Bad teaching (or acting) can put people off Shakespeare for life with memories of endless recitations and homework clouding our enjoyment of The Bard. Jamie Bowman finds out about a new course at Hawarden's Gladstone Library that aims to change how we feel about Shakespeare and his plays.

THIS March more than two million primary school children in half of the UK’s primary schools have been celebrating Shakespeare’s timeless stories and poetry as part of Shakespeare Week.

The free scheme for primary school children and their families is run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the independent charity that promotes the enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s works, life and times.

The scheme aims to enthuse children about the value of reading and watching Shakespeare but for many people 'The Bard' remains something of an enigma which provokes bad memories of boring school trips or dreaded exams.

One woman looking to change this is Emma Rees, professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester.

Emma has taught Shakespeare and Renaissance literature in universities for over 20 years and after being Gladstone’s Library’s Political Writer in Residence in 2016, she returns to Hawarden on Friday, May 11 to lead a two-day residential course on reading Shakespeare without fear.

"When I was a little girl growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970s and ‘80s, my mother would regularly take me to Stratford-upon-Avon to the Royal Shakespeare Company," she remembers.

"I grasped very early on a sense of the remarkable potency that only live theatre can produce: somehow, I could follow the story and feel the emotions without necessarily understanding every word that was being spoken.

"I vividly recall the excitement I felt watching one particular production where Romeo, I think it was, rode onto the stage on a Vespa. I realised then that live performance can push the limits of the expected and the everyday, and can take audiences to places they never anticipated."

Emma firmly believes that Shakespeare is for everyone, despite his intimidating canonical reputation, and her course at Gladstone’s Library is set to prove exactly that.

"As part of the weekend course we’re going to be considering the questions ‘Who’s Shakespeare?’ and ‘Whose Shakespeare?’," she says.

"Many people don’t feel any kind of ‘ownership’ of Shakespeare. But the truth is that he’s as much mine as he’s Zeffirelli’s, but because the ‘brand’ of Shakespeare has become so freighted with class-bound cultural connotations of Britishness and elitism, the truths and beauties and relevance of his plays can get almost entirely obscured.

"It’s really instructive to consider how other great writers have viewed and responded to Shakespeare. It’s equally important to consider why ‘Shakespeare’ as a concept has exceeded the bounds of the plays and poems to the point where people can feel overwhelmed by the very idea of his work."

Key for Emma in gaining this understanding of Shakespeare is not just reading his plays but watching as many as you can.

"I’m a firm believer that the plays have to be seen and not merely read," agrees Emma who has actually seen all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays performed on stage.

"When they’re read, the onstage presence of silent characters can be easily forgotten. And it’s those silences – when the actors must react and interact through facial and bodily expressions alone – that fascinate me.

"How the two lead characters of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio and Katherina, function not only in their speeches but also in their silences can sway a production markedly.

"The Taming of the Shrew can, seen in this way, and depending on the actors’ and director’s interpretations, be read as a horrifyingly misogynist tale of domestic abuse and the subjugation of women, or as an intellectual sparring match between two equally articulate individuals who both see the game, and manipulate the rules knowingly.

"I’m fascinated by the multiple different interpretations to which the same text can give rise. A further dimension is added when two of the most radiantly talented actors ever to grace the cinema screen – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – team up, as they did in Zeffirelli’s 1967 film of to bring to it an extraordinary energy.

"Despite its period setting, that film makes the play very much about those two incredibly strong and yet paradoxically vulnerable individuals – Burton and Taylor become Petruchio and Katherina, and it’s a fascinating process to behold."

The chance to return to Hawarden was too good to miss for Emma who is urging people to leave their fears about Shakespeare at the door when they visit the famous library.

"The idea for the course, funnily enough, came out of a conversation over breakfast at Gladstone’s Library a year or so ago," she adds.

"I was talking to the husband of a friend and was surprised to learn from him that she felt intimidated by the very idea of Shakespeare.

"Now, this friend is extremely well-read and articulate and has a PhD, but she didn’t ‘get’ Shakespeare. I wanted to change this for her and for others like her, and so the seed of the weekend course was planted.

"If you love the plays already, or if you’ve never read or seen even one, there will be something over the course of the weekend that will make you see Shakespeare in a new light. There will be lots of laughs, plenty of poignancy, and copious healthy debates. And – of course – what Shakespeare weekend could possibly be complete without cakes and ale? Happily, there are always plenty of both at Gladstone’s Library."

Emma’s course Taming Shakespeare takes place at Gladstone’s Library Friday 11th - Sunday 13th May.

Residential places start from £230 and non-residential from £160. To book your place please call 01244 532350 or email