My almost-six year old has just had his first taste of Shakespeare, when we took him to an outdoor production of As You Like It. This was more about it being easier to take him with us than about introducing him to a full-scale play, so we told him to put his head down in our laps and snooze if he got dozy, rather than making a big deal about expecting him to watch. He did stay awake for the whole thing, however, although his attention wavered during the passages without people pretending to be goats. I found that, even knowing how verbal he is and how much he loves pretending, I still managed to underestimate how involved he would get, and how much he would understand. It’s simply that he brought the understanding of a kindergartener, which is that they know about bad kings and young couples falling in love, running away and dances and animals. This made his questions about what was happening rather delightful. When Rosalind told Phoebe that she would marry her tomorrow, after several romantic scenes with Orlando, he asked “can someone marry two people?” In response to Rosalind continuing her disguise (kids get disguises) upon meeting Orlando in the forest, he said “but if she doesn’t tell him it’s her they can’t get married!”
Perhaps in making decisions about when children might be ‘ready’ for Shakespeare, it is less a matter of whether they are capable of watching or participating, and more about not expecting their responses or involvement to match those we see from adults.
Last week I had the chance to do my first test in the field of some ideas I have been mulling over about getting younger children involved in understanding Shakespeare. I had a full day to work with a group of ten children aged 8 to 11, as a general drama session. Only one had reading difficulties, but they were not a ‘gifted’ or extension group, just selected by interest in doing a day of drama activities. In the later part of the day, I used a few isolated lines from Shakespeare to lead them into the notion of using someone else’s words to express ideas and feelings. We began by talking about the emotions we could think of, then tried showing them without using words, then using our own words to describe what it’s like when we feel that way.
The next step was to give them a selection of lines from Shakespeare, with the relevant emotion labelled. For example:
Anger – O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.
Fear – Oh I have passed a miserable night, / So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams. / Methoughts a legion of foul fiends / Environ’d me about, and howled in mine ears / Such hideous cries, that with the very noise I trembling waked.
Love – Except I be by Silvia in the night, / There is no music in the nightingale; / Unless I look on Silvia in the day, / There is no day for me to look upon; / She is my essence
Frustration – Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Some were longer than others, some harder, some easier. I laid them out as verse lines, mainly to keep each line looking short and therefore manageable on the page. I made several copies of each and put them all in the middle, so students could choose something that looked more or less challenging, depending on how confident they were feeling. They went off on their own for a few minutes to figure them out, while I came around individually to sort out hard words or any other troubles. After that they took turns to get up the front and say the lines to their classmates. My instruction was, “instead of your own words, try using these words to show us the feeling.”
Without a history of assuming anything about how Shakespeare should be spoken, or a preconditioned idea of its impenetrability, the students showed me some beautiful, sincere connections between the lines they were speaking, the action of their bodies and the emotion in their voices. I saw people looking genuinely scared, angry or joyous, and speaking of those feelings directly to their audience.
As is always the way with these tasks, I was given lovely surprises at their insight. When I asked “why the marketplace, instead of just eating his heart at home?” someone immediately responded “because there’s lots of people there”. The only disappointment was a girl who was obviously exceptionally intelligent, very keen on drama, who had been quickest to respond to the warm-up exercises of the early part of the day. I couldn’t persuade her that she didn’t need to memorise the lines, or to stop using her grownup voice, with hands neatly folded in front. Experience with what is usually asked of a child in performance turned out to be a disadvantage.
I’m not sure that the casual observer would have agreed with me about how great the results of this exercise were. Without the framework of what I was aiming for, an audience member might have felt that they didn’t see much of a performance. However, I wasn’t looking for a recital, I wanted to see if they were able to see the lines as a means of communicating something they understood, even if the form was very distant from the way they would usually go about expressing themselves. I also wanted to see if I could divert them away from preconceptions about Shakespeare before they had a chance to form. Within those parameters the results were remarkable.