Studying Shakespeare in Colonial Singapore

Postcard showing St. Joseph's Institution at Bras Basah Road, Singapore, in the early 1900s. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board. Accession no. 2007-55365.


This part of the tour looks at how Shakespeare featured within colonial English schools, which was the main place young people in colonial Singapore encountered Shakespeare.

Under British colonial rule, English-medium schools such as St Joseph's Institution (pictured) educated a limited number of students, mainly with the aim of equipping locals to serve in the government and European businesses. Within these schools, there was both a practical and a political edge to Shakespeare education.

Michael West and H.R. Cheeseman, New Method Malayan Readers: Reader 3 (Hong Kong: Longmans, 1960). Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board. Accession no. 1999-01904.

Shakespeare and Language Instruction

On a practical level, it was believed that studying Shakespeare could help to strengthen students' mastery of English. Textbooks such as the New Method Malayan Readers sometimes used stories from Shakespeare to help widen students’ vocabularies.

The New Method Malayan Readers (Reader 3 shown here), were adapted from Michael West's New Method Readers, a series of textbooks widely used in British India, for use in colonial ‘Malaya’ (as Singapore and Malaysia used to be known) during the Japanese Occupation of 1942-5.

Reader 3, first published in 1947, contains a simplified prose version of the tale of Oberon and Titania, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Students are meant to read the story and learn the meanings of selected vocabulary items found in the text.

Shakespeare and Imperial Ideology

Politically, Shakespeare was also used to help foster a sense of loyalty to, and respect for, British rule. This imperial allegiance was developed through the use of textbooks such as The Pupil’s Class Book of English History, shown here. This particular textbook was owned by a student named Tan Hock Leong, who was studying at the Mercantile Institution, a privately-run school in Queen Street in 1951.

Although this is a history textbook, Shakespeare features repeatedly. On multiple occasions, after having learned about various episodes in English history, students are asked to memorise Shakespearean passages. For instance, after learning about the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, students are instructed to '[l]earn' the passage from Shakespeare's Richard II in which England is exalted as 'This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle' (p. 102).

E. J. S. Lay, The Pupil’s Class Book of English History Book II: The Tudors (London, Macmillan & Co., ca. 1950). Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board. Accession no. XXXX-02209.

The cover page of The Cauldron 2, no. 3 (June 1948). Image credit: National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

Students 'write back'

Students did not passively absorb the imperialistic material they were exposed to. Many of the students who had been through the colonial education system went on to participate in Singapore’s early nationalist movement and helped to establish Singapore as an independent country, both politically and culturally.

Culturally, while still at university, some students used their knowledge of Shakespeare to help them create a new, local literary voice in publications such as The Cauldron (pictured).

Click on the video below to find out more about how undergraduates engaged with Shakespeare as they sought to develop a new literature for this country.

Transcript of Video

1_Shakespeare, Singapore Students and the Changing Cauldron.pdf