Learning through Shakespeare

Over the decades of teaching our program, we at Shakespeare For Our Children have consistently found that introducing the Bard to young people leads to greater confidence, higher skills in reading, and advanced analytical thinking.

But don’t just take our word for it! The Royal Shakespeare Company has recently publicized results from a study carried out at the University of Warwick, confirming that teaching Shakespeare with a “theatre-based approach” (rather than as straightforward literary texts) inspires a range of benefits for students.

Shakespeare’s works were meant to be performed, not just read in a classroom, and it has always been a gift to see his words reach and inspire new generations. Whether through the Royal Shakespeare Company or in a home-school environment, everyone can know the joys of inhabiting Shakespeare’s worlds – so have a look at our Resources page for some ways to get started!

The Power of Art

At the beginning of The Tempest, Miranda beseeches her father, Prospero the magician, to calm the stormy seas around their enchanted island: “If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (Act I, Scene 2). Miranda’s plea for the lives of those on a tempest-tossed ship (listen below) establishes the gentleness of her character; but even more than this, her words evoke greater questions about the ability of art itself to create, to unsettle, to inspire. If by art such an event has taken place, its force must be great indeed.

Scholars consider The Tempest to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays, with Prospero sharing with his creator kindred gifts of sorcery and conjuring. For it is through Shakespeare’s art that so many phenomena have been given life – words and images so central to our culture that they need no introduction. The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be,” the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth, and a mystical forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream… All of these worlds, and many more besides, emerging from one artist.

Today, we live in a time of instant gratification and immediate accessibility, a virtual age in which many of the things we desire can be attained uncannily easily. With so many objects and networks at our fingertips, it can sometimes feel that we ourselves are conjurers! Yet what has endured over hundreds of years, with infinitely more to come, is a far greater magic than that offered by technology: the power of art.

New Year’s Resolutions

As we post on the threshold of a New Year, it’s time to think about all the possibilities that 2018 will bring – chief among these, of course, being an even stronger engagement with the Bard! It seems appropriate, then, to consider some of his most famous words from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” (Listen here.)

Part declaration, part promise, this phrase captures the importance of each individual maintaining the essential elements that define them. One’s dreams, hopes, values – all of which are so easy to lose sight of, but so integral in making up a person’s identity.

As Polonius gives his fatherly blessing to his son, Laertes, he offers much sage advice relating to friendships and social graces; how to be oneself with others, that is. But Polonius ultimately closes his monologue with an exaltation of the importance of holding to one’s spirit – and as we ring in the New Year, Shakespeare For Our Children can think of no better resolution to make.

New Ways to “Play On”

In his comedy Twelfth Night, Shakespeare famously wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on.” As the holiday season approaches, we are indeed faced with a veritable kaleidoscope of festivities – and any number of moments in which we all “play on”! From Christmas shopping to Thanksgiving dinners, lighting the Hanukkah candles to wrapping presents, this is a time of high cheer and good fun.

Yet with the season can come an underlying chaos, and at times, it is essential to pause and find moments of serenity. We at Shakespeare For Our Children suggest making the Bard your holiday oasis. More lilting than any Christmas carol, Shakespeare’s words can help introduce a meditative rhythm to all of the hustle and bustle. Listen here to the Twelfth Night piece mentioned above, or read aloud a scene from the play. Or, if you’re feeling introspective, explore “To Be or Not To Be”! Restorative and engaging, sharing these works of art – or just keeping them as a present to yourself – will help make the holiday season all the more joyous.

Tales of Sound and Fury

Just in time for Halloween, we wanted to call attention to Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5 – specifically, the legendary “tale of sound and fury” monologue spoken by Macbeth after the death of his wife.

In a play of such menace and brutality, Macbeth’s speech here emerges as a cri de coeur – a railing from a broken heart, however full of villainy. Long sustained by ambition and lust for power, Macbeth finds he is only “a poor player” in the very drama that he and Lady Macbeth thought they could control.

In a season full of ghost stories, it seems appropriate to highlight one of the most chilling tales of sound and fury ever told! But for those actors perhaps too young to fully grasp the horror of Macbeth, you can discuss the theatrical imagery used throughout the monologue. (For example, why would Shakespeare have used such metaphors to convey Macbeth’s bitterness and despair?) As ever when discussing Shakespeare’s tragedies with young people, it will also be useful to highlight a counterpoint to the speech – foregrounding, that is, the necessity of keeping bright the very flame of hope that Macbeth has extinguished.

How “To Be or Not To Be”

Since Hamlet first captured our cultural imagination centuries ago, audiences have been reflecting on the hero’s central question: “To be or not to be.” Hamlet’s personal dilemma gave voice to more universal quests to understand the purpose of existence – how and why our lives matter, and what lies beyond the waking world we know. These are, of course, questions too intense for children to contemplate; yet even so, young actors in Shakespeare For Our Children classes always wanted to speak those famous words. So there emerged still another dilemma for our SFOC teachers: to perform the soliloquy, or not to perform it?

One way we approached this was to explore a different meaning behind the words – one more understandable for a young person’s perspective. Taking the speech out of its original context (as indeed popular culture has already done countless times) we read an edited version in class as an affirmation of existence. For example, take the lines “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/ or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ and by opposing, end them.” We found the children wanted to talk about the ways that they could fight against that “sea of troubles” – in whatever guise it takes – and quite simply make the world a better place.

But what did we do with the haunting refrain “To die, to sleep”? Death is impossible to escape in this soliloquy. For our reading, though, death stood for apathy, a numbness to life’s experience in all its joys and sorrows. Even if the children might not have understood the entire complexity of Hamlet’s existential crisis, they did know that they wanted to be: brave, noble, and alive with a purpose.

A Transcendent Love: “Romeo and Juliet”

Our enduring fascination with Romeo and Juliet is ever-present but hard to define. For centuries, audiences have been drawn to the tale of two teenagers in love with each other in spite of the feud between their families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Is it Shakespeare’s intertwining of radiant young love with tragic twists of fate that we find so compelling? Or is it the poignancy of those moments of understanding between Romeo and Juliet themselves – the points at which their wisdom, even in their youth, transcends the barriers placed between them by cruel circumstance?

Think about Juliet’s famous words to Romeo (and listen to them above) in the balcony scene/Act II, Scene 2: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” What this young girl knows – and what her family does not – is that what defines her loved one is his spirit, his very being. With the logic of love, Juliet goes on to point out, “So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without that title.”

Just as Romeo and Juliet is a play about a transcendent love, so too does its appeal transcend media itself. There have been numerous versions of the work spanning painting, opera, film and ballet – and even musical theatre. For young performers who might be struggling with their lines, show a few parallel numbers from West Side Story to put the scenes “in other words” – showing, for example, Sondheim and Bernstein’s retelling of the balcony scene in the beautiful song “Tonight.”

Favorite Books: Bruce Coville’s Shakespeare Retellings

We have always found that when introducing young people to Shakespeare, the play really is the thing – more specifically, the story of the play! There is a grand tradition of writers recounting the stories of Shakespeare’s plays for wider – and younger – audiences: think of Charles and Mary Lamb, Marchette Chute, and E. Nesbitt.

Bruce Coville has carried on in that legacy with his beautiful Shakespeare retellings, which incorporate eloquent prose and stunning illustrations. As Coville notes, he seeks “to provide readers with an experience that will sharpen their appetite for Shakespeare and give them a hint of the treasures waiting to be found in the original plays.” From The Tempest to Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to A Winter’s Tale, Coville’s texts offer an introduction to Shakespeare’s world. Again, as Coville writes, “Early exposure to Shakespeare’s stories is one way to build a natural interest in the plays themselves – an interest that can lead to a lifetime of reading and viewing enjoyment.” Find his books here.

The Many Parts We Play

At this time last year, we thought about the back-to-school blues through the lens of Shakespeare’s legendary “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It. As summer comes to a close, the lines about children “creeping like snail unwillingly to school” ring as true as ever; but today, we wanted to take a step back and think even more about the world as a stage. As Shakespeare proclaims, “one man in his time plays many parts” – and how right he is.

Think about our daily lives in our chosen professions, in all their variety. Think about the number of interactions in which we take part, from the personal to the anonymous. We live in an age in which we can even construct a distinct public identity – from Facebook profiles to Instagram pictures to Twitter accounts. In his words, Shakespeare not only highlights the phases of human experience, but anticipates a multimedia world in which we are all, indeed, on stage.

But don’t just take our word for it. Marlon Brando, one of the greatest actors of all time, once remarked, “We couldn’t survive a second if we weren’t able to act […] We act to save our lives, actually, every day.” (See his interview with Dick Cavett.)

Impossible Courage

As a tribute not only to the Bard, but to Christopher Nolan’s recent inspired film Dunkirk, we offer an edited version of the powerful “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V. In this monologue, King Henry rallies the English troops – greatly outnumbered by their enemy – before his invasion of France. Exploring still another facet of national history, Nolan’s film captures the miraculous rescue of British troops by civilians in World War II – highlighting their impossible courage in a time of turmoil. Bound by shared humanity, those heroes are – as Shakespeare’s Henry would declare – a “band of brothers.”

Though in obviously vastly different circumstances, the cast and crew of any production share a parallel sense of purpose. Certainly this came to the fore in a Shakespeare For Our Children performance at Salem Montessori in which a young man named Alexander revealed his own impossible courage: performing the St. Crispin’s Day speech in its entirety – rousing his fellow performers, as well as the audience, in a stirring rendition of the speech. It was not only Shakespeare’s words that were so powerful, or even the excellence of Alexander’s interpretation; it was the bravery that the 12-year old showed in tackling the epic speech.