Summertime, Shakespeare and the real-world relevance of science

I’ve had a lovely summer, enjoying time with my friends and family and catching up on some of the things I love away from the science classroom: reading, swimming and a bit of Shakespeare at the globe. As the summer draws to a close I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned while I’ve been out of the classroom.

I’ve seen quite a few productions at the globe over the years and I’ve always enjoyed being a groundling. The dull ache in the legs by the end of the play is well worth it for the proximity to the stage and to the action and the extra involvement which the players grant the standing audience.


The Globe Theatre (CC-BY-SA: Another Believer)


This summer my husband and I saw Macbeth, a play I haven’t seen since I was at school. The players were fabulous and the set and costumes wonderfully enhanced the play.  The three witches were played using musicians and puppets as well as actors and this worked brilliantly, in my view. There was, however, a fly in the ointment for me. It took me a while to work out why the extra audience participation which had been added to the play bothered me so much, but I think I have now figured it out.


Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches for the first time. Theodore Chasseriau (musee D’Orsay). Public Domain


When I worked for science communication company science made simple one of the things we considered very carefully when devising science shows was how to ensure that we had an interesting and entertaining show without patronising the audience. We worked hard to make sure that the excitement of the show allowed space for the deeper excitement and interest in the underlying science. A show full of flashes and bangs with ‘serious science bits’ in between runs the risk of giving audiences the implicit message that the science is a chore to be put up with in order to make it to the pleasure of the thrill of a few colour changes and pops. ‘Eat your greens and then you can have pudding’.


Hydrogen balloon bang. CC-BY-SA (Maxim Bilovitskiy)


During that performance at the globe I had a similar nagging feeling. That the pantomime-esque calls to the audience, reference to Scotland’s oil wealth by McDuff and changes to the porter’s speech (funny as they were) served not to highlight the relevance of the play to contemporary issues but rather to suggest to the audience that this amazing, moving, thought-provoking and at turns hilarious play can only be of interest to an 21st century audience with the addition of explicit titbits aimed at them. Instead of enhancing the relevance of the play, these additions and amendments actually served to undermine it. ‘Well done guys, keep paying attention and you can have some cake.’


As my second September as a teacher starts I’m going to try to keep these ideas in mind. I want to make sure that my students see the big picture when it comes to the science I’m teaching them but I’m going to try to ensure that I don’t inadvertently end up shoe-horning this in and undermining the implicit intellectual interest in the subject matter itself. Science does lend itself all too easily to both cheap thrills and grandly overstated claims of real-world relevance, but neither are likely to foster a genuine interest and enjoyment beyond the superficial. Of course, everyone needs a bit of cake from time to time and a little of what you fancy does you good but it’s the interest in the science without the frills which is necessary in order to not only work through the difficult bits but to actually take pleasure in these. ‘Bring on the broccoli!’.


Broccoli- it’s delicious! CC-BY-SA (David Monniaux)

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