I love Shakespeare. In high school, our English class took a trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland to watch Taming of the Shrew in the Elizabethan Theater there, and I took an entire term of Shakespeare in college. Ahhhh, linguistic deliciousness.
Now I have a swarm of small swarm of children swirling about, whom I have been tasked with educating. This term’s lessons for the girls included Shakespeare (Georgie is in 7th grade and going to school this year). Hmmm, how to introduce Shakespeare to a ten year old and a nine year old. As soon as Georgie found out what we were doing, he decided he wanted to do it to, so we waited until he got home to do anything.
Our studies have been such a success that the kids all beg to do Shakespeare class and are all excited about going through Hamlet this week and Henry V. So, with no further ado, is how you con your children into enjoying Shakespeare:
1. Love Shakespeare Yourself (or at least fake it really well). This pretty much applies to everything. If you hate it or groan when you have to read/watch/listen to it, you will have a much harder time getting them to like it. If you are enthusiastic and carry on about how fabulous Much Ado About Nothing is and how much they are going to love it, your chances of passing that attitude to them will improve.
2. Read Them a Short Prose Version of the Play You Are Going to Watch Beforehand. I’ve been reading to the girls from Beautiful Stories From Shakespeare by E. Nesbit because I am a cheapskate and that book is online for free at The Baldwin Project. Several of the most popular plays are contained in the book, and each prose version is maybe four or five pages long. Reading the story first lets them track the film (or play) much better since they don’t have to be trying to wade through both the plot and the unfamiliar dialogue all at the same time.
3. Pick the Most Accessible Film Versions That You Can and Watch the Easiest First. We started with the Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing. Since we had read the prose version already, the kids understood what was going on, and as the movie progressed I translated the more complicated pieces of the dialogue. They seemed to think it was hilarious! Georgie, who is twelve, particularly thought it was funny and understood much more of what was going on with less explanation in all the movies we’ve watched so far.
After Much Ado, we watched Romeo and Juliet (the 1960’s Franco Zefferelli version) and The Taming of the Shrew (Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor – brilliant!). Next we are planning to watch Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Marlon Brando’s Julius Caesar, and Orson Welles’s Macbeth (we’ll probably do a brief review of the history of for those last two as well).
Romeo & Juliet and Much Ado both have a little nudity in them. I just told my kids to cover their eyes until I told them not to, which they did. If you’re concerned, preview first.
4. Don’t Go Too Fast. I’ve been shooting for one to two plays a week (usually one). The last few weeks have been insanely busy around here, so we’ve stalled a bit but that’s ok. There is no time limit by which the children must be introduced to Shakespeare.
5. Put on Your Own Production! This really is the very best way to get the kids excited. Let them pick their favorite and look for an abridged version or kids version that retains the Shakespearean dialogue. I must admit, this is probably the most difficult part of the entire endeavor.
When I started looking, I found many children’s versions which completely rewrote Shakespeare’s fantastic dialogue in modern verse or prose. I see no advantage to this. A large part of the beauty of Shakespeare is the beauty with which he wields the English language. Why in the world would I want to trade that away instead of teach the kids to relish it?
Having said that, an abridged version is a necessity. The plays are far too long for small kids, many of the plots complicated, and much of the language uses metaphors and idioms that refer to common items or events in the 16th century but which have no cognate now.
I went with the Shakespeare in a Box version of Taming of the Shrew. This comes with ten copies of an abridged (45 minute) script, character cards for the cast, a director’s booklet, and a few props. It is designed to be read (as opposed to memorized) and done cold with no rehearsal. We decided to keep the reader’s theater aspect and have the adults we were pressing into service do their parts cold, but the children and I practiced their parts and blocked out the whole thing prior so that they could get a firm handle on what all of their lines meant and basic stagecraft items like speaking slowly and clearly and making sure to face the audience.
Also, I decided to edit even further for time and clarity, so I cut out all of Bianca’s part of the plot and just focused on Kate and Petruchio. For some reason, the Shakespeare in a Box fellow cut out the scene on the road where Kate changes from being a Shrew to being a dutiful wife; and since the last scene makes no sense without that one, I added it back in.
We borrowed costumes from our church’s costume closet and utilized half a dozen props we had around the house. Family, pizza, and Shakespeare made for a delightful evening. Here is the video of our production:
It came out so much better than I ever would have imagined! The kids were wondrous, the adults delightful, and the entire evening so much fun. Now Trinity wants to know when we are going to do the next one. Ack!
Have you done Shakespeare with your elementary/middle school students? How it go? What did you do? I’m always looking for good ideas. 🙂