Screen shot from Signing Shakespeare Macbeth film. Deaf actress performs in BSL in front of a old castle background.
Image: Signing Shakespeare film from RSC and the University of Birmingham.

This pioneering initiative is the result of a longstanding collaboration between the RSC and the University of Birmingham, beginning in 2016.

There are over 50,000 deaf children in the UK and these pupils are more likely to underperform in school compared to their hearing peers.

Shakespeare is still the only named author that all children are required to study at age 11-14, and this work can be challenging for children and young people of all ages and abilities. But the exploration of Shakespeare’s plays and language can also be a way of unlocking potential and raising aspirations.

The RSC has worked for a number of years to create resources and training that support teachers and young people to explore Shakespeare plays using approaches that actors and directors use in the rehearsal room.

Together, the University of Birmingham and the RSC have developed a suite of resources that ensure deaf students have high-quality access to the plays. They have worked with deaf actor and director Charlotte Arrowsmith and other deaf actors to film scenes from the plays in British Sign Language, around which they have built a scheme of work.

Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Deputy Director (Education) and Associate Professor in Shakespeare and Theatre at the Shakespeare Institute, who co-led the Signing Shakespeare project said: “Signing Shakespeare is an educational resource programme which brings together visual and active learning for the study of Macbeth, so we can try and address the gap between hearing and deaf students in school, particularly when it comes to English Literature.

“Shakespeare, as well as being a compulsory part of the curriculum in England, is part of our national identity, so it is wrong that for so many young people, they just can’t be as involved with Shakespeare as other students, simply because the resources aren’t there.”

Shakespeare, as well as being a compulsory part of the curriculum in England, is part of our national identity, so it is wrong that for so many young people, they just can’t be as involved with Shakespeare as other students, simply because the resources aren’t there.

Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall, University of Birmingham

These newly developed resources for studying Macbeth allow deaf students to explore the story, characters, relationships, themes, imagery, rhythms, and literary devices in the play. The programme features collaborative activities and writing tasks which support students to develop an understanding of the different perspectives and layers within the text, all built around a series of films which are performed by deaf actors using British Sign Language.

Dr Rokison-Woodall, who herself is the parent of a deaf child, continued: “As part of our ongoing collaboration we worked with deaf actors, students, practitioners, and teachers of the deaf to create the programme. It was important that we made Signing Shakespeare engaging and exciting so that students would enjoy the experience of learning about the play.”

One of the challenges that the academics, actors, and collaborators came up against with making the BSL performance films was creating new sign names for characters. There currently aren’t any standardised BSL signs for many character names in Shakespeare’s plays, so the experts behind the project created signs which could be integrated into the BSL performance. For example, the sign name for Macbeth uses a combination of the sign for ‘ruler’, the BSL sign for the letter M and a claw-like hand-shape – which alludes to the dragon that one of the actors found on the crest for the Macbeth clan. Doing this allowed the actors to work with the academics to get creative and explore the nuances of BSL, just as you would if you were verbally speaking the script.

Dr Tracy Irish, Associate Learning Practitioner at the RSC, said: “This has been an amazing project to work on - not just in creating resources to support deaf young people to engage in the richness of Shakespeare’s language, but also for what we have learned about what those young people’s understanding and experiences can bring out in Shakespeare.

“All young people get the best out of Shakespeare when they are encouraged to engage critically, creatively and playfully, and find what the plays can mean for them now. Our resources are focused particularly on supporting deaf students in that study. Working with sign language has given us a different and deeply enriching perspective on how language works that we believe could be of benefit to all young people whatever their level of hearing.”

She adds, “A real strength of this project has been the collaborative community of practice; we have worked with teachers, students, artists, and academics. I really hope we can continue to build that community as we develop the Signing Shakespeare practice.”

Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Learning and National Partnerships at the Royal Shakespeare Company said: “We know that Shakespeare’s work can become an entry route for learners of all ages and abilities to make discoveries about themselves, each other and the world we live in. The Signing Shakespeare resources will help ensure that deaf students are able to enjoy, learn about, participate in, shape, produce and make performances of Shakespeare’s work. We hope the resources will be useful in classrooms for deaf and hearing students. We are heartened that the British Sign Language Act was passed by Parliament in 2022. We hope to now work with other arts organisations and schools to standardise the signs for character names in Shakespeare”

Deaf actor, Sophie Stone, who plays Lady Macbeth in the films, and has played Jaques at Shakespeare’s Globe commented: “This has been a passion project that has evolved into a vital and urgent resource for young people to access Shakespeare's world and language. This isn't just a project for Deaf people, but a project which bridges the Deaf community and the Hearing, the linguistics of written and visual languages and the steady growth of inclusion within education. Shakespeare's works have long been considered for the elite, inaccessible for contemporary audiences and academically exclusive. But Shakespeare himself wrote about, and for, people of all backgrounds. Gifting this rich part of history to today's Deaf community shows that care and consideration have been made and the door to this experience is opened to those who deserve it too.

“The translation process is an education in itself: one word in Shakespeare's works can have several meanings and sign language offers a layered, multi-dimensional experience that enriches the scripts. In order to translate a sentence complete understanding of it is required, there's no hiding behind how it 'sounds'. Showing the possibilities of visual language lifting written words off the page makes for an immersive and explorative opportunity for young people to delve into and enjoy all that Shakespeare can offer. Why would anyone want to deny someone of that? Shakespeare is, and should be, for all.”

Dr Rokison-Woodall concluded: “I was staggered at the lack of resources available to deaf students for the study of Shakespeare. We hope that by starting with one of the most famous plays, we can develop a way of working which can be applied to all of Shakespeare’s work, and potentially even more of the texts taught on the National Curriculum.

In 2023, with the BSL Act having been passed last year, it just doesn’t make sense that something as important as Shakespeare isn’t readily available for all students and audiences. Signing Shakespeare is one step in the right direction.”

Signing Shakespeare is available for teachers to access through the Royal Shakespeare Company website.