“Why don’t we just do a normal play?”
This is a question I have heard quite a bit over the last two years. It’s not an uncommon thought for children to have when you hand them a sixty-page Shakespeare script written in language which, at first glance, appears to be a horrifying mishmash of King-James-Bible-meets-CBS-sitcom. As one does when presented with the same question over and over again, I tend to respond with a variety of answers:
“Because we always have.”
“Because it’s a great story.”
“Because it’s a classic.”
“Because I said so.”
“I don’t know; I didn’t write the script.”
On any given Monday (or Wednesday, or Friday…) I’m liable to get some version of that question and respond with some version of these answers. Sort of. Usually, I’ll actually try, in that haphazard, rapid fire way common to teachers at the end of the day, to explain why we perform the kind of plays we perform: plays written by a man whose name is something more of a myth than anything real or tangible. That is, of course, Shakespeare Plays.
For as long as I can remember, and probably long before that, Redeemer School has performed a play by William Shakespeare at the end of the school year. A (half) lifetime ago, I was lucky enough to participate in several of these performances: as Julius Caesar in Julius Caesar and Prospero in The Tempest. The memories I have of these productions – from staying late after school to practice (and goof off in practice), to heading to the director’s house for a full-cast screening of film adaptations, to finally being on stage alongside all my friends and, of course, heading to get ice cream afterwards – are some of my fondest memories from childhood. They’re experiences which I’ll always treasure. But … there’s no reason why those memories had to be made doing a Shakespeare play, right?
So the question remains. Why don’t we do a “normal play?” Why go through all the trouble of struggling through alien language, confusing dialogue and antiquated puns when we could just do The Wizard of Oz instead? Why Shakespeare?
There are lots of potential answers to that question. I could mention how researchers from the University of Liverpool have discovered that Shakespeare’s complex grammar and syntax, along with his unique vocabulary, excite the brain and prompt it to form new connections and engage in critical thinking skills. I could mention how the sometimes arduous task of processing difficult words and complicated storylines over a long period of time is a crucial counterweight to our constant immersion in a sea of bite-sized, focus-numbing digital content which constantly vies for our attention every moment of every day. Or, I could even quote Charlotte Mason herself, who insisted on including Shakespeare in a child’s curriculum in spite of its complexity.
“Shakespeare is not to be studied in a year,” she wrote, “he is to be read continuously throughout life, from ten years old and onwards. But a child of ten cannot understand Shakespeare. No; but can a man of fifty? Is not our great poet rather an ample feast of which every one takes according to his needs, and leaves what he has no stomach for?”
In other words, we don’t teach children Shakespeare expecting them to understand it all; we teach (and act) Shakespeare to provide a foundation of knowledge regarding the man whom Charlotte Mason described as “the daily bread of the intellectual life.” We provide a reference for them to come back to, time and again, so that, when they next encounter the Bard’s language, they already have experience with him, and they can begin to build an intimate knowledge and relationship with his works.
But, at the end of the day – before I am a teacher, or a Charlotte Mason teacher – I am a lover of books, of stories, and of words themselves. And for those, there’s no beating Shakespeare. There’s simply no one like him in the history of the English language, nor in English literature. Shakespeare looms like a shadow over every book, every story and every word, an inescapable presence that radically defines how we speak, write and read.
Most of us quote Shakespeare on a daily basis, we just don’t realize it. From less common phrases such as “slept not one wink,” “vanished into thin air,” or “dead as a doornail” to the shockingly mundane “good riddance,” “seen better days,” “too much of a good thing” and more, many of our most used phrases are first attested in Shakespeare’s own works. To say nothing of his creative vocabulary, in which words such as “unaware,” “critic,” “bandit” and “lackluster” appear for the first time in the English language. On a very real, very tangible level, Shakespeare is with us every day, as we use words and phrases left to us by his plays. Providing students with an understanding of where their language comes from, as well as a chance to perform those same words on stage, is an incredible opportunity for them to own a real piece of their history and, quite literally, act it out themselves.
And if that were all, that would be reason enough to study, teach and perform Shakespeare. If he were simply a master wordsmith whose poetic language marked a turning point in the history of English itself, that would be enough. Yet he wasn’t just a poet or a one-trick-pony who skated by on turning a pretty phrase; he had to have his cake and eat it too. So, as if it wasn’t enough that he defined the English language, he had to define its narratives as well.
I think we take it for granted, sometimes, that the same man who wrote Romeo and Juliet also wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Macbeth. From lovestruck teenagers to intense psychological horror, Shakespeare could do it all, and his stories have a persisting influence on books, movies and TV shows. Introducing a child to Shakespeare doesn’t merely familiarize them with Shakespeare; it provides them a blueprint to understanding thousands of stories influenced by Shakespeare’s works, from the simple recognition of a “Romeo and Juliet” love story to the surprising amount of evil uncles stealing the throne, as in Hamlet.
Even today, I find myself finding more and more books with ties to Shakespeare, even in their titles, from classics such as William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury “(It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing,” – Macbeth, Act 5 sc. 5) to contemporary hits like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” Julius Caesar, Act 1 sc. 2). The inescapable reality is that Shakespeare is everywhere, not just in English, but in dozens of other languages, too; there is not a playwright in the world, in any language or tradition, whose plays have been performed more. Five hundred years after their publishing, after his own theater was burned down, after his native country colonized the world and built an empire on whom “the sun never sets,” Shakespeare continues to be performed in venues of every shape and size, from small community theaters to Broadway concert halls to Hollywood sets.
Being able to follow in that tradition, even on such a small scale, is important. It’s an opportunity which is as unique as it is precious. Students at Redeemer School, throughout their lives, will have so many wonderful experiences and so many opportunities they can seize upon, but I very much doubt they will ever again find themselves in an environment which commits itself to studying and performing some of the greatest plays ever written, year after year (well, unless they somehow end up as a teacher at their old middle school…).
It’s a valuable experience, one which has the potential to shape how a young mind views theater, literature and language as a whole. Without the opportunity to participate in his plays at such a young age, I doubt I would have become a devotee of Shakespeare myself. And not everyone will do so; in fact, very few people will, and that’s okay. But there’s nowhere else where students will even get the opportunity to see and experience for themselves the richness and fullness of Shakespeare’s works firsthand, not as elusive, ephemeral things which lurk in the back of Wikipedia articles and obscure quotes on old TV Shows, but as living, breathing texts which are with them every day for a few months each year.
Handing the responsibility of performing this text to eleven-to-fourteen year olds can, at times, seem like a fool’s errand. The complexity of the language and the strangeness of the stories is difficult to work through. And yet, I’ve seen firsthand that they are capable of it. In their own way, in their own time, they come to understand, to appreciate and even enjoy the text. They begin to take ownership of their performances and the opportunity, in spite of the occasional sigh of frustration about mixing up a “thee” or “thou.” Entrusting them with the task of grasping for something that seems, at first glance, beyond their reach bestows upon our students a big responsibility, but along with that responsibility comes confidence, assuredness, and a knowledge of trust conveyed from their parents and teachers that we believe they can handle it, no matter how frustrating it may seem at times. The reward is well worth it.
For me, the question is never “why Shakespeare?” Never “why do we insist on doing this?” Instead, I ask, “why not Shakespeare?” Why deprive ourselves of this most unique experience? There will be countless times in life for the performing of other plays, of modern classics and new darlings alike. But before we usher our students out into the world, I find comfort in knowing we can first provide them with a solid foundation which, even if they should never revisit Shakespeare, will remain with them all of their days.