Korean students’ Shakespeare

Sarah Olive, Department of Education, reflects on educational experiences of Shakespeare in South Korea.

Yohangza Theatre Company

Yohangza Theatre Company

Twenty university students and academics from three institutions in South Korea – mainly in the North West, around Seoul – contributed to a vox pop about Shakespeare in the South Korean education system, to be published in issue 9 of the British Shakespeare Association’s Teaching Shakespeare magazine that I edit. Here, I offer a preview of the vox pop and my preliminary analysis of it. In doing so, I draw on my previous research into teaching Shakespeare in South East Asian education. I aim to problematize currently fashionable but homogenising notions of ‘Asian Shakespeare’ by tracing differences – in addition to similarities – in South East Asian nation’s teaching and learning of his works: Asian Shakespeares, at least.

My hope for this blog post and the forthcoming vox pop is that gaining insight into South Korean educational experiences of Shakespeare, alongside those of other nations in the region, will encourage academics and post-graduates who teach Shakespeare in Education, English and Theatre departments at York and other British universities to resist generalising about students’ previous exposure to and experience with the bard. These pieces therefore intend to stimulate reflection on and improvements to UK Shakespeareans’ practice with these students.

I would love to include even more educators and students working in or from South East/East Asia in the vox pop, regardless of current discipline (in fact, there is no need ever to have studied Shakespeare). Please visit my website & choose the green ‘Download’ button on the right hand side of the vox pop document.

My sincere thanks are due to the British Council, whose researcher mobility scheme enabled me to compile this vox pop and experience Shakespeare in South Korean education first hand, as well as the participating institutions.

Who does Shakespeare, when?

  • Just over half the contributors had studied Shakespeare at some point in their formal education
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and the sonnets were the most mentioned.
  • All but 1 in English, a subject within foreign language departments. 1 in drama.
  • 6 studied at UG in South Korea, 5 at secondary school – 4 of these were in English-speaking countries, 1 at a South Korean foreign language high school, 2 at Korean primary schools
  • Students’ impressions of Shakespeare’s works: tragic, romantic, accidentally funny e.g. encountering the word ‘bosom’, universal, superior in their handling of emotions, morally/ philosophically educational.

How is Shakespeare taught?

  • Most received their Shakespeare teaching in Korean, though this was closely followed by English, and a combination of the two languages
  • Of the texts contributors had used 4/11 stated they were in English, 2 contained parallel text in both languages.
  • 4 had been taught about Shakespeare’s life
  • 3 had been taught about Shakespeare’s times
  • 3 had watched videos in class
  • 1 had performed plays in class
  • There was some emphasis on private reading of the texts, they were most frequently referred to as ‘books’, and one person explained that there is an emphasis on your assignment ‘score over speaking’ in English in South Korea
  • One older participant’s classes had involved memorisation, translation and study of leading criticism
  • 64% had seen a live production or cinema relay thereof. Many of these were from one class.

How do Koreans meet Shakespeare outside formal education?

  • Those who first learnt of Shakespeare outside formal education encountered him in books, movies, visiting Stratford upon Avon, drama club, and seeing a French musical version of Romeo & Juliet.
  • The age at which these encounters happened ranged from 10-24 years old. Most took place at secondary school or in HE – only one in primary school. Average and median = 18. Mode= 14-15.

What would be ideal Shakespeare for Korean children & young adults?

  • Only one contributor advocated learning Shakespeare before secondary school or HE. One reason for this was to smooth the transition to studying him at HE level. One participant suggested this currently feels like a huge leap.
  • Reasons against starting it earlier included teenagers’ egocentrism; a cramming-oriented secondary school education, seen as not conducive to thinking about the texts deeply; ‘Shakespeare’s information’ not being ‘ in immediate need’; the need for readers’ life experience to understand and enjoy Shakespeare; the better likelihood of finding classmates who are interested and knowledgeable in HE.
  • Ideal methods still favoured reading (including learning definitions of unfamiliar words), matched by films. Speaking aloud and hearing his words as well as instruction from ‘Shakespearean experts’ were also suggested.
  • Three participants suggested the South Korean Ministry of Education mandate Shakespeare in national education policy beyond English subject students.

In terms of thinking about Shakespeares in education in the region, the South Korean vox pop articulated a few resonances with teaching Shakespeare in Japan. These include some quite functional/pragmatic reasons for studying English: to travel, make and maintain work and pleasure-related relationships internationally, fulfil parents’ wishes. Like Japanese students and educators, some South Korean contributors’ rationales alluded to citizenship education objectives such as to broaden students’ worldviews and become responsible global leaders.

Historically, both countries have in common periods of withdrawal from and opening up to Western influences, involving world and domestic economy, regional and national politics, censorship and sporting events which has impacted on Shakespeare’s place in their education systems and culture. South Korean vox pop contributors never alluded to the history of Japanese colonial rule in Korea explicitly. It is discussed by contributors to the edited collection Glocalising Shakespeare in Korea and Beyond. They depict Shakespeare being mediated through Japanese texts and productions in early 20th century and offer some sense of the way in which Shakespeare’s alliance with Japanese language and culture was problematic for Korean patriots. However, this vox pop found that there is much that is proudly, nationally distinctive about Shakespeare in South Korean education. Music education and musicals, both traditional and contemporary, are important in South Korea and this influences what Shakespeare productions students experience, within and beyond the classroom, and how. Furthermore, Shakespeare seems to have become more established in South Korea since its scholars and practitioners cut out the mediation described above, sourcing Shakespeare directly from English-speaking nations, less tainted by regional, colonial politics. However, the discourse with which some students talk about Shakespeare is still inflected with a wariness of cultural imperialism (Japanese, Anglophone or North Korean). One student memorably declared that ‘Shakespeare has not yet invaded Korea’.


One thought on “Korean students’ Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: The Bard in Korea #ShakespeareWeek | Seoul Stages

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