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September-October 1997 - Articles
Sharing Shakespeare With Your Child
by Nancy Wright
Remember being taught the mandatory Shakespeare play in high school English? For me, it was The Merchant of Venice. We were given a brief, sanitized version of the story by our teacher. As far as I know, no one was sparked by this explanation to read further. Expecting this, no doubt, the teacher forced us to read it out loud in class, changing readers with each line. Day after day, we read the lines in sing-song or monotone or fractured English; it was Greek to us. Up and down the rows of desks, Shakespeare was laid on with a trowel.
It took me 20 years to pick up Shakespeare again.
My ten year-old daughter was taking an acting class over the summer, and she was expected to memorize a monologue from a Shakespeare play. She asked me to help. Ay, there's the rub. Screwing my courage to the sticking place, I went to a used book store and picked up an annotated volume of several likely plays. The volume gave a synopsis of each play, plus an introduction by the late Joseph Papp, famous for his direction of New York's Shakespeare Festival. Here is what he said which began to dissolve my Shakespeare-phobia:
[T]here is no question that reading Shakespeare for the first time isn't easy. . . A lot of his sentences are complex. Many of his words are no longer used in our everyday speech. His profound thoughts are often condensed into poetry, which is not as straightforward as prose.
Yet, when you hear the words spoken aloud, a lot of the language may strike you as unexpectedly modern. For Shakespeare's plays, like any dramatic work, weren't really meant to be read; they were meant to be spoken, seen, and performed.
Spoken, I might add, not by a group of bored teenagers, but by people willing to give life and emotion and character to the words. Papp suggested that the best way to appreciate Shakespeare is to see a live performance of a play, but if you can't do that, watch a film version or listen to a sound recording.
Papp taught me several things. First, I did not need to feel stupid because I found Shakespeare hard to read. Second, I did not need to wade through the printed words to learn about Shakespeare. I could do what every student longs to do when faced with a difficult reading assignment - watch the movie version instead.
Off to the video rental store. Our first selection was a recent rendition of Much Ado About Nothing, produced by Kenneth Branaugh. With bated breath we began our exploration of Shakespeare's world. The magnitude of our success can be measured by this: my daughter took Much Ado About Nothing to a sleep-over of fourth grade girls, who watched it twice.
Through our exploration, we have discovered some routes that have made the journey easier. The language is unfamiliar. I worried that it would be too difficult for my daughter, but that proved to be more of my anxiety than hers. Unlike me, she expected to encounter new words every day. (After watching Hamlet give his famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, my daughter paused the tape and said, "This is exactly how I am about piano practice. I know I should do it, but I don't, then I feel so guilty that I can't.") Nonetheless, some plots are more convoluted than others, and providing background before viewing the play can make the experience much more enjoyable.
Tips for Parents
* Read a thorough summary of the story in prose form. There are several books of this type available, but I used Tales from Shakespeare, an old anthology by Charles and Mary Lamb. Once I was familiar with the plot, I described it to my daughter, conjuring up my best storytelling skills.
* Beg, borrow or steal the book The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein. In highly readable form, it gives tidbits of information on each play that includes historical context, quotes from critics, directors and actors, and insight into Shakespeare's use of language.
* Watching a video of a play offers a distinct advantage: the pause button. Give the remote control to your child and encourage free use.
* Keep an annotated copy of the play with you while you watch.
* Don't forget contemporary retellings of Shakespeare. We watched and compared West Side Story with Franco Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet, and Kiss Me Kate with The Taming of the Shrew.
Activities for Kids
* Create a playbill for The plays, complete with cast list (fill in friends, neighbors, film stars, etc.), a synopsis of the play, and advertisements.
* Write a review of the play, and don't pull any punches. Was it thumbs up, two and a half stars, or a foul play?
* Design costumes for the characters, either contemporary or historical.
* Go on a "quote hunt" to locate lines still used today and discover the context for them in the play. For a thorough list, check out Michael Macrone's Brush Up Your Shakespeare. (In fact, you could use this article to hunt quotes. They are peppered throughout.)
* Research the historical setting for the play. How much was fiction; how much was fact?
* Retell the story in your own terms. (A brief example: "Romeo and Juliet is about two excessively hormonal teenagers rebelling against their incredibly stupid families.")
* Don't try to cram too many plays into a short amount of time. These plays are heady stuff, and it is possible to get too much of a good thing.
* Just because it's Shakespeare doesn't mean that it's the be-all and end-all. Most of his plays have "mature adult themes." Some video versions have graphic violence and nudity. Roman Polanski's take on Macbeth gave both of us nightmares. For younger children, the comedies are probably the best place to start. Watching 11-year-old Mickey Rooney's hyperactive interpretation of Puck in a 1935 film was an experience in itself!
* Don't worry if you can't make it through a whole play, or if you or your child don't find it to your taste. We didn't find much to like in Julius Ceasar, and the plot of Titus Andronicus is pretty gross by even liberal standards.
Over the past several years, we have watched numerous plays, both live and movie versions, and my daughter has read several more on her own. We have developed definite opinions about actors, directors, and the plays themselves. Even the "bad" versions have value; we've had great fun giving scathing reviews. With experience and age, my daughter now feels free to challenge even the bard himself. She argues that his plots are uninspired and too overloaded with sex and violence. (I find myself in the unique position of defending in Shakespeare what I sometimes decry in contemporary theater.) Still, The Complete Works of Shakespeare has an honored place in her room and I discovered Richard III deep in discontent on our TV screen yesterday. And even if she abandons Will tomorrow, will all have been lost?
I think not. My daughter has been introduced to Shakespeare at a time when she was too young and naive to have developed either a fear of his language or an undue reverence for his work. Shakespeare has been just one more adventure in her life of learning.
Copyright 1997 Nancy Wright
William Shakespeare and the Internet
An annotated guide to the scholarly Shakespeare resources on the Internet. The Shakespeare Classroom
The site targets distance learners and has been used at a wide range of levels. Collected Works
This site has a searchable index of plays and poetry. Each play is available as plain text, and many have been converted to HTML format.
Jim Weiss, venerable storyteller of Greathall Producations, offers a storytape titled Shakespeare for Children, featuring his outstanding renditions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew and other tales. Available on cassette or CD from Greathall Productions, PO Box 813, Benecia, CA 94510.
The Mind's Eye specializes in books on tape, and they include many of the Bard's works. For a free catalog contact The Mind's Eye, PO Box 6547, Chelmsford, MA 08824; (800) 949-3333.
Bellerophon Books offers a Shakespeare coloring book. Bellerophon Books, 122 Helena Avenue, Santa Barbara, CA 93101; (800) 253-9943; email email@example.com
Dover Publications includes a number of Shakespeare-related titles in very economical editions. Dover Publications, Inc., 31 East 2nd Street, Mineola, NY 11501
The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., sponsors an "Education and Festivals Project," described as "an interdisciplinary, performance-based approach to teaching Shakespeare for students of all ability levels, grades 4-12." In the course of the "festival," kids prepare and perform a scene or group of scenes from a selected Shakespearean play. The Library offers day-long training workshops for those interested in throwing their own Shakespeare festivals. For information contact the Folger Shakespeare Library, Education Programs, 201 East Capitol Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003; (202) 675-0364; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.folger.edu.
If you've ever wanted to put on a Shakespearean play, the free catalog from Pioneer Drama Service has a series of Shakespeare adaptations for young actors (casts of 13 to 16, plus extras; performance times about one hour). For each of the many plays, there's a description of the plot, and listings of cast size, set requirements, and staging times. Single play copies run $3.00 to $4.00 apiece; and there's a royalty charge ($15 to $50) for formal performances. For a copy of the catalog contact Pioneer Drama Service, P.O. Box 4267, Englewood, CO 80155-4267; (800) 333-7262.
Check your local library for Shakespeare-related resources, including books for children and adults, recordings, magazines, and much more.
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