis' controversial attempts to delineate the value of specific literary genres and authors [Image by Cody under a CC BY license]


Shakespeare’s unique place aside, a close-reading (a method synonymous with Leavis) of the National Curriculum document also shows traces of the influence of Leavis in its discourse, methodologies, objectives and so forth. These include the curriculum’s preoccupation with the positive influence of studying literature on students’ moral, psychological and emotional growth; with the virtue of encountering difficulty in studying literature; with literature (especially Shakespeare) as distinct from other texts; with the study of literature as essential to success in other areas of academic endeavour, life, and ‘curing’ perceived social ‘ills’; and with the promotion of an English national culture. In terms of methodologies for English students, the close-reading methods and emphasis on language as a key to understanding British cultural tradition found in the curriculum can also be seen to derive from Leavis. These foci and techniques can be seen as part of Leavis’ enduring legacy on the subject at secondary school level, over thirty years after his death, and arguably some decades after the peak of critical theories – many of which expressly aimed to supersede his work but which now share their influence on the subject with him.

Leavis was explicitly aware of the potential for, and actively sought to have, this enduring influence on the discipline of English and, beyond that, literary culture more widely. He was greatly influenced by critical forbears such as Arnold, with his emphasis on the educational and moral power of ‘the best that has been thought and said’. Yet he was equally engrossed by and responded to a growing body of early-twentieth century education policy, including the Newbolt Report. Inspired by these sources (though not always in agreement with them), he engaged confidently and self-reflexively in (re)defining the role and responsibility of the critic as bringing direct influence to bear on educational thought, practice and pedagogy. He played a vital role in identifying the purpose of English at a time when it ‘was an expanding subject in schools and the academy but had no clear rationale’ (Bergonzi 56). This included constructing English as a defence against the ‘more alluring “education” on offer from newspapers and advertisements’; as ‘education against the environment’ of mass culture (Baldick 187); and as giving command of ‘the art of living’ (1960 106). With such forceful arguments, Leavis prepared the way for a subject centred around the study of canonical literature, such as Shakespeare. Having adopted teachers as ‘his chosen agency of cultural resistance’ (178), he succeeded in reaching out to them through his editorship of the journal Scrutiny; the founding of teaching associations, such as the National Association of Teaching English (co-founded by his collaborator Denys Thompson), and publications such Culture and Environment in order ‘to educate the educator’ (107). Thereby Leavis achieved what Baldick refers to as ‘his projection into the school curriculum of the Scrutiny critique of contemporary civilization’ (187). Less controversially, his resistance to demands for English (and education more broadly) to narrowly serve the nation’s economy contributed to the eventual outcome that English would encompass both the study of literature as well as language (seen by many as more necessary to the development of skills such as reading, writing and speaking) for all students, regardless of class or probable career destination – a principal upheld by the 1989 National Curriculum for English through its insistence on Shakespeare for all.


Super Mario

Is Shakespeare better than Super-Nintendo? Our beliefs about cultural and educational value are often poorly-evidenced and under-interrogated [Image by Victor Morell Perez under a CC BY-NC license]


All this was done, however, without engaging in government policy-making, since Leavis resolutely eschewed the political establishment. Leavis himself defined the importance of his own education-specific, cultural criticism in the very first issue of Scrutiny: ‘To say that the life of a country is determined by its educational ideals is a commonplace’ (1932 6). Moreover, the epitaph inscribed on his tombstone is suggestive of his priorities: ‘teacher and critic’. One of Leavis’ students, inspired by his engagement with educational issues, was C. B. Cox, later co-editor of the Black Papers on Education and Critical Quarterly. More importantly, Cox became in 1988 the chairman of the committee tasked with producing the National Curriculum for English which introduced Shakespeare as the sole compulsory author whom all students are guaranteed to study before leaving school. This relationship establishes a direct link between Leavis’ tuition and the contents of the curriculum document. Leavis then is a particularly forceful example of the influence of the values of cultural critics in determining, or provoking lively debate around, the value of literature in education long after their ideas have been superseded in academia. His tradition can be recognised as ‘great’ in the sense of long-lasting and far-reaching, even if its content or ideology is now widely unpalatable.

Moreover, Leavisite values continue to exist outside the classroom, in convictions about the relative worth of various pastimes (see Jowell 4). They include strongly held but poorly-evidenced and under-interrogated beliefs, often evidenced within Shakespearian scholarship, that ‘Shakespeare is better than Super-Nintendo’ or that ‘school bus trips to the local festival might save their children from the seductions of rock videos’ (Bristol 109). The criteria for Shakespeare’s superiority in these statements draw on, and prioritise, a moral and educational agenda which is imposed on these children, and extends beyond their classrooms to pastimes and entertainment. In spite of decades of protests from left-leaning academic movements such as cultural studies that these prejudices are outdated and unacceptable, statements such as Bristol’s (double-voicing parents and teachers) evidence Leavis’ abiding influence. The dismissal of popular cultural forms and the tastes and experience of the masses continues to be utilised as a way of shoring up Shakespeare’s supreme cultural value.


CITATION: Sarah Olive, "Shakespeare in the English National Curriculum," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2013): n. pag. Web. 12 January 2013.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Dr Sarah Olive is Lecturer in English in Education at the University of York, where she is Programme Leader for the B.A. English in Education. She is editor of Teaching Shakespeare and a trustee of the British Shakespeare Association. [/author_info] [/author]



Works cited:

Baldick, Chris. The Social Mission of English Criticism: 1848-1932 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).

Bergonzi, Bernard. Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).

Bristol, Michael. Big-Time Shakespeare (New York: Routledge, 1996).

Cox, C.B. Cox on the Battle for the English Curriculum (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995).

Gove, Michael. ‘Michael Gove: All pupils will learn our island story’. Speeches. 5 October 2010. 1 November 2012:          

Johnson, Lesley. The Cultural Critics: From Matthew Arnold to Raymond Williams (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1979).

Jowell, Tessa. Foreword. Understanding the Future: Museums and 21st Century Life. By DCMS (London: HMSO, 2005). 1.

Leavis, F.R. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. 1948. (London: Penguin, 1993).

—. ‘Valuation in criticism’. Valuation in Criticism and other essays. Ed. G. Singh (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986). 276-284

Leavis, F.R. and Denys Thompson. Culture and Environment: the training of critical awareness (London: Chatto & Windus, 1960).

Mulhern, Francis. The Moment of Scrutiny (London: NLB, 1979).

Storer, Richard. F.R. Leavis (Oxon: Routledge, 2009).



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