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Anti-Bullying Lessons With the Bard

What can Shakespeare teach students about bullying? The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence teamed with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival to produce an adaptation of “The Tempest” that they use to start a conversation about violence with teens and pre-teens.

Some 400 years after the first recorded performance of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” thousands of Colorado students are seeing an adaptation of the famous play created especially for them. Their version is relatively short, and has a very specific goal: reducing violence among teens and pre-teens.

“Shakespeare is an expert in violence,” said Tim Orr, director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. “There is so much violence and intimidation. And he explores every possible way: family violence, nation violence, kings and queens, husbands and wives, children and parents.”

When professional actors from the festival perform the abridged and adapted version of “The Tempest” in Colorado schools like Thornton High, which is north of Denver, just a handful of actors take on all the parts. And even though there are some modern updates (adding the technology of cell phones, for example), the language is, for the most part, true to the original.

“The Tempest” tells the story of Prospero, a banished lord who conjures a mighty storm that shipwrecks his old enemies on a remote island. Even as he plots how to get back at those who wronged him, Prospero thinks hard about his actions and eventually renounces revenge, choosing forgiveness instead.

In this scene from “The Tempest,” Prospero realizes he should choose “virtue” over “vengeance.”

“It’s so amazing that Shakespeare wrote this so long ago but there really is a place in it for everyone,” said Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. “There’s characters who are more the bullying type, there’s some that are the victims, some that are the bystanders. And so it lends itself to a conversation about all those roles,” she told the NewsHour.

Kingston’s organization, based at the University of Colorado Boulder, joined forces with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival to create both their new version of “The Tempest,” as well as accompanying study guides and workshops on effective strategies to prevent bullying.

The workshops follow each school presentation and allow actors to help students discuss the themes of the play by role-playing modern scenarios. Students who’ve seen the performance found a lot they can relate to lessons found in the centuries-old work.

“People haven’t changed” since Shakespeare’s time, says said ninth grader Stephen Banks. “You still have people who choose vengeance because it’s easier to do. But if everyone chooses virtue, it would be way better because it’s the better way to go. If you get revenge on someone, it’s not going to fix anything. It’s going to make you feel bad and escalate into something worse.”

“The Tempest” is the second of the Shakespeare’s plays to be used in the joint anti-bullying venture. In 2011 the two organizations modified “Twelfth Night.” “Much Ado About Nothing” is slated to be the third, because the plot centers around the danger of spreading rumors.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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