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.

Favorite Books About Shakespeare: “Stories from Shakespeare”

We at Shakespeare For Our Children have always been tremendous fans of Shakespeare scholar Marchette Chute – please have a look at this – and it is our pleasure to highlight another of her great works. In Stories from Shakespeare, first published in the 1950s, Ms. Chute offers insightful and highly readable retellings of the Bard’s complete plays. These are perfect starting-points for class discussions. They can be read aloud before beginning a production, or even on days when the young performers need a break from rehearsals.

These are no simple plot summaries! In her analyses of the narratives, Chute tells the wonderful stories, exploring the complexities of the characters, and offering interesting historical and cultural context. There are, of course, any number of retellings of Shakespeare’s plays; but this collection is a true classic, written by an inspired and truly great expert. You can find the book here.

“The Quality of Mercy”

The Merchant of Venice features one of Shakespeare’s most profound meditations on humanity’s potential for goodness. In her famous monologue from Act 4, Scene 1, young heroine Portia declares, “The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” (Read and listen here.)

As with virtually all of Shakespeare’s words, the power of Portia’s speech exceeds the play from which it derives – capturing not only the ethical, but the spiritual impetus that must guide us in our actions. For as Portia remarks, mercy is “twice blest: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” We are reminded of merciful acts both grand – indeed, Portia is disguised as a lawyer here in an effort to save her husband’s friend – and more modest. With this in mind, when discussing the monologue with young performers, it can be helpful to relate this monologue to the everyday kindnesses that many of us take for granted: volunteering at an animal shelter or a soup kitchen; caring for a friend or family member in need.

Such real-life moments reveal the eternal truth in what Shakespeare observed hundreds of years ago: The quality of mercy is not elusive or exclusive; it resides in all of us, as naturally free-flowing as that gentle rain of which Portia speaks.

An Historic Proposal: “King Henry V”

At a time when so many momentous events are taking place in the British Isles, we wanted to take a look at one of Shakespeare’s historical epics. King Henry V is perhaps most famous for its brilliant “St. Crispin’s Day” speech – a soaring testament to courage which we will explore in a future post – but for now, we will think about the play from a more romantic angle.

Today, popular television shows like The Crown and Victoria examine the age-old balance between love and duty. Nowhere is this better explored, though, than in King Henry’s proposal to Princess Katherine of France. The language is both tender and majestic, evoking images of Henry’s royal lineage and the kingdoms he holds: “England is thine, Ireland is thine …” Ours is to be no lighthearted fairy tale, we hear Henry implicitly tell his bride-to-be, but a marriage built on love and a noble legacy.

This is a terrific monologue for a bolder young thespian who wants to play a part of distinction as King Henry – and it also offers a chance for a more reserved student to share the stage as Princess Katherine. Once again, as in any positive relationship (onstage or off) – it is all about the balance.