Signing Shakespeare

An actor speaking in sign language in front of a stone corridor

There are around 52,000 deaf children in the UK and an estimated 308,648 deaf or hard of hearing children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the US.

Many of these young people are disadvantaged in the classroom. Deafness by itself is not a learning disability, but its effects can be compounded by factors such as non-inclusive practice or an inadequate linguistic environment. Recent figures show that British deaf students achieve, on average, a grade lower than their hearing peers at GCSE level.

Beginning as a research project between the RSC and the University of Birmingham, it has evolved into a programme consisting of active, rehearsal room-based resources for the study of Shakespeare’s Plays, supported by a series of films performed by Deaf actors in British Sign Language (BSL), Sign Supported English (SSE – not a language in itself but a form of communication used in some classrooms where there are deaf students) and American Sign Language (ASL).

So far we have completed a scheme of work for Macbeth which is on the RSC Learning pages. Following the completion of this resource we have run a CPD day for Teachers of the D/deaf and theatre practitioners who work with D/deaf students in the UK and have since followed up to find out about the impact of the resources and the CPD training on their professional practice, attitudes and confidence in teaching Shakespeare to their students. 

Sophie Stone

Lady Macbeth in the Macbeth films

“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.”

We are now working as part of Culture Forward and with Birmingham Rep on a project to bring sections of The Tempest to the stage, working again with Braidwood Trust School for the Deaf and many of the D/deaf artists with whom we worked on Macbeth. We are aiming to lobby government for support to make the resources for the remainder of the Shakespeare plays named on the National Curriculum.