Shakespeare for Geniuses
Shakespeare’s Songs for Young Children
No one is expecting children in early elementary grades to know all about literature and literary conventions. It is quite enough if they experience the beauty of the language and the joy of performance. This will lead later on to more sophisticated modes of understanding. Remember: education is a journey–not a penetential rite!
Ideas for the Classroom
Recitation of Verses from Shakespeare. Young children love rhymes and language games–regardless whether or not they understand what they say! Does Mother Goose need to make sense for the child to enjoy the sheer pleasure of the words on the tongue and the music of the lines? No! Shakespeare, especially in his Romances and Comedies, gives us wonderful ditties for use with young students. See yon files!
Shakespeare in Performance. Okay, so maybe Hamlet is a bit too much for little ones. Why not start with a comedy or a romance? While many plays may not be appropriate for young children –and some productions of appropriate plays are inappropriate–there are some good things out there. Try a live performance of The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream –only make sure they’re kid-friendly before you take your students! Video is also an option. One my own children love is the Max Reinhardt version from 1933 with James Cagney as Bottom and little Mickey Rooney as Puck. Hopefully it will soon be available on DVD–but the VHS is decent. Whatever you do, DO NOT show little kids the modern version with Kevin Klein and Michelle Pfeiffer–sexual content warning!! The Reinhardt version, however, is magical
Shakespeare and Middle School
Children as young as fifth or sixth grade are more than ready to read their first works by William “the Man” Shakespeare. I have done many plays with sixth graders (it’s been a while since I’ve taught fifth grade) and I regularly have eighth graders perform plays by Shakespeare. And I don’t mean just the so-called “smart” or the pigeon-holed “artsy” kids, I have done Shakespeare’s plays with kids who had severe learning disabilities, dyslexia, emotional problems–and these kids proved more than capable of handling Shakespeare. Some even had starring roles in the plays. The thing is, that the teacher need to give the project time. Here are some examples of Kids Performing Shakespeare.
Some Suggestions: If you want to introduce middle schoolers to Shakespeare–and you should–take it nice and easy.
- Read a play in reader’s theatre during class. Give everyone a chance to read.
- Stop to explain some of the language, the jokes, Elizabethan culture.
- Paraphrase or have the students paraphrase some of the lines. This will give them power over their own language.
- See it! These plays were meant to be seen rather than read. Takes the students to a good performance. I take my students to Ontario’s Stratford Festival at least once a year. They never have a hard time relating to the plays of the language. In Detroit, Wayne State’s Theatre Department often has Shakespeare incorporated into the theatre season–and they make performances accessible in matinees arranged for school-age children to attend.
- Movies are also a possibility. Good film versions (age-appropriate) include Branagh’s Henry V; any film by Olivier (Richard III, Henry V, Hamlet–though I find him dull); the wonderful Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with James Cagney and Mickey Rooney; and a slightly bizarre, slightly campy made-for-TV-version of The Tempest with Richard Burton as Caliban and Roddy McDowell as Ariel.
- Let’s Get All Interdisciplinary: Students can easily relate to the work if they have an opportunity to take the material into their own imaginations. Children in middle school can pull off a production of Shakespeare if given the chance and the proper guidance.