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.

“The Greatest Gift”

We at Shakespeare For Our Children want to highlight a wonderful episode from “This American Life” radio program. (Listen here.) First broadcast in 2002, the episode chronicles the work of the Prison Performing Arts organization and its staging of Hamlet in the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, directed by Agnes Wilcox. With the inmates themselves performing in the production, and reflecting on their lives as they inhabit the characters, this is a celebration of the transformative power of Shakespeare’s theatre.

Although a great deal of the content would be too intense for children, teachers can learn much from this documentary about the literally life-changing impact of entering Shakespeare’s world. As one inmate explained, “After doing this, I felt like I was human again … Like I really could do anything when I get out.” This is truly among the greatest gifts which Theatre can provide: a feeling of shared humanity, of creativity and accomplishment. It also brings to mind the words of one of our young SFOC actors following a performance: “I felt like I was flying! I know I’m going to dream about this tonight.”

What unites the responses of a young child and an adult prisoner? The shared feeling of liberation, of belonging, on the stage. It is something marvelous that Shakespeare made possible, hundreds of years later. For with his profound understanding of human nature, Shakespeare’s words allow us to express the truths of our universal experience – no matter our circumstances.

Costumes: A Creative Realm

Theatre is all about the successful creation of illusion – and costumes have always been an integral part of that process. In Shakespeare’s day, actors usually took to the stage in contemporary Elizabethan dress. At the same time, wealthy persons would often leave their clothes to their servants when they died, and the servants would then sell these clothes to actors for use as costumes. In this way, costumes in Shakespeare’s day were either quite basic or very elaborate – but either way, they helped create the world of the play.

For our purposes today, thrift stores are a great place to find costumes. Old dresses and blouses can be made to appear wonderfully Elizabethan with puffy sleeves and empire waists; white shirts with elaborate collars and other items rich in design can readily become “such stuff as dreams are made on.” But be creative! For example: for one performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, our Shakespeare troupe opted for somewhat traditional costuming; but in still another production, the children wanted to emphasize the excitement and fantasy of the enchanted forest. We found an abundance of glamorous old evening gowns in parents’ and teachers’ wardrobes, and we decided to make our Fairies “Disco Fairies”!

Costuming provides ideal opportunities for imaginative thinking, whether a student wants to be on-stage or is happier in a tech-team behind the scenes. When you first begin talking about the plays, have the children sketch out how they think their characters should appear. Whether or not these designs are used in the final production, such activities allow every child to feel included. As ever – and especially with costumes – keep it simple.

Shakespeare on the Radio

We’re very excited about the BBC Radio program “Shakespeare’s Restless World”! Historian Neil MacGregor explores Shakespeare’s day and age in a series of broadcasts, each one focusing on an object held in the British Museum – including a clock, a peddler’s trunk, a glass goblet – to highlight the real-life dramas of the Elizabethan era. You can listen to all 20 episodes, archived on the BBC website.

In our own highly-digitized day and age, how wonderful it is to reflect on the material objects – the props, if you like! – that have made up our world over time. Listen to these broadcasts with your students and ask them to think about the things they treasure. In hundreds of years, what objects would tell the children’s life stories? Certainly a question for all of us to consider…

The Power of a Dream: Puck’s Epilogue

Now that we are bidding adieu to winter, it’s a good time to introduce your students to the joys of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play that will always evoke the splendor of spring and summer days. This was one of our troupe’s favorite works by Shakespeare, and most popular among the characters was Puck. With his sense of mischief and merriment, Puck is a figure that speaks to the sense of play in all of us, but especially children.

Indeed, one of the first monologues that we worked on with the young actors was the play’s epilogue, in which Puck speaks directly to the audience to apologize “if we shadows have offended.” (Find it here.) It is a perfect piece to help build the confidence of the children: the lines are lighthearted couplets that are easy to remember and fun to say; and the act of directly addressing the audience helps highlight the importance of bridging on- and off-stage worlds. This is, of course, a key element in the spirit of the epilogue itself. For in inviting his audience to regard the play as a shared dream, Puck celebrates the magic of theatre and the bond it creates between actor and audience.

With this in mind, remind your young performer(s) that though they might be standing alone on the stage when speaking this monologue, they are nonetheless sharing an entire world of imagination with the audience – as well as with the character they have created.