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The Love of the Language

It's audition day, and there is a mixture of nervousness and excitement in the air.

My colleague and I have recently made three visits to Ms. W's fourth-grade class as part of an outreach program to introduce elementary students to Shakespeare. During each visit, we focused on a different aspect of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan era. We gave them a view of what life might have been like for young Will, and we drew pictures, recited poetry, and moved to the rhythm of iambic meter. We then took a huge step in getting students comfortable with Shakespeare: we played with the language.

During one visit, we introduced the children to Shakespeare's "nonsense" words. We began the activity by talking about Shakespeare and his practice of creating words. We told them that when Shakespeare couldn't think of the words to say what he wanted to say, he would make up his own. We then gave them examples of unusual words from Shakespeare, and the students came up with definitions and acted the words out. (The instructions for this activity are on the attached handout.) It was amazing to see how imaginative the kids could be. Up to this point, several of the students, including a little boy named Jonathan, had been a bit tentative. During the activity, Jonathan perked up a bit, but let his scene partner do most of the talking. We then moved on to making up our own words. I looked out of the window and said, "Today is a cold and rainy day. Today is freez-wetty." We then went around the room, and with a little prompting, the students came up with their own words about the weather, the classroom, and feelings.

Back to our auditions. The class is preparing to perform a scene from "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Folger's annual Children's Shakespeare Festival. This is the first day of our project, and already some kids stand out. One boy gets up to read, and makes a convincing Benedick. We don't doubt his star potential-as he recites, his female classmates sigh. Another soon has us laughing, and we know that this child can handle one of the larger comic roles. One by one, the students show us what they have, and even though we do correct pronunciation every now and then, it's surprising how comfortable these fourth-graders from Washington, D.C., have become with "thees" and "thous." And, as many of the children in this diverse class are not native English speakers, this is remarkable.

Somewhere in the middle of try-outs, Jonathan gets up to read. "Oh, he's in Special Education classes," his teacher whispers to us. "Don't expect a lot out of him." We thank her for her heads-up, and prepare to coach him through the scene.

Cue the theme to "Rocky."

He opens his mouth, and out comes this steady, loud, and self-assured voice. Jonathan is good, reading with an emotion unmatched by most students in the class. We are momentarily speechless, but collect ourselves to tell him that he has done a fantastic job. The teacher agrees, and she leans over to us and says, "Wow! I'm sorry. I guess that I was wrong!" The child we thought might be cast as Third Lord from the Left is given a large supporting part. We realize that during our classroom visits, Jonathan has quietly absorbed Shakespeare's language, grown comfortable with his words, and, in the process, begun to own them.

Fast forward a month or so to a gorgeous April afternoon. It's the Folger's annual Shakespeare's Birthday celebration. There are jugglers, sword fighters, dancing, food, crafts, and a visit by an actress impersonating Queen Elizabeth. There are children everywhere. A familiar face walks up. It's Jonathan, with his mom and little brother in tow. He is polite and a bit reserved, but very excited to see us. We give him a temporary Shakespeare tattoo and a coupon for free food. What thrills him is the complete Shakespeare paperback that we give him as a bonus for coming to Shakespeare's Birthday.

Later that afternoon, I overhear two women talking: "Look at that little boy carrying that HUGE Shakespeare book. I am impressed." We look up in time to see Jonathan, walking to his car with his mother, proudly showing his new book to his toddler brother, a scholar sharing his recently found passion for Shakespeare with a future fellow actor.

About the Author

Lynne Streeter coordinates the Folger Shakespeare Library's Shakespeare Steps Out program, which introduces Shakespeare to Washington, DC public elementary school students.


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