Here in Britain, we seem to get it wrong almost before we have begun. In France, Italy and Belgium, every child under five receives nursery education from the state. Here, less than half of our children have that right.

Ladies and gentlemen, it may prove to be exceptionally opportune - in view of what I have to say to you today in this theatre - that I take off for Brazil as soon as I leave Stratford, probably never to return until found in the last remaining patch of rainforest by a tribe of hunter-gatherer environmentalists...

Now, I imagine that it is bad enough being asked to deliver the annual Shakespeare lecture if you are one of the many experts on the subject - a frighteningly large number of whom seem to be gathered in the theatre here this morning. I have no claim to such scholarship and find it hard to decide whether I feel more humble or just downright stupid standing here before you today...

Of one thing at least I am certain. This year you will have a rest from scholarly expertise.

"I am no orator as Brutus is, But (as you know me all) a plain blunt man. ... And that they know full well" (at least, I certainly hope they do) "That gave me public leave to speak of him."

I have to confess that my acquaintance with Shakespeare began in singularly undistinguished fashion. You have probably already guessed that the 'O' Level text we ground our way through at Gordonstoun was Julius Caesar. The experience left me largely unmoved. That is perhaps not surprising, since it became only too apparent to me that I was a late developer - of a particularly virulent kind. It was only quite recently that I re-read the play and appreciated for the first time the fascination of that complex character Brutus, the reluctant revolutionary; the excitement and rhetoric of Anthony's great speeches, and the extraordinary timelessness of Shakespeare's presentation and analysis of riot, revolution, intrigue and internecine strife which is at the heart of the play.

One of the problems, I suspect, was that I failed to realise just what fun Shakespeare could be.

"Brush up your Shakespeare Start quoting him now. Brush up your Shakespeare And the women will wow. Just declaim a few lines from Othella And they'll think you're a helluva fella. If your blonde won't respond when you flatter 'er Tell her what Tony told Cleopater-er. And if still to be shocked she pretends, well Just remind her that "All's well that ends well".

Such was the advice given by Cole Porter, that 20th century master of popular culture, in his musical Kiss Me Kate. Cole Porter's teasingly affectionate acknowledgment that Shakespeare can actually be fun seems to me to be something which each generation has to discover anew for itself.

All of us who have been fortunate enough to develop an acquaintance with, and love of, Shakespeare - and that is a thought to which I will return later - have our favourite plays. One of mine happens to be Henry V. This probably has something to do with the fact that it was the first Shakespearean play in which I was able to play a part. As the Duke of Exeter, I was allowed one rather splendid speech at the French Court, but then faded from view, apart from a couple of appearances on the battlefield at Agincourt and a modest walk-on role in the final scene.

I have seen the play a few times since then. I was spell-bound by Kenneth Branagh's performance at Stratford (how on earth did he manage it at the age of 23?) and I have seen his film of Henry V at least three times. Some find it a rather jingoistic play, glorifying war. Certainly there are great speeches of resolute action. But each time I have seen or read the play, it has been the humanity of the King that has moved me most.

"Upon the King! Let us our lives, our souls, Our debts, our careful wives, Our children and our sins lay on the King! We must bear all. O hard condition, Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease Must Kings neglect, that private men enjoy! And what have Kings, that privates have not too, Save ceremony, save general ceremony?... 'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball, The sword, the mace, the crown imperial, The intertissued robe of gold and pearl, The farced title running 'fore the King, The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp That beats upon the high shore of this world, No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony, Not all these, laid in bed majestical, Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave, Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread; Never sees horrid night, the child of hell, But, like a lackey, from the rise to set Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night Sleeps in Elysium."

When I re-read this play nearly 20 years after performing it at school, I found myself wondering in amazement at Shakespeare's insight into the mind of someone born into this kind of royal position. When I was at school I was too young and inexperienced in life to appreciate such subtleties. But now that I have lived life, made mistakes and suffered a bit here and there, I realise how profoundly wise and ageless is Shakespeare's perceptiveness.

Of course, that speech from Henry V is not just about the innermost concerns of kings. It is about the loneliness of high office, the responsibilities and stresses which afflict all those who shoulder great burdens, run industries or schools - or perhaps nurse invalided relatives.

And, then, what about Henry's speech before Agincourt? Visiting British troops in Saudi Arabia just before Christmas last year, and knowing that a friend of mine was commanding a regiment in the desert, the words that Shakespeare puts into the King's mouth became even more poignant to me. They say everything that ever needs to be said in such circumstances, no matter what age we live in:

"This day is called the Feast of Crispian. He that outlives this day and comes safe home Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named And rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall see this day and live t'old age Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours And say 'Tomorrow is Saint Crispian'. Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars And say, 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day'. Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, But he'll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day. Then shall our names, Familiar in his mouth as household words - Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester - Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered. This story shall the good man teach his son, And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by From this day to the ending of the world But we in it shall be remembered, We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day".

One of the unique qualities of Shakespeare - which has, like very other aspect of his genius, survived almost 400 years - is his all-encompassing view of mankind. All human life really is there, with an extraordinary range and subtlety of characterisation, of historical setting, of place. His understanding of domestic life, of the minds of soldiers and politicians, of the fundamental relationships between men and women, was so vast that it remains eternally relevant. Contrast this passage from Hamlet:

"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension like a god - the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!"

With this more recent statement from Francis Bacon, proclaimed by the media as the greatest English painter since Turner:

"I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason... You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say that it has always been like that, but now it is entirely a game."

Which do you think will ultimately be more relevant?

Time and again in Shakespeare's characters we recognise elements of ourselves. Othello's jealousy, Hamlet's indecision, Macbeth's ambition are all horribly familiar. Shakespeare has that ability to draw characters so universal that we recognise them alive and around us today, every day of our lives.

The evidence shows wonderfully clearly that Shakespeare was a consummate technician and psychologist, with a remarkable ability to understand what makes us all what we are. But it is worth remembering that it is not entirely coincidental that he confronts us so often with such eternal truths, such blunt reminders of the flaws in our own personalities, and of the mess which we so often make of our lives.

His plays are a direct inheritance of the humanism of the Mystery plays, so popular in later Medieval Europe, which deliberately set out to hand on to future generations essential knowledge and experience under the guise of entertainment. No formal education - just the communication of wisdom through the evocation and study of human emotion, thought and behaviour.

Shakespeare plays a similar game. He has a moral standpoint: his plays helped people to understand themselves, and to recognise the laws of emotion and nature which govern their lives. Listen to Prospero in The Tempest:

"... Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air; And like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep."

Shakespeare holds up a mirror for us to see ourselves and to experience ourselves, so that we gain in the process a more profound understanding of ourselves and others, appreciating right and wrong, and the factors which make us behave as we do.

Art in its broadest sense provides us with the most remarkable access to some of the essential truths about the meaning and significance of life. Poetry and drama are the forms in which, from the most ancient times, human values have been expressed, if not created. In every age of our history, poets and painters, musicians and dramatists have transformed crude fact into human meaning, adding new regions to the kingdom of the imagination.

Artists - and, again, I use the term in its widest possible sense - have a unique capacity to illustrate, to educate, and to inspire. It is the poet who reveals to us true beauty. Think back, for example, to Enobarbus's glorious description of Cleopatra:

"The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were love sick with them. The oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes. For her own person, It beggared all description."

In the same way, it is the painter who gives depth to those everyday items so familiar that we fail to appreciate them. It is the pen of the cartoonist or satirist which lays bare the hypocrisy and deceit with which we all, politicians and individuals alike, seek to camouflage our real intentions. Such is the truth and morality which springs from art. Shelley had it right 200 years ago: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".

I am one of those who do not believe, as the scientific rationalists seem to, that human consciousness is the product merely of brain processes, or that the cosmos is a huge machine to be examined, experimented with and manipulated by man for his own all-knowing purposes. There is more to mankind, in my view, than a mere mechanical object functioning in a mechanistic world, which has evolved from the clockwork universe of Newton to the computer models now deemed to possess artificial intelligence.

Despite all the dramatic changes that have been wrought by science and technology, and the remarkable benefits they have brought us, there remains deep in the soul of each of us, I believe, a vital metaphysical ingredient which makes life worth living. This awareness of a spiritual dimension greater than, and beyond, the confines of our everyday self and of a purely superficial perception of the physical world in which we exist, has a particular link to aesthetic experience, and to literature.

Great literature offers one of the keys to understanding these truths, and to understanding ourselves. Shakespeare understood this point very clearly. There is a marvellous, definitive rejection of the rootless, soulless, mechanistic view of man in The Merchant of Venice:

"The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratigems and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night And his affections dark as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted."

It is our enormous good fortune that the world's greatest playwright - perhaps the world's greatest poet - wrote in our own language. The truths he illustrates are universal. In this sense we can read not only a good story into all his plays, but also psychological insights and archetypes with all their engaging interplay. There are also insights into the contemporary political climate, heavily overlaid with symbolism. But, above all, as with all mature art of any civilisation, Shakespeare gives us his own version of the journey of the soul from differentiation to unification. Just listen to Lorenzo talking to Jessica in The Merchant of Venice:

"Sit Jessica - look how the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold. There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st But in his motion like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young-eyed Cherubins: Such harmony is in immortal souls, But whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."

Shakespeare's message is the universal, timeless one, yet clad in the garments of his time. He is not just our poet, but the world's. Yet his roots are ours, his language is ours, his culture ours - brought up in this gentle Warwickshire countryside, educated at the Grammar School in Stratford, baptised and buried in the local parish church.

For us all, roots are important: roots in our landscape and local communities; roots in our cultural and literary heritage; roots in our philosophical and spiritual traditions. If we lose touch with them, if we lose track of where we have come from, we deprive ourselves of a sense of value, a sense of security and, all too frequently, a sense of purpose and meaning.

Today's world is changing rapidly; too rapidly, sometimes, for the human psyche to adapt. International barriers are coming down. Economic and political integration are getting even closer. At the same time people all over the world remain as conscious as ever of their national and cultural identities. Look at the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, the resurgence of nationalist sentiment in Central and Eastern Europe, the situation of the long-suffering Kurds - even the anxieties of many Western Europeans not to allow their national identities to be subsumed in some characterless, grey multinational bureaucracy.

Hanging onto our cultural roots is one way of preserving those identities, and indeed the stability of our civilisations. Other countries, particularly those with a strong cultural tradition of their own, understand the importance of this and the value of acquainting each new generation with their literary inheritance. In France, the curriculum for all students doing the baccalaureat obliges every student to study a major dramatic work of the 17th century, a philosophical work of the 18th century, a poetical work or novel of the 19th century, and a selection of poetry, novels and drama of the 20th century.

Why is it, then, that we in this country seem to see things differently? There are now several GCSE English Literature courses which prescribe no Shakespeare at all. There is at least one A-Level English Literature syllabus on which Shakespeare is not compulsory. Thousands of intelligent children leaving school at 16 have never seen a play of Shakespeare on film or on the stage, and have never been asked to read a single word of any one of his plays. Even the Bank of England has caught the disease, with last week's news that the bard's picture is to be removed from the £20 note!

I find all this difficult to understand. In an age when we are bombarded, perhaps saturated, with instant information of every bewildering kind - the sort of information which, if we are not careful, can overwhelm and deeply depress us (only to be forgotten a few days later) - has anyone stopped to consider whether all this actually helps to make us wiser human beings? Wisdom comes through insight, and our greatest poets and literary geniuses are invariably the means by which we can obtain this insight into the workings of the Universe and into the timeless imperatives to which we, as individuals, are subject.

I am not, of course, suggesting that great classical literature and art can be set up as a completely separate alternative to the culture of our times. As a practical man, with practical human concerns, Shakespeare doesn't ask to be canonised, but to live alongside and illuminate the modern realities of life. Look how school groups can respond to live experiences and experimentation! Six-year-old children can be enthralled by Twelfth Night, slightly older children become frenzied at the sword fights in Hamlet. And during school matinees children call out "Don't do it!" when Romeo is on the point of committing suicide, not knowing that Juliet is still alive.

Shakespeare may be less than fully appreciated in his native land. But he is studied and admired the world over. I shall never forget the number of Danes who came to see Hamlet performed at Elsinore three years ago, by the Renaissance Theatre Company when I was also present. Their knowledge of this foreign play was remarkable and it was worth going all the way to Elsinore just to hear the audience's reaction to the statement that - "Something is rotten in the State of Denmark!"

Whether we realise if or not, Shakespeare is a part of our daily lives. We all shake our heads in despair "more in sorrow than in anger"; all weddings, we hope, are built on "the marriage of true minds"; and gardeners like me throughout the country wonder why even the fullest respect for organic principles produces "things rank and gross in nature" in our flowerbeds.

It is easy to forget how close we came to losing much of Shakespeare's genius. He made no provision for publication during his lifetime so it is largely his friends and admirers whom we must thank for collecting his writings together after his death. In their first Folio dedicated to his work, Heminges and Condell wrote in their Preface of Shakespeare :

"Who, as he was a most happy imitator of Nature was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together. And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our province, who only gather his works, to praise him. It is yours that read him... Read him, therefore; and again and again; And if then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger not to understand him."

It ought not be beyond the ability of our schools and our teachers to protect their pupils from that "manifest danger". For the aids to understanding today are such that it should be easier than ever to ensure that all the young are able to appreciate their cultural inheritance. Just as Peter Schaffer's magnificent film Amadeus introduced Mozart's music to millions who had barely a passing acquaintance of it before, so films and practical theatre workshops are there to open a window to Shakespeare for untold numbers of the uninitiated, and to make it comprehensible and contemporary. And here, let me say how much I admire the work in this area of the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose guests we are today, and of the Renaissance Theatre Company of which I am proud but thoroughly non-acting Patron.

As we move towards a National Curriculum for our schools - sometimes known as an entitlement curriculum - I find myself wondering why the students of our schools are not as entitled to Shakespeare as to other parts of the syllabus? Do those who disapprove of Shakespeare, arguing for some extraordinary reason that he is elitist, wish to deprive those not already familiar with his work from acquiring an understanding of it - or of other great literature?

This marginalising of Shakespeare seems to be symptomatic of a general flight from our great literary heritage. Do we really want to sanction a situation where children are rarely introduced nowadays to the literary masterpieces of bygone ages; where the overwhelming majority leave school without any awareness of Chaucer, Donne, Milton, Pope, Austen, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Hardy, Dickens...? Are we all so frightened and cowed by the shadowy "experts" that we can no longer "screw up our courage to the sticking place" and defiantly insist that they are talking unmitigated nonsense? You forget - I have been through this before with the architects! I've heard it all over and over again, and it is high time that the bluff of the so-called "experts" was called. If our newspapers rose to the challenge and conducted a survey amongst their readers, the silent majority might finally be able to say what it really thought on this subject....

I am sure that most teachers would willingly rise to the challenge of introducing their pupils to an experience which, whilst perhaps initially difficult, will be with them for the rest of their lives - although I am only too aware that there are many teachers who have so despaired of the hostility and indifference of some of the pupils confronting them in their classrooms that they have felt it better to teach them something, rather than nothing at all. Isn't this an area where the National Curriculum should be helping them? I know that the Attainment Targets for English state that the children should be introduced to - and I quote - "some of the works which have been most influential in shaping and refining the English language and its literature eg The Authorised Version of the Bible, Wordsworth's poems... the novels of Austen, the Brontes or Dickens.. some of the works of Shakespeare". This is an encouraging injunction, but I do seriously wonder whether it is enough to counteract what many consider to be an accelerating erosion of serious literary study over the last 20 years.

There are terrible dangers, it seems to me, in so following fashionable trends in education - trends toward the 'relevant', the exclusively contemporary, the immediately palatable - that we end up with an entire generation of culturally disinherited young people. I, for one, don't want to see that happen in this country. Nor, I suspect, do countless parents up and down the nation, who probably feel utterly powerless in the face of yet another profession, this time the 'educationalists', which I believe has become increasingly out of touch with the true feelings of so-called 'ordinary' people.

Many 'ordinary' parents, I suspect, would agree that education is not about social engineering, but about preparing our children as best we can for all the challenges in front of them. This means not only training them for work through the acquisition of knowledge, but also giving them an understanding of themselves and of the deeper meaning of life. The process is, of course, complex - and I think it worth underlining that it is every bit as much the responsibility of parents as of teachers - not least because it begins at a very early age.

Here in Britain, we seem to get it wrong almost before we have begun. In France, Italy and Belgium, every child under five receives nursery education from the state. Here, less than half of our children have that right. When they reach primary level what awaits them? Certainly a great many devoted and committed teachers, many no doubt inspirational but as often as not too great an emphasis on the child-centred approach, the open-ended learning situation, and too much stress on process rather than content. Of course, this can engender enthusiasm and interest in the classroom, but seems correspondingly less likely to instil fundamental standards of accuracy in the basic skills.

It is almost incredible that in Shakespeare's land one child in seven leaves primary school functionally illiterate. Moreover, it appears to be an increasingly common impression that standards of handwriting, spelling, punctuation and numeracy are not at all what they should be. In most schools children are deemed incapable of learning foreign languages before the age of 11 - yet by the age of 14, half of them have given it up. As if that wasn't enough, present indications are that after the age of 14 children will not be required by the National Curriculum to study any aesthetic subject.

Perhaps most alarming of all, only a third of our 16- to 18-year-olds are still in full-time education. In France the figure is 66%, Japan 77%, the United States 79%, the Netherlands, 77%. Forty per cent of our children leave full-time schooling with no significant educational qualifications at all.

On reflection, it is not all that surprising that so many leave school as soon as they can. Sixth-form education is, after all, geared mainly to preparing pupils for universities, polytechnics or other forms of further education. This inevitably frightens off those who are less academically-minded, if it does not simply disqualify those who would like to do so from staying on.

Meanwhile, those of our pupils who do stay on for the sixth form study three, or at most four, subjects. The advantage of such specialisation is that those subjects tend to be covered in a depth which gives our undergraduates a strong start when they begin their university studies. The disadvantage is that they often miss out on education in a whole range of other subjects. Are we sure that mathematicians do not need to learn to write English, or speak foreign languages? Or that our historians can survive without an understanding of economics and philosophy? It is almost unknown in other countries (including Scotland, where the advantages of a broader education seem to be much better understood) for there to be this exclusive concentration on such a limited range of subjects.

It would be encouraging to think that an attractive programme of vocational training was available for the large numbers of our young people coming out of full-time education at 16. In Germany there is virtually no labour market for 16- to 18-year-olds outside the apprentice system. Moreover, employers are legally obliged to give all young adults at least one day off a week for off-the-job training.

Here at home it is a sadder story. Most of those who leave school the moment they can, go straight on to the labour market - or more depressingly, and I have seen it often enough - onto the register of unemployed. What a way to begin adult life! Only now are we coming to terms with the price we have paid for allowing the apprenticeship system to wither away. Only now are we putting in place arrangements to give our young people the vocational qualifications which they - and the country - needs.

It is heartening that commercial firms are increasingly involved in such training schemes, and are partners with government in the Training and Enterprise Councils set up two years ago. But, as a nation, we have been appallingly slow in bridging the huge gulf between the start we give our young people and the preparation for work which they receive in other countries. We have also been slow to see the disadvantages of forcing our children to choose between either an academic education or a technical, vocational one - a divisive practice almost unknown in other countries. What worries me so much is how we are going to survive in the Europe of 1992 and beyond shackled with such manifest handicaps.

We must have missed a few tricks when, at the beginning of the last century, Napoleon set up the Lycee system in France together with the prestigious state-run Grandes Ecoles accessible to anyone able to satisfy the rigorous entry qualifications. In Prussia Prince William Von Humboldt was doing the same thing with the Gymnasien. We persevered, instead, with our reliance on the ancient universities and public schools as centres of excellence.

In our own times education has suffered badly from the process of lurching from one set of policy initiatives to another, as governments change, and a seemingly endless squeeze on resources. The result - sadly, at a time when education faces greater challenges than ever before - has been a major onset of innovation fatigue, a teaching force which invariably feels underpaid and demoralised, with inadequate attention being paid to their accommodation and equipment needs.

Encouragingly, there is now a greater consensus perhaps than ever before that education is the number one priority for the future. The overall concept of a National Curriculum seems to be agreed by all political parties - and most teachers. So, too, is the need to do something about education - and training of our 16- to 18-year-olds. There is talk of the establishment of a new National Commission to look into educational opportunities for all. And last week's announcement of a new pay review body for the teachers could go a long way towards encouraging more first-rate people to choose teaching as a career. The prospects for getting things right may therefore be better than they have been for a long time.

Let us, therefore, ladies and gentlemen, grasp this opportunity and resist the temptation to deny the cultural heritage of our country to so many young people simply because of expediency or because of a mistaken utilitarian approach. We live in an age obsessed with the tangible, with discernible results and with that which is measurable. While applauding the stress that has to be placed on the technical, the practical, the vocational and the commercially viable, I would like to stress, again, that I believe that education is more than just training. After all, there is little point in becoming technically competent if at the same time we become culturally inept.

In pleading for a restoration of sanity, I have to admit to a feeling of profound sadness that a very great deal of damage has already been done; and that in the unlikely event of anyone taking serious notice of what is said by those of us who care deeply about the value of a grounding in our greatest literature, it will take far too long to put things back on course. I feel an overwhelming shame that in a country like Britain we should have allowed such a short-sighted approach to pre-dominate. As Parolles says in All's Well That Ends Well: "I shall lose my life for want of language".

If we fail to change the present situation, from what roots shall we produce our future poets, playwrights and authors? What, then, will become of

"...This royal throne of Kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands;

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Feared by their breed and famous by their birth?"

I don't want my children - or anybody else's - to be deprived of Shakespeare, or of the other life-enhancing elements which I have suggested should be part of the schooling entitlement of all the children of this country. And I don't want our future generations to be the poor relations in a Europe in which there will be less and less room for those who can't keep up. But I fear that these are real dangers if we evade those key questions about the nature and purpose of education which I have touched on today, and if we fail to give our schools and our teachers the resources, and the philosophical framework, they need to produce the right results.