A Shakespeare for All Ages
Even Elementary Students Enjoy the Bard's Resurgence
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page A1 The teacher said, "Go," and a dozen fourth-graders, facing off in two lines of six, eagerly attacked their assignment: hurling insults at each other.
"Thou horn-mad clot-pole," Matt Jolicoeur declared dramatically, the words rolling off his tongue as if he understood what he was saying.
"Thou rug-headed strumpet!" Alicia Meier countered. Pause. "What is a strumpet?"
Drama teacher Mary Beth Bowen explained, very carefully, that a strumpet is, well, a woman with low self-esteem.
But there is nothing timid in how she and English teacher Mary Paul are introducing 9- and 10-year-olds to Shakespeare at Janney Elementary School in Northwest Washington. Paul is helping them stage "A Midsummer Night's Dream," while Bowen is teaching them to feel comfortable with the Renaissance English vocabulary found in "Hamlet," once deemed too complicated for youths.
Modern ways of teaching the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare are making the Bard more accessible to more students and at a younger age. Methods include an emphasis on dramatization, fun and relevancy and with dozens of Web sites, glitzy software and the ability to experience virtual reality at the Globe Theatre. Even third- and fourth-graders find the language easier to speak and understand than adults might imagine.
What's "Hamlet" all about? That's easy.
"Revenge and how trying to get revenge on somebody can turn back on you," Alix Haber, 9, said. "Like when kids say what you say bounces off me and sticks onto you ... It always come back to you."
Not so long ago, there were fears by some scholars and social critics that Shakespeare would drown in a politically correct wave of disdain for white male European authors who have been dead for centuries. Instead, Shakespeare and his Elizabethan era are hot. College courses are packed, tickets to Shakespeare productions are scarce, Renaissance fairs abound, and a string of popular movies including "Shakespeare in Love," up for 13 Academy Awards are filling theaters.
Dramatists, scholars and students, noting the resurgence in popularity, say Shakespeare remains the man for all ages, the writer who tells us as well as any the joys of love and friendship and the consequences of greed, ambition, arrogance, lust, lying, cheating, stealing, hate and revenge.
"I tell the college set that Shakespeare is the best mind-altering substance I know," said Helen Whall, associate professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. To Dennis Kezar, assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt University, Shakespeare is the "Spielberg of his time."
The Janney pupils think Shakespeare is cool. And students at Northwest Washington's Banneker High School are having a blast staging a scene from "As You Like It" for a festival that starts tomorrow at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.
"I don't like reading it, but I like performing it," said Savannah Briscoe, 14, a Banneker ninth-grader who is playing Rosalind.
For serious scholars, Park Honan has written "Shakespeare: A Life," the first major biography of Shakespeare since 1975. For everyone else, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare" will be available this month. "The Children's Shakespeare," a children's spoken album, won a Grammy. "Arthur," a children's TV series, has a new Renaissance episode. And on Bill Cosby's television show, the "Coz" recently saw Shakespeare in a dream.
British Broadcasting Corp. listeners have dubbed the Bard of Avon Britain's man of the millennium, sparking impassioned protests from those who think Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin had more impact on humankind. In his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Yale University professor Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with creating the modern psyche.
Even scholars who resent Shakespeare's cultural dominance recognize his power.
"Shakespeare is used by English-speaking people as a way of suppressing other traditional forms of theater," said Rose Powhatan, who teaches visual arts at Eastern High School in Northeast Washington. But the playwright, she conceded, is "timeless in that the human condition hasn't changed. And the students can identify with the plots, the subplots."
A study a few years ago showed that 91 percent of U.S. public secondary schools taught Shakespeare, according to Sherry Guice, director of educational outreach at the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the State University of New York in Albany.
But these days, educators say, teachers are branching out from the traditional big four, "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar," to include "Othello" and other tragedies, and some histories.
Dramatization, once not universally used, according to some Shakespeare scholars, is now seen as an aid to comprehension, especially for adolescent at-risk students. And the teachers, especially in high school, are changing Shakespeare's image from that of a stuffy cultural icon to a man whose works are both popular and relevant.
"Playing the part definitely helps you understand the character and the mood of the play," said Briscoe, one of 19 Banneker students who will perform in the Shakespeare festival.
At the festival, students from 56 secondary schools in the Washington area will dramatize scenes from Shakespeare's plays. A separate festival for elementary school children will be held later this spring, reflecting increasing efforts to reach out to younger students.
"Shakespeare is perfect for elementary school classrooms because it's multidisciplinary," said Janet Field-Pickering, Folger's director of education, which has a program in seven D.C. public schools. "It offers social studies, art, music, language."
The Folger sponsors numerous workshops and programs that help schools across the country teach and promote Shakespeare. The library is at the forefront of a national outreach in which local theater companies send actors and directors into schools to introduce students to Shakespearean drama. The District-based Shakespeare Theater has its own program for about 20 schools in the region, said Deborah Marley, education associate.
Even Hollywood is aboard the Shakespeare education bandwagon. On Wednesday in Washington, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley is introducing a "Shakespeare in the Classroom" teacher's kit. He will be joined by "Shakespeare in Love" director John Madden and, by satellite, its sultry star Gwyneth Paltrow.
Dozens of U.S. colleges and universities have dropped Shakespeare as a requirement to graduate, even for English majors. But as the schools have broadened their literature curricula to stress cultural diversity, the demand for Shakespeare has increased. At Georgetown University, which has eliminated Shakespeare from its core curriculum, there are 11 courses on Shakespeare. In 1980, there were three.
"I could have done my whole major without taking Shakespeare," said Nicole Gesualdo, 20, an English major at Georgetown. "But I wanted to take it. I felt my high school experience with Shakespeare was not quite sufficient. ... For his use of language, he is definitely worth studying."
At Towson University in Baltimore County, a Shakespeare requirement was added this year for English majors after officials realized that those who planned to teach in Maryland public schools could wind up graduating without having studied the Bard.
This fall, George Washington University, working with the Shakespeare Theater, is offering a one-year master of fine arts program. The curriculum: Shakespeare's plays.
And a new course at Columbia University's School of Business, "In Search of the Perfect Prince," uses Shakespeare to explore issues of leadership in a historic context. Students learn, for example, to avoid the "trusted adviser" problem by studying the relationship of Iago to Othello, Cardinal Wolsey to Henry VIII, John Dean to Richard Nixon, and Dick Morris to President Clinton.
Some teachers insist that students stick to Shakespeare's words; others allow experimentation with modern language or unusual staging.
"They can't change the words," said Francis Mulcahy, who heads Banneker's English Department. "But we have had Macbeths out there who were gangster ghetto guys. We had a boy playing Lady Macbeth. Their imaginations just run wild."
Dennis Harris, 14, a Banneker ninth-grader, is sure he will never forget how he donned a black velvet cape and pranced on stage as Oliver in "As You Like It." "It is that much fun."
And, said Briscoe, relevant. "We can relate to Shakespeare's themes, especially Romeo and Juliet," she said. "I mean, kids understand that. I don't think adults do."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company