Every year in high school, Sasha Hutchinson had to read William Shakespeare’s plays - and she never understood why. 

It just didn’t seem relevant, she said. 

“Now I’m prioritising reading Māori authors more often as we never got to study any NZ literature at school.”

There’s no requirement for schools to teach Shakespeare but when Re:News asked its followers about whether they learnt Shakespeare at school, almost everyone replied that it was part of their English course at high school. 

But is learning about Shakespeare relevant in Aotearoa in 2022? 

After 10 years of providing funding to the New Zealand secondary school Shakespeare Festival commonly known as Sheilah Winn, Creative New Zealand (CNZ) has decided not to fund the festival in their 2023 to 2025 Kahikatea funding round.

A CNZ advisory board member wrote in a statement that the festival didn’t receive funding because it focuses on “a canon of imperialism”.

Another funding assessor wrote: “[I] question whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond.”

Shakespeare’s work is important but studying it in high school every year is overkill

Re:News reached out to young people on Instagram to ask whether they thought Shakespeare was relevant to Aotearoa in 2022.

There were people who would love to never hear a word from the bard again (“It was boring as shit”) and others who worshipped the ground he walked on (“It's amazing poetry and you can draw very modern messages from it”).

Most people thought it was important to continue to teach and stage Shakespeare’s plays but there was currently too much emphasis on his work.

“We basically did one of his plays every year at high school. His work is important but that level of revisiting is overkill,” one person wrote.

Others thought the focus on Shakespeare was at the sake of work that highlighted the culture, issues and history of Aotearoa. 

“I love Shakespeare, but the fact that it is held as the epitome of literary intellectuality in New Zealand is coloniality at its finest,” one person told Re:News.

Decolonising art

Victoria University of Wellington’s senior lecturer in theatre Nicola Hyland (Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Hauiti), said while she recognised the great poetry and storytelling of Shakespeare, she agreed he was overrepresented in Aotearoa.

Shakespeare and colonisation are “bedfellows” and British colonisers used it as an example of how people should act and what they should think of as high art, Hyland said.

“It would be a massive, awesome act of decolonisation if we discovered our own stories first and discovered Shakespeare afterwards,” Hyland said.

“Wouldn't it be great if young people could come home and say, ‘Hey, Mum, Dad, I just found this story and it's really similar to Hinemoana and Tūtānekai. It's Romeo and Juliet’.”

The future of Shakespeare in Aotearoa

Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ) is the organisation behind the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, an annual competition where high schools around the country perform scenes from the authors plays.

Since 1991, 120,000 students have performed in the festival and more than half the secondary schools in the country currently participate.

For the past 10 years, SGCNZ has received around $30,000 a year of funding from CNZ but on September 16, the funding was not renewed.

SGCNZ chief executive Dawn Sanders said she believed the themes, relationships and perspectives in Shakespeare’s work were “eternal”.

She said many of the issues we are addressing in modern day were raised by Shakespeare under different names.

“Just like the Me Too movement Measure for Measure explored misogyny, Taming of the Shrew explores the way women are controlled, Othello looked at cheating and manipulation.”

She said while they may be classic English plays, the festival encourages people to adapt them to explore many cultures.

“Not many scenes are done in doublet and hose anymore. Most of them are dressed in contemporary clothes, and a huge number have Māori elements, or Pacific Island, Indian, and Asian. There are so many different ethnicities that reflect the population of New Zealand.”

The Shakespeare Festival would continue, but the missed funding would need to come from a different source, Sanders said.

The $30,000 from CNZ represented roughly 10% of the $300,000 it costs to create the Shakespeare festival.

The author is a former member of the Young Shakespeare Company run by SGCNZ.

Top image: Shakespeare frustrated by a laptop in a modern classroom. Credit: iofoto/iStock, SolStock/iStock, Re:News

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