Ask Alice: Is Shakespeare YA?

Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!

It’s my favourite time of year to be tutoring high school English students: Shakespeare time!

No, I’m not being facetious. I genuinely love teaching Shakespeare and I think I’m pretty good at it (which makes me like basically every English teacher). Funnily, when I studied Shakespeare in high school I was indifferent to it. In fact, when we studied Hamlet in year 12, I actively disliked it.

Yet when I came to tutor it a few years later, using the copy into which I’d dutifully (and apparently, mindlessly) copied my teacher’s extensive notes, something shifted and I found real delight in it. I enjoyed explaining the structure, unpacking the themes, and doing close reading with my students to identify the literary devices packed into every line. Everyone who really enjoys Shakespeare seems to have ‘their’ Shakespeare story in how they came to love his work; this was mine.

What’s notable is that many students struggle with Shakespeare and yet he’s one of the authors who doesn’t just appear on most English curricula, but does so repeatedly across year levels of English curricula. This column isn’t actually about whether or not we should teach Shakespeare in high school – I think we absolutely should because students are presented with stylised language and societies which are so different to our own in so many ways (and yet lamentably similar in so many others), and are forced to untangle them, developing vital critical thinking skills. Zach, who responded to an Instagram callout on this topic spoke strongly about his experience with Shakespeare as an English and Theatre high school student, and rather beautifully noted Shakespeare plays “are classic tales that require a specific focus on words and an understanding of language […] it allows people to approach something they won’t typically get in an education based solely on new or even modern classic novels.” Moreover, I absolutely agree with claims about the ambiguity of many aspects to the plays inviting students to develop their own interpretations, and critical thinking skills to support those interpretations. This ambiguity is also useful because it teaches students to sit with the messiness of ambiguity in a world that increasingly wants to deal in absolutes.

To pre-empt some counterarguments, yes, there are other texts which can do all those things (although all in the one text, I’m less certain). However, the value to Shakespeare is also that it is such a cultural touchstone that there is an element of familiarity to many of the plays studied in schools thanks to their profound cultural impact. This familiarity helps people start to do this untangling.

Ah but Alice, I hear you asking, what exactly is your question for this month, then? Well, it comes back to a teenage Alice’s lack of engagement with Shakespeare, and the fact that many students similarly feel a total lack of connection to the plays they (are forced to) study. This seems to fly in the face of claims about the universality of themes and stories within many of The Bard’s plays.

So it got me thinking. If Shakespeare’s plays are so universal, could a different way to look at them, especially when it comes to teaching them in secondary schools, be to ask whether or not some have distinctly YA themes? 

To help me answer this question, I turned to three of the loveliest people around: Biffy James, the author of 2023 Completely Normal (and other lies) and a secondary English teacher, Jodi McAlister, an academic and author of (among other things) 2022 Libby Lawrence is Good at Pretending, which has a great narrative interplay with Much Ado About Nothing, and David McInnis, professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama (disclaimer: my questions to David were asked conversationally as I was musing this column over and ran into him at work, then I begged him to let me quote him so I’m paraphrasing ideas that got the ball on this column rolling).

So first off – and to seemingly leave this column dead in the water, no, we wouldn’t necessarily say Shakespeare’s works are YA in nature. As Jodi pointed out, “Could we make an argument for it, based on the fact that characters like, say, Romeo and Juliet are teenagers? Sure. I’m not sure I’d make that argument myself, though. The way we think about YA as a category is defined by audience […] the text’s ideal recipient and presumed addressee. Even a little bit of study into early modern theatre shows us that Shakespeare’s presumed addressee was not teenagers. He was writing for a broad audience of all ages, so I’d hesitate to call any of his work YA. (Did his audience include teenagers? Sure. Did “teenager” as an identity category exist in the early modern period? Not really.)

David also made the salient point that many of Shakespeare’s characters – with the exception of Hamlet – don’t necessarily go through the internal growth, which I have argued before is a key characteristic of YA characters and narratives.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t themes to which younger audiences can eminently relate (and which would serve as a fabulous entry point to these texts). Biffy noted, “Teenagers are gonna make everything about them. And so my attitude toward Shakespeare in the classroom is: how do you make a student relate to it?” In speaking about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Biffy pointed out: What girl hasn’t been super into a dude who’s like, ‘oh, your friend’s really hot’?”

I actually really dislike Midsummer because I find some of the content so irredeemable: it contains what I argue a modern audience simply cannot see as anything other than date rape, coerced consent, and revenge porn; it in fact had a content warning put on it by The Globe in 2023. However, Biffy rather elegantly contrived to shift my perception. She pointed out that it has “every kind of high school student; the lovesick ones, the footballers, the arty kids who don’t get noticed, the guys enacting gross revenge on girls.” In other words, it presents characters who reflect the complexity of experience that many young people are likely to experience in their teenage years. Biffy went on to note, “What’s interesting is it will always be so magical. I’m gonna compare it to Twilight which was so incredibly popular and resonated with so many young girls. But there is a magic to it, even despite these things we’re trying not to teach our girls anymore.”

With this in mind, studying a text such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides an entry point for mediated, nuanced discussion about all of these experiences, which I always argue is the best way to provide our young people with the tools to navigate their burgeoning adulthood. Moreover, it makes the text quite relatable for students.

Again, on questions of ambiguity, leaning on a point from Biffy, (has this column accidentally become a stalwart defence of A Midsummer Night’s Dream??): “There’s a romanticism in these other worlds. And I think Midsummer does that really well. I think it’s about teaching how to fall into that beautiful dream but knowing that dreams are a complex, weird things that don’t always make sense and you can’t trust them. And this is a beautiful play, but there are bits in it which have the same feeling as a really, really crazy, insane dream that might make you feel a little uneasy. But it’s literally called a dream. These characters are going to be behaving ways that we might not always agree with. And they’ll be magic to it. But there’s also unease to it […when certain behaviours are] being presented as something funny or desirable, and in fact they’re not cool at all. But that’s what dreams do.”

Something else David pointed out to me was that a lot of Shakespeare plays have been adapted into young adult stories. I’m always happy to rewatch 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew), or even She’s The Man (Twelfth Night). The keen observer will note these are films, but there are a plethora of Young Adult book retellings of various Shakespeare plays which adhere more closely to the original text (included, 2020 These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong). I recall reading a retelling of Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective where all the deaths are faked and everybody lives happily ever after…way to set me up for a very different play when I came to study it a few years later.

As foreshadowed, Jodi’s 2022 Young Adult novel, Libby Lawrence is Good at Pretending, has a staging of Much Ado About Nothing within it and drew on elements of the play across the plot. I asked her about her writing process. She noted, “I was quite clear when I wrote Libby Lawrence that I didn’t want it to be a retelling of Much Ado. I wanted to draw on elements of it, yes, but it has very different internal character dynamics and plot structures […] There were a couple of key things I wanted to mirror, though. In Much Ado, Beatrice is ride-or-die for her cousin Hero (“I would eat his heart in the marketplace,” she snarls of Claudio when he brutally ditches Hero), and I wanted to preserve that for Libby and her best friend Ella. And while I didn’t want to give Libby and Will the enemies-to-lovers arc of Beatrice and Benedick, there was an element of it I wanted to draw out. At their core, Beatrice and Benedick are utterly unable to stop talking – and, importantly, listening – to each other. They’re each other’s best audience, something I find very romantic and wanted to make fundamental to their relationship dynamic.” She noted, this dynamic “works very well in YA/NA, especially anything with a romance plot.”

Of course, Jodi made the rather erudie point that Shakespeare himself “was very much engaged in the business of retelling! […] He was transforming existing stories for his audience, much in the same way that his plays are now transformed in retellings.

The adaptability of the core stories speaks to the fact that if we are thinking about how to introduce these decidedly non-YA texts to teenagers in classroom settings, there are clearly ways to speak about them in ways that are likely to pique the interest of young people. 

I’ll end by acknowledging I accidentally lied. No, not about my decidedly clickbait-style heading for this column (although that, too). I lied about my consistent indifference to Shakespeare when studying it at school. On the very first day we started the first Shakespeare text we ever studied, Romeo and Juliet, we had a substitute teacher (Mrs Runco). She stood in front of the classroom and unpacked the opening scene thus: “It’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got a promise of danger and of teenagers defying their parents. Shakespeare’s audience would have been hooked.” Very YA.

She certainly had me hooked. Unfortunately, she only had us for one lesson. The teacher who taught us for the rest of the play didn’t quite frame it the way she did.

As always, huge thanks to the people who so generously contributed their time and ideas to this; David, Jodi, and special shoutout to Biffy who I actually had an hour-long interview for about this! 



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