"But, for my own part, it was Greek to me"
—Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II
It seems ironic that Shakespeare’s own words can be used against him. But for many students (and their parents) the thought of studying Shakespeare is comparable to learning Greek—unfathomable.
Despite the fact that all of us have had to read his words, learn a couple sonnets or see one of his plays, Shakespeare still seems beyond understanding for most children.
Luckily, Chicago families are surrounded by theater companies willing to turn the tide and, dare they try, make Shakespeare fun.
For Marilyn Halperin, director of education and communication for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, William Shakespeare is simply the ultimate master of the English language. So why is this important to children? "To understand our own emotions and experiences, we have to be able to put them into words," she says.
Shakespeare didn’t just rework stories and history into entertaining theater, he used words to examine the complexity of human beings. "He absolutely refused to look at all human beings from one point of view," she says.
This complexity is meaningful to children, especially as they are forming their own identities and dealing with pressures from friends and families. Halperin points to an example from a post-show discussion with performers from this season’s "The Taming of the Shrew." The audience included all ages, from toddlers to senior citizens. One middle-aged man asked the actress playing Kate (Molly Glynn) why she chose to play the role so gently. A few questions later a young girl asked her why she was so mean. "Both interpretations were true about this very complex character. Molly took the opportunity to discuss how Petruchio saw her in a way unlike the way she saw herself or how her family viewed her."
Ann James, director of Chicspeare, a company that works with Chicagoans to better understand Shakespeare, agrees that children and young adults find their own meanings in his plays. Her company conducts workshops of "Romeo and Juliet" at the high school level. "The first half of the play is basically a romantic comedy. It’s not until Tibault is killed that it turns into melodrama. When we work this scene, we talk a lot about how hard it is to contain violence once it’s let out of the box. That conversation really hits home for Chicago area students."
Of course this kind of deeper-level understanding of Shakespeare takes some mediation, from teachers, actors and parents.
Short Shakespeare, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s abridged matinee performance series, is successful precisely because audience members can appreciate it on many levels. Young kids really get into the broad physical comedy, such as a character getting hit in the head with a sausage. Older children are fascinated by the costumes, scenery and swordplay. The post-show discussions are the icing on the cake, the most treasured aspect of Halperin’s job.
"It’s wonderful to see children, adolescents, adults and senior citizens all entering into the same conversation. How many places in our society can we do that?"
These discussions reinforce the idea that Shakespeare is not some remote, antiquated playwright. They de-mystify his work and remove the wall between students and what they’re supposed to be learning.
Stacie Heintz, owner of Stagecoach Theatre Arts in the west suburbs, agrees that in the case of Shakespeare, familiarity does not breed contempt. "The thought of performing Shakespeare can be scary to an actor at any level. Introducing students to his work at an early age serves to take away the mystique."
Once children get that his work is funny and engaging, they understand that for life. And certainly, when children have had the opportunity to get to know characters from the inside out, a future English assignment won’t be so overwhelming.
"Brevity is the soul of wit." Hamlet, Act II, Scene II
As with Short Shakespeare, Stagecoach Theatre uses an abridged version of Shakespeare’s plays to introduce students to the stories and text.
Chicspeare concentrates on a few selected scenes for its school workshops. The actors break down the language to help students understand how Shakespeare used words to convey emotions and motivations.
Shortened versions of classic plays are a great way to introduce young children to Shakespeare. Most 6-year-olds do not have the attention span to sit through a three-hour saga. But 90 minutes, especially for comedic works, fits perfectly.
Short Shakespeare at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre begins again Feb. 23 with a new production of "Romeo and Juliet." Performances are every Saturday at 11 a.m. through April 5. The company also has a Team Shakespeare program that combines school field trips with teaching materials they provide to participating schools.
Get your kids into Shakespeare
Books are a great way to introduce kids to Shakespeare’s stories and language. Very few grade school children can sit down and grasp his full-length plays in written form, but plenty of authors have turned Shakespeare’s works into narrative stories.
Here’s a starter list recommended by Marilyn Halperin, director of education and communication for Chicago Shakespeare Theater:
• William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, all by Bruce Coville, are beautifully illustrated books that combine engaging narrative with interwoven quotes from each play. These are great books for younger children.
• Anna Claybourne’s Stories from Shakespeare, published by Usbourne Books, is another well-illustrated narrative compilation of 10 different Shakespeare plays.
• Shakespeare Stories, Volumes I and II, by Leon Garfield, are larger volumes with fewer illustrations. Fourth- or fifth-graders could read these on their own.
• Something Rich and Strange: A Treasure of Shakespeare’s Verse, by Gina Pollinger, is a fully illustrated picture book that includes poetry, sonnets and dialogue excerpted from his plays but also includes some sonnet excerpts and some dialogue.
• The Best-Loved Plays of Shakespeare, by Jennifer Mulherin and Abigail Frost, is an illustrated book that straddles storybook narrative, play excerpts and explanation and context. It’s geared toward middle elementary school kids.
• Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare, by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema, is an illustrated picture book for younger children about Shakespeare, his England and his theater.
Alena Murguia is the mother of Patrick, Connor and Matthew and works part-time for Chicago Parent.