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

The Japanese Society for Theatre Research held a 2-day conference at Kyoto Sangyo University under the heading 「シェイクスピア ローカル・グローバル」or “Shakespeare Local-Global.” The 2-day event, which ran from the 3-4 December 2016, was organized and led by Professor Masae Suzuki. I took part in a roundtable panel discussion on Shakespeare in higher education in Japan. Panelists included Timothy Medlock, Masaru Inoue and Masae Suzuki and commentators were Xiong Jieping and Shoko Yonaha.

My talk focused on the long-running annual student Shakespeare productions at Konan Women’s University, which is where I currently work. I gave a brief overview of the production history going back to 1966; then outlined the organizational structure of the project; before ending with a series of reflections on the benefits and challenges of doing Shakespeare in English as a second language in higher education in Japan today.

Below is the rationle for my talk and a copy of the powerpoint slides.


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 performing Shakespeare and “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.

At the same time, counter culture movements in the 1960s ushered in critical discourses on race, gender, sexuality and postcolonial identity politics and played a crucial role in displacing Shakespeare’s position from western monolith to a multiplicity of local Shakespeares. As such, by the 1980s, Shakespeare had become intercultural, hybrid and queer, and his language had been translated, adapted, rewritten and reoriented.

By the new millennium, the spread of global capitalism had 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.

As theatre practitioners and educators, how do we construct the “value” of Shakespeare in education? How do we 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 claiming cultural capital as was once the trend, or does Shakespeare in higher education have a more “subversive” or “radical” role to play in shaping the future of cultural studies?

In response to these tensions – whose effects are not limited to Japan – there has been an increase in publications promoting 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 experience in the practice of Shakespeare in higher education, my short contribution to this panel aims to question the function and potential of Shakespeare and ESL in universities in Japan in terms of the following questions: 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?

Presentation slides


Cover photo: Scene from a 2009 production of Macbeth by students at Konan Women’s University.

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