Popping the idol question

“Keith, who would you rather have been, Chaucer or Shakespeare?” pipes up one of my Block 3 English students first lesson this week. Although I have needed to do some other things this week, this magnificent question has been burrowing around my head – yes, even whilst discussing the ironies and contradictions in Western attitudes to Islamic dress with the Middle East Society on Monday evening; and even afterwards when I was just about managing to put some thoughts together for an assembly (tonight) on why we teach what we teach here (AKA the curriculum); certainly when being distracted by the excellent gloomy Hibernian-noir series Shetland (think Katy Morag meets Ibsen whilst waiting for Wallender); and even when being surprised by my Block 1 class’s shrewd observations about Yeats’ swans (Wild Swans, Irish kind), this question has been bothering me. Where to start? Dare I? Even to begin is a kind of lèse-majesté.

OK, emboldened by an early morning walk and spurred on by observing that our rescue chickens’ plumage is starting to spruce up and preceding my faltering thoughts with all the necessary clauses about how it is a kind of impertinence to even begin to imagine, even in the most idle and frivolous of ways, that I might even speculate on what it would have been like to be one of these great men, I will have a go.

But before doing so, a tiny bit of context: teaching little and mainly to Block 3s, I am choosy. In the 6 lessons I have with each of the Block 3 classes, I just teach some of the most appetizing bits of the two juiciest authors, Chaucer and Shakespeare. On Monday we skipped 200 years from Chaucer to Shakespeare – from the Miller’s vile wart to the start of Henry V and the Chorus’ great plea to his audience (and all audiences) to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”.

So (taking the plunge, eyes metaphorically screwed tight), Chaucer: spying, courtly stuff, foreign travel, Black Death (cheats it, so inherits well), dandy fashions (lovely floppy hats), marries an aristocratic lady (John of Gaunt’s sister in law), but possibly done in by incoming ruthless Henry IV (says Python Jones in his entertaining book) when he was about my age; Clerk of the King’s Works – a very grand version of being a bursar (not that being a bursar isn’t an enviable role, of course); creates a panoply of characters whose music we all dance to (Dryden: “Here is God’s plenty.”); Father of English Letters, there in the early stages of English’s development etc.

Shakespeare: London has become even more exciting – stimulating but dangerous; interesting fashions but a bit uncomfortable wearing all tight hose, 6,000 new words a year coming into English in WS’s writing prime (says Simon Winchester in his OED book), very exciting being an Elizabethan, entrepreneur, theatre owner and manager, busy chap (and no, am not thinking about Shakespeare in Love version), plenty of jostling with royalty, spikey Elizabeth and less spikey James, has distinguished hairstyle, dies rather young (even younger than I am now), leaving a quizzical will and a witty epigram on his tomb and something of a literary legacy.

Well, it’s a great question – and, both are geniuses and serious idols and I am nowhere near definitively answering it, but I will park my vote with Will for the time being.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.