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Elementary, My Dear Shakespeare

In the Folger Library collection there is an engraving called "Shakespeare dans sa famille," rendered by Prosper Paul Allais (French, b. 1827) after a painting by Edouard Hamman (Belgian, 1819-1888). The caption, in French, describes the picture as a portrayal of Shakespeare in retirement, reading "Hamlet" to his children. The engraving places Shakespeare at its center, leaning against a table, his hand raised in gesture. His children gaze up at him, and his loyal dog sleeps at his feet. His wife stitches by his side while a servant girl peeks in from the kitchen - a perfect portrait of domestic harmony at the Shakespeare residence.

Although sentimental, the engraving underscores the popularity of all things Shakespearean throughout Europe and the rest of the world and evokes the nineteenth century middle-class ideal of the pater familias, imparting wisdom and morality through reading or teaching proper literature. It also suggests the pleasures of reading and being read to, wonderful pleasures that teachers lead students to experience by reading Shakespeare adaptations to them or by making prose adaptations of the plays available to encourage students reading to each other.

Both Allais' engraving and adaptations of Shakespeare's plays are meant to honor Shakespeare and inspire interest in his work, but they fall short of their purpose in one key regard, at least as far as the education of children is concerned. By intentionally mediating the experience of Shakespeare for the viewer, listener, or reader, they unintentionally serve to distance children and their imaginations from what is unique about Shakespeare as an artist - his incredible facility with language. Shakespeare education for elementary students can clearly make good use of adaptations, but it can also (more quickly perhaps than teachers may think) move beyond the reading of adaptations to involve children directly with Shakespeare's words through language activities and performance.

Shakespeare's stories have always proved fascinating to young children. "Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare," by Charles and his matricidal sister Mary Lamb, first published in 1807, was my first taste of Shakespeare. My grandmother had a somewhat faded version of the book, with very few and not particularly interesting illustrations, that I used to purloin from her library and read up in an old apple tree in the neighbor's back yard. I never fretted about the strange names of the characters or bothered even to try to pronounce them - the pleasure for me was in the plots. It is this pleasure-in-the-story that drives the industry of adapting Shakespeare, an industry that was probably underway as soon as Shakespeare began producing his plays at the Globe or Blackfriars theaters. Since Shakespeare himself borrowed most of his plots from other writers, the steady proliferation of Shakespeare adaptations seems only natural.

Although Marchette Chute's Stories from Shakespeare was directed towards a general audience, parents and teachers both were quick to use it with children. E. Nesbit's adaptation, The Children's Shakespeare, was written because Nesbit wanted to help her own children understand the plays. The tradition continues. When Shakespeare became an even hotter commodity in the last few decades of the 20th century, a spate of children's illustrators and adaptors responded with hundreds of works for children. Marcia Williams is my favorite of the contemporary adaptor/illustrators. Her two books, "Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare" and "Tales from Shakespeare," are whimsical and wildly imaginative retellings of Shakespeare. The strategy of Williams' books is to tell the stories of Shakespeare's plays with text under illustrated panels of actors performing the plays. The actors within the panels speak lines that are direct quotations from Shakespeare. The surrounding margins of the page are covered with figures depicting a rambunctious Elizabethan audience viewing and commenting on the plays. Each tale relates the essential plot of the play, touches on Elizabethan playhouse traditions, and uses a large percentage of Shakespeare's language.

The Folger Library works extensively with elementary students in Washington, D.C., through its outreach program "Shakespeare Steps Out," which is geared towards reaching children who attend public schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The program consists of a series of visits to an elementary classroom, grade level three through five, where Folger teachers work with classroom teachers to expose students to Shakespeare through language activities, art, music, dance, and performance. The Folger provides every class we visit with a library of books by and about Shakespeare, his plays, and the history of the period; and students are instantly drawn to beautifully illustrated Shakespeare adaptations. They are eager to get their hands on all of the books we provide, but we have discovered that they prefer the adaptations that contain lots of Shakespeare's original text. Reading the stories is all well and good, but it is Shakespeare's words that captivate the children with whom we work.

It was in the winter of 1997-98, when I was visiting a fifth grade classroom at Davis Elementary, that I experienced my epiphany about this, not unlike that of Saul on the way to Tarsus. It happened when I talked to a boy names Charles. He was part of the fifth grade "focus group" I convened in the classroom to find out whether the books we provided were appealing and useful to students. Charles, along with other children in the group, was clear about preferring adaptations that contained passages from Shakespeare. He said that Shakespeare's words were "more magical" and better than the words of Shakespeare adaptors, and then amazed me by grabbing the copy of Marchette Chute's Stories from Shakespeare and turning to the story of "Macbeth". He immediately turned to the page that contained "his favorite lines" from "Macbeth" and read out loud, "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red." He knew what it meant, literally, but he wasn't particularly interested in that. He loved the sounds and rhythm of the passage and he kept repeating the words over and over as his classmates crowded next to him and joined in, moving to the beat of the words and reveling in the ways the words fell off their tongues.

This experience made me understand that language can draw children to Shakespeare at least as much or more than the fantastic and often fairy tale-like stories. I began to observe that children respond to Shakespeare's language in a way that has more to do with the sounds and rhythm of his words and less to do with their literal meaning. Children are not caught up in the struggle for meaning that seems to plague older students and teachers who look at Shakespeare as an arcane code they need to break in order to understand his plays. To acquire new knowledge throughout childhood is to be in a constant state of being in flux, open to new experiences and possibilities. Shakespeare's language is a perfect place to start.

Think about some of the ways that children begin to discover language. "Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man / Bake me a cake as fast as you can" is just one example of how we teach children language through poetry. The rhythm and rhyme and physical movement are what are important in nursery rhymes - the sound rather than the sense. As a child matures, the poetry becomes more sophisticated and the stories more complex, but the learning and the joy of playing with language doesn't stop. Enter Shakespeare.

The key word here is playing. Children learn through playing. They learn how to interact with other people; they learn to collaborate; they learn to express themselves through language and movement. Shakespeare was in the business of writing plays, and the theater is an enterprise that thrives on creativity and collaboration. So there is a kind of imitative logic to encouraging students to play together with Shakespearean text. Children are not intimidated by Shakespeare's language if it is introduced to them in short pieces of poetry or dialogue that they can explore. Although I'm not suggesting that a third grade class perform a four-hour version of "Hamlet" intact, students are more than able to perform scenes from the play that are cut with a children's audience in mind. It is not necessary (or even desirable) to have students fall back on adapted or modernized scripts. Through attention to even a little bit of its language, they can discover a whole play and perform scenes from it that they refashion through their imaginations.

Teachers have long exploited the circumstance that Shakespeare's plays are filled with songs - wonderful pieces of poetry to explore through sound and movement. Take for example a fairy song form "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Several fairies begin to sing the fairy queen Titania to sleep:
You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen,
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy queen.
(2. 2. 9-12)

What classroom of children wouldn't love to hiss and crawl like snakes? Working together to imagine what hedgehogs, newts, and blindworms look like, the children can then create movements and sounds for each creature. They can decide how they want their fairies to sing or sound and move. Put it all together, practice a few times, and you have a quick and imaginative Shakespeare scene. The witch's scene from "Macbeth" that starts with that famous incantation, "Double, double, toil and trouble," is another wonderful passage for students to work through imaginatively and perform.

Students can even take on more sophisticated language as in this passage from "King Lear":
Blow, winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow,
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head; and thou all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o'th' world,
Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ingrateful man.

Start students off by reading the passage aloud and identifying words they don't understand. With a few eager word-detectives armed with dictionaries and the classroom teacher acting as a facilitator rather then dispenser of knowledge, the class can quickly arrive at a mental picture of the raw power of Lear's storm. Then explain the concept of the storyboard - a tool film directors use to sketch each shot of the movie, frame by frame - and ask them to think about the passage as a movie. What pictures do they see throughout the passage as Lear rages at the storm? Ask them to create their own storyboard of the passage, something they can easily do in small groups. After the storyboards are completed, have the children find all the verbs or "action words" and read the passage aloud again, giving verbs an extra punch in volume. Finally, have the children physicalize the images in the passage with movement and sound.

There are many ways to encourage children to explore the plot of "King Lear" - playing with the language of Lear may prove to be even more exciting than listening to the story. And once you've started working children through understanding and performing passages from a play, it isn't too great a leap to start performing whole scenes. The Folger Library has produced an annual Children's Shakespeare Festival for twenty-five years. We offer guidelines and suggestions about staging Shakespeare with young children, but the most important rule of the festival is that the words must be Shakespeare's own. Students may use short narrative bridges to link smaller scenes together, but ninety-percent of each presentation must be in the original language. Over the years, thousands of children have performed twenty-minute scenes from Shakespeare on the Folger's Elizabethan stage. We've probably seen "A Midsummer Night's Dream's" Pyramus and Thisbe perish more often than we'd like, but we've also seen performances of both Romeo's and Juliet's deaths, enacted by children with such unexpected depth of understanding that not only their mothers would weep in watching them. (Of course, the children manage to speed right through the kissing part.)

I used to regard Prosper Paul Allais' engraving of "Shakespeare dans sa famille" as a prime example of the how the glover's son from Stratford inspired some mighty schmaltzy art works. The engraving was tied for first place in my gentle ridicule (and affection) with yet another painting in the Folger collection - "The Infant Shakespeare, Attended by Nature and the Passions" (1791-1792) The painting, by George Romney, also features Shakespeare at its center, but the Shakespeare depicted here is a chubby and inscrutable baby, encircled by allegorical figures. I must confess that I have used images from both works in the brochures and materials we create for families and elementary students. They are undeniably popular with children.

In "The Infant Shakespeare, Attended Nature and the Passions," Shakespeare is the focus of considerable attention on the part of the imaginative creatures who surround him; in Prosper Paul Allais' engraving, the children gazing at Shakespeare seem almost unnaturally rapt. Both of these pieces are about revering something called "Shakespeare"; but it is the Allais engraving that gets beyond the mystique of the man to the genuine power of his work. As I look at that picture now, I wonder is it the story or the words that are holding their attention? And is Shakespeare's gesture, as he reads to his audience, one that might suggest how an actor should perform the scene? Shakespeare stimulates the imagination of young children; let's never forget that language and performance, as well as story, is an important part of that.

NOTE: A further discussion of some of the ideas and techniques described here is developed in another essay I wrote - "Shakespeare Steps Out: The Primacy of Language in Inner-City Classrooms" collected along with many other useful essays in Naomi Miller's edition, "Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults." (New York: Routledge, 2002). The lines from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "King Lear" and "Macbeth" come from the New Folger Library edition of that play, eds. Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Pocket Books, 1992). I'm very grateful to my colleagues from the Folger - Julie Kachniasz, Betsy Walsh, and Erin Blake, Curator of Art - for their help in tracking down the information on the engraving that became the inspiration for this essay, and for Margaret Maurer for sharing her thoughts and expertise on language and learning.

About the Author

Janet Field-Pickering is Head of Education at the Folger Shakespeare
Library in Washington, D.C.
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